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At 72, gospel’s most successful unknown artist won’t slow down

c. 2008 Religion News Service(UNDATED) Bill Gaither may not be an A-list celebrity or household name, but over a half century he has sold 20 million recordings and 20 million DVDs _ more than any other gospel performer.And the impact of this musical legend far exceeds mere sales figures.He and his wife Gloria have written […]

c. 2008 Religion News Service(UNDATED) Bill Gaither may not be an A-list celebrity or household name, but over a half century he has sold 20 million recordings and 20 million DVDs _ more than any other gospel performer.And the impact of this musical legend far exceeds mere sales figures.He and his wife Gloria have written more than 600 songs, including one immortalized by Elvis (”He Touched Me”) and others published in hymnals used in churches around the world (”Because He Lives”).If he wanted to rest on his laurels, Gaither certainly has enough accolades and money to do so. But at 72, he’s still busy writing, recording and traveling with his current 32-city Homecoming tour.Friends ask Gaither if he plans to slow down any time soon.“Retire? And do what?” he asks in his signature soothing baritone voice during a phone interview from his Indiana office.“If I had to sing high C’s every night, or play keyboard at a high level, it would be better to back off. By myself, I’m not really that fantastic. But what I do is bring together talent. And I’ll continue to do that gladly.”Gaither was a college student in 1956 when he formed The Bill Gaither Trio with a brother and sister. After he married, Gloria became his primary partner in life, songwriting and performing. The Trio recorded more than 40 albums and filled arenas nationwide.In 1980, he founded the Gaither Vocal Band. The quartet’s 30 albums feature everything from old-timey Southern gospel chestnuts to pop-based contemporary songs.No one has been more successful than Gaither at bridging the often-contentious divide that separates Christian music’s traditionalists from its harder-rocking contemporary fans.“Christian music is about a theology and a message and can’t be pinned down by any one style,” he says. “Over the centuries that message has been wrapped in a lot of different styles. The wrapper is always changing, but the basic message is always going to stay. I don’t think God really cares about the wrapper, but he cares very much about the content.”Through the Vocal Band and other activities, Gaither has also promoted and mentored some of the most popular Christian artists of the past four decades, including Sandi Patti, Larnelle Harris, Carman, Steve Green, Don Francisco, Michael English, David Phelps, Russ Taff and Mark Lowry.“ It sounds (like a) cliche, but he really is in a category all by himself,” said John W. Styll, president and CEO of the Gospel Music Association, who credits Gaither with “single-handedly re-energizing” Southern gospel, the genre he’s called home for the most recent phase of his career. Gaither was working on “Homecoming,” the Vocal Band’s 1991 album when he stumbled across the formula that has proved remarkably _ and unexpectedly _ successful.He invited about a dozen gospel music pioneers to join in on the classic song, “Where Could I Go But to the Lord.” After the recording session, the singers ate fried chicken and gathered around a piano to shoot a music video. Before they knew it, someone started playing the piano and the singers all joined in.Gaither says three hours had passed before the singing finally stopped and he realized the video camera had captured nearly an hour of the impromptu session. Four minutes were used for the music video. The remaining footage gave birth to a Homecoming phenomenon that has spawned dozens of CDs, more than 60 DVDs, broadcasts on more than a dozen cable outlets like TNT and a popular concert tour that in 2004 outsold tours by Rod Stewart, Elton John and Fleetwood Mac.“My lands,” Gaither said. “Across the board, the response was amazing.”The Homecoming tours and products have been a boon for Gaither Music Company, the Alexandria, Ind.-based firm that includes a recording studio and company, concert booking, television production, copyright management, retail store, recording studio and a telemarketing department. A separate company publishes Homecoming Magazine and a radio show.Homecoming’s success has also provided steady work for a revolving roster of musicians and singers. And Gaither has plowed some of his earnings into the Gospel Music Trust Fund, which supports aging or ailing artists. In 1991 the fund had about $20,000 in its bank account; today it is worth nearly $3 million.Gaither is surprised by the popularity of the Homecoming franchise, which he attributes to the sense of community and shared collective memory the music creates among both the artists and fans.“The Christian church has often been guilty of neglecting its history,” Gaither said. “But if you show me a person who does not know where he’s been, I’ll show you someone one who does not where he going. The result is spiritual arrogance. What we’re trying to do with the music we sing at the Homecoming concerts is salvage the best of the past.”There’s so much good music to choose from that Gaither says he struggles to bring each concert to an end.“Every night my job is to see how I can keep this thing to under four hours,” he says. “There is so much talent. I want to be fair to the artists who are there.”Asked if he thinks his success over half a century is due to talent, smarts or luck, Gaither says, “It’s a combination of all the above. And we have been truly blessed by God in a special way. He is smiling on us and we are very happy for that.”KRE/DEA END RABEY925 wordsPhotos of Gaither are available via https://religionnews.com