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Obituary: Brock Speer

THE SPEER Family was among the first white gospel groups in America. Undertaking 200 concerts a year, the family inspired and encouraged numerous groups and they only disbanded last year due to the ill-health of their leader and bass vocalist, Brock Speer. However, outside the world of gospel music, Brock Speer will also be remembered as a backing vocalist on the early recordings of Elvis Presley.

Brock's father, George Thomas Speer ("GT"), was born in Alabama in 1891 and sang gospel music from an early age. He met his wife, Lena, who played pump organ, at a convention and they married in February 1920, with their first son, Brock, being born in December of the same year. They had three other children, Ben, Rosee Nell and Mary Tom. In 1921 GT and Lena formed the Speer Quartet, in Double Springs, Alabama. As the children became older, GT introduced them one by one to the group, which became the Speer Family. GT's instruction would be, "Always sing what you feel and feel what you sing."

Brock studied at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and obtained a Bachelor of Divinity degree, as he felt this would assist him in programming the family's concerts and records. From the mid-Forties "all-night singings", which often took place at midnight under a tree in a meadow, became popular and the performers had to become entertainers. This detracted from the spirituality of the gospel music and led to a slump in its popularity in 1955.

In January 1956 both the Speer Family and Elvis Presley were signed, quite independently, to RCA Records in Nashville. Presley was keen to supplement the sparse sound that he had had on his Sun Records in Memphis and he wanted to use a vocal group, the Jordanaires. On the other hand, Chet Atkins, who organised the sessions, wanted to give the Speer Family additional money, but not all of them wanted to sing on secular records. A compromise was reached - Gordon Stoker from the Jordanaires with Brock and Ben from the Speer Family. Gordon Stoker recalls, "I knew Brock and Ben and liked them, but I said to Chet, `Brock is a bass, Ben is a lead and I'm a first tenor, so who's gonna sing baritone?' Chet said, `Don't worry, it won't make any difference.' "

The first RCA sessions took place in Nashville and the trio attended the second day of recording on 11 January 1956. Many Elvis books state that the trio sang on "Heartbreak Hotel", but there was no other voice but Elvis's on that track. However, they can be heard on the record's B-side, "I Was the One", and the album track "I'm Counting on You".

On the road, Elvis worked with the Jordanaires, but Gordon, Brock and Ben were recalled to the RCA studios in April 1956 where just one song was recorded, an emotional ballad called "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You", which went on to top the US charts. Despite its success, Presley used the Jordanaires on subsequent records.

After GT and Lena died in the mid-1960s, the Speer Family continued under Brock's management. The group consisted of Brock, his wife Faye, his son Brian, his brother Ben, and three or four other vocalists who were "adopted Speers".

Their albums were often nominated for Grammys: including Something Good is About to Happen (1975), Between the Cross and Heaven (There's a Whole Lot of Living Going On) (1976), Cornerstone (1977), Interceding (1980), He's Still in the Fire (1990) and Hallelujah Time (1991). They received many other awards, notably from the Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame (1998), and they performed for President Jimmy Carter at the White House in the late Seventies.

By that time, gospel music was no longer a Southern phenomenon and many artists gave the music contemporary settings. However, the Speer Family stuck to their roots and continued to perform the songs that made them popular like "I'm Building a Bridge" and "I'll Meet You in the Morning." Ben Speer owned the publishing rights of "I'm Gonna Walk Dem Golden Stairs", which Elvis Presley recorded in 1960.

It was Brock's poor health that caused the group to disband in 1998. He said, "I am getting to a point in my life where I want to slow down. I'm not retiring and probably never will retire."

Brock Speer, singer: born Houston, Alabama 28 December 1920; married; died Nashville, Tennessee 29 March 1999.