The pages of history have been written by ordinary people who had something extraordinary to say with their lives. Bill Gaither is just such an individual… an Indiana-born kid with an insatiable love for music who grew to become an industry leader who would change the course of gospel music history through the songs he has written and through his influence as a mentor for other artists.
An avid fan of gospel quartets throughout his childhood, Bill founded his first group, The Bill Gaither Trio, in 1956, while he was a college student. He began teaching English in 1959 because his musical aspirations couldn’t support him full-time… yet. In 1962, Bill did one of the best things he has ever done. He married Gloria Sickal, who became the best writing partner Bill could have found anywhere. The couple spent the first five years of their married life juggling full-time teaching jobs, writing, singing, recording and publishing until music became their full-time career in 1967.
That's where it all started.
I had the privilege to sit down and chat with Mr. Gaither. It was more-or-less a walk down memory lane more than anything.
Mr. Gaither: It was the music that really caught my attention first. It would be in the late '40s, and I would listen to the radio and I heard a gospel quartet. I just loved four-part harmony, the below base singers and the tenors and how that all worked and it got my attention. Later on I found out what they were singing about, but the first time I heard it, it was just their singing that I liked.
John: Do you remember that first artist that you heard?
Mr. Gaither: They're the group called the Big Four Quartet. Nobody knows much about them.
John: I'm sure there are a few that still do. What was the first concert that you went to?
Mr. Gaither: I went to their concert. They were appearing at our little town. They were from Indianapolis and were on a 50,000 watt pure channel station, so they traveled throughout the Midwest. They came to our little town of Alexandria and I went see them.
John: At that time, Mr. Gaither, it seems like traveling gospel groups certainly had the ability to tour maybe a little easier than what they do now. Was that a simpler time?
Mr. Gaither: They were in smaller venues and didn't require a lot of amplification. It required some, but it didn't require the kind amplification you have to have in arenas these days. It was good. It was just a car so they weren't carrying around a lot of equipment. I think they always carried some product too, to sell.
John: Growing up there in Central Indiana, you had your eyes set on being a school teacher, right? Or did you always think that maybe at some point you would be involved in the music industry?
Mr. Gaither: When I was a kid I thought I could do something in music, but after I got out of high school I've realized that that's a tough road to go. I went to college, and majored in education and worked as a teacher for the first 10 years of our professional life.
John: Were you always a song writer? Were you writing songs all the way through that time? Did you write songs in childhood, et cetera?
Mr. Gaither: No. I didn't start writing songs until I headed out of college. I started writing songs because we were running out of material that our group could sing. We were just running out of material that we could do.
John: How could that be? Running out of material, that is rather ironic. How many songs you have written through these years?
Mr. Gaither: We've probably written about 700 or 800 songs. I’m not sure, but the copyright department keeps track of all of that.
John: That's incredible. You're still writing today?
Mr. Gaither: Yes. Not as much as we did in the early days, but I think we're writing good quality stuff at least.
John: Absolutely. At what point then when you became a schoolteacher—you said you were doing that for the first 10 years of your gospel career—at what point did you make that transition…?
Mr. Gaither: When my night job overtook my day job. I wasn't being honest and fair, I don't think, to the school system that was paying me. I was writing a bit and we were travelling quite a bit, and I can remember the day I went to the principal, and he said, "I knew this day was going to come. I hate to see it come." I tell him, I said, "I can't keep pushing this on both ends." He said, "Man, we hate to lose you as a teacher, but you've always got a job in case you want to come back."
John: That's great. Mr. Gaither, going back to the songs that you and your wife have written through the years, when you go through your catalog, what do you think is the most important song that you guys have ever written?
Mr. Gaither: That's hard to say from our perspective because we've got some pretty important songs that never really got into top. When I'm asked that question, I usually go back to the songs that the people ask for and the songs that seem to rise to the top. Among these is “Because He Lives.” We've got that from all over the country and all over the world. We just went to Norway last year in an arena with 8,000 people singing “Because He Lives” in Norwegian too. We just went down to Brazil, Sao Paulo, and 8,000 people down there were singing “Because He Lives” in their language, in Portuguese. We go over to Hungary and the same thing happened there with “He Touched Me.” That song is always at the top of the list of songs that people know that we've done. There's something about that name.
John: When you looked at all of the hymns or gospel songs that have been written from centuries ago, has there been one that you or Gloria continue to go back to that has definitely impacted your heart?
Mr. Gaither: There'd be several there, and they would have to be the category of hymns. “How Great Is Thy Faithfulness” is always a very meaningful lyric and the lyrics of “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” would be one I back again too. Some of the gospel lyrics too, like “The Love of God could we with ink the ocean fill and were the skies of parchment made. Songs like Hamlin's “Until Then My Heart Will Go On Singing.”
