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Bill Gaither reflects on life of ‘Happy’ Goodman

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Legendary Christian songwriter Bill Gaither said he will miss his friend and colleague Howard “Happy” Goodman, a man he said revolutionized the gospel music world.

Goodman, 81, died Nov. 30 at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn. He was the patriarch of the Happy Goodman Family, one of gospel music’s most popular and influential groups.

Goodman began his and his family’s career in gospel music in 1940 in Alabama. Before the group retired last year with its “Final Stand” album, the Happy Goodmans had won two best-gospel performance Grammys and secured a place in the history of gospel music.

Goodman’s group featured members of the Goodman family and provided the basis for two popular gospel television programs, “The Gospel Singing Jubilee” and the “Happy Goodman Family Hour.”

During Goodman’s Dec. 3 funeral in Nashville, Tenn., Gaither honored the memory of his friend by performing some of the songs Goodman loved, including “Jesus is the Sweetest Name I Know.”

“Howard had a fantastic impact on gospel music,” Gaither told Baptist Press. “The Happy Goodmans were born in a red-hot Pentecostal holiness camp meeting in Kentucky, and came out of the meeting with fire in their souls and took it to the stage.”

Gaither said Goodman lived up to his persona on and off the stage for his clever wit and sidesplitting stories.

“They are a jovial family, demonstrative in their love,” Gaither said. “What you see is what you get with Happy Goodman. People saw that he loved life, telling great stories and eating a good meal with friends.”

Gaither didn’t get to know the Goodmans until the 1990s when they started recording the popular Gaither Homecoming Videos.

“I knew Howard and Vestal [his wife] back in the 1960s only by their records and seeing them on television,” Gaither said. “I remember telling my wife, ‘This lady sings with real conviction. She means what she is singing.’

“When we started doing the video series about 10 years ago, I really got to know Howard and Vestal,” Gaither continued. “I found Howard to be a charming old man, full of endless old stories about the early life traveling in back seats of broken-down Chryslers, trying to get to the performance date and praying that someone would get them gas.

“Whenever Howard would tell a story he always had that ornery grin on his face,” Gaither recalled. “He was an engaging man.”

Crediting Goodman with being a revolutionary figure in the early days of the gospel music industry, Gaither noted, “When they came along they brought a lot of changes. They were one of the first groups to have a band. Most gospel groups were doing it with four singers and a piano. They came along with players, guitars, bass, drums. It allowed them to do some other rhythm feels. That was a major change.”

Along with freshly written song lyrics, the group’s energy on stage was “incredible,” Gaither said.

“The Happy Goodman Family was a fun-loving bunch and they could create a lot of excitement on stage,” he said. “Unlike most early quartets, who would gather around a microphone, the Goodmans would rare back and let it go with joy. I’d also give him credit for having a lot of rhythm. They never sang any song as it was written.”

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  • Todd Starnes