John: Mr. Gaither, when you look back at your ministry through the years what sticks out in your mind as maybe one of your greatest achievements?
Mr. Gaither: I don't know. In fact, I hope I brought some people together. I think ... I hope we've done something to unite the body of Christ. There are so many things that they divide it with today, but I hope that we have united some folks. I told somebody the other day that ... what are you doing? I think I'm a bridge.
John: That's a fantastic statement. What do you think, kind of running down the rabbit trail here a second Mr. Gaither, what do you think of the church here in the United States here in the West recently? Are we in trouble? Are we on the right track? Are we continually focusing on the centrality of the gospel?
Mr. Gaither: I'm quite encouraged with the church at this day in effect. I think as a whole the church is doing a lot of doing of significant things in the community. I think with the dawn of this century, we've become more of a light. I learned a little chorus in Sunday School, I think it's a very important chorus. It goes, “This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine.” I hear people talk about we got to fight the darkness. I'm not sure we fight anything. I think what we do ... the only way to fight the darkness is let your little ... let your light shine and I think if you get enough lights shining, the darkness dissipates. I think I see that more and more all the time. I think the church is finally coming of age and realizing it's more than just talking, it's more than rambling all the time about what we're about. It's about being and being the Body of Christ and being the extension of Christ in the culture and I think we're making a difference.
John: Just thinking back over what immediately flooded into my mind when you said that, was one of the times that I was at a Homecoming show. I don't know if you guys still do it, but remember those little flashlights that you had and at some particular point all the lights go dim and everybody starts shining these lights and it's incredible. The whole arena is then lit up with these tiny little lights and it's fantastic. I think what you just said, that picture in your live show is a clear, very visible example of what the church can and should be.
Mr. Gaither: I think we have to talk less and walk better.
John: That's a good statement. Wow. Mr. Gaither on that note, would you be willing to share what God has been teaching you lately?
Mr. Gaither: If I'm on anything here lately it's been on theme with being ... by being viral. By that I mean being what we say we are and doing on a day to day basis by the way we treat the waitress at the waffle house. There's so many different ways to let that light shine and I guess the biggest thing that God is teaching me is just finding more ways that I can be and that I can live out the Scripture.
John: Amen. Mr. Gaither, what's on the horizon? What do we have to look forward to for the second half of 2013 from the Homecoming team?
Mr. Gaither: I'm 77 years old. I don't even buy green bananas anymore. I'm not sure. I really take ... I don't live much in the future and I don't live at all in the past. I really live in the moment. I live in the day and I take the doors that are opening for me today and try to make as much out of them as I can. I might say today first is I'm just spending most of this day preparing for a trip that we are doing in Indianapolis on November the 30th this fall with Wheeler Mission. It's going to be a major benefit where hopefully we're going to raise close to half a million dollars for the homeless in Indianapolis where our mission has been being the evangelist and outreach for 67 years. It's already there, I don't have to organize them. All I have to do is help them do what they do better. I find myself at this point being preoccupied with that.
John: What's the name of that organization?
Mr. Gaither: Wheeler Mission in Indianapolis. Been there for 70 years feeding the homeless, taking in the homeless.
John: There is a ... let's see. I'm not sure if I have the title correct but there is a Women of Homecoming album coming out this fall, is that correct?
Mr. Gaither: Yes, this fall. We just taped it earlier and it's ... all of the videos up to now had been a mixture of both males and females but this is just the women singing and the women's issues are pretty much the same as the male issues but they're wonderful themes about responsibility and themes about commitment, themes about forgiveness, reconciliation, love, trust, hope in a different call of times. The songs are wonderful. Praise and worship. It's going to be a wonderful video.
John: Name some of the ladies that will be on the album.
John: Quite a selection.
Mr. Gaither: Yes.
John: Fantastic. I love it. I'm excited already. When you look at the Homecoming albums or videos through the years, how many of them do you think are surrounded around a theme?
Mr. Gaither: Many of them are, many of them are not. The theme in the early days was honoring some pioneers who had gone before, which I think was a good thing to do, and then they took on a theme or a life of their own. We had two that we had at Thanksgiving on being thankful and a couple ... we did about three or four with a theme of honoring the Graham organization and the music that's come out of it, with Billy Graham even involved himself with interviews and talks. Then where we have traveled internationally, we did one in Australia, one in England, and one in Africa. It takes on various themes depending where we are. When in New York City at Carnegie Hall that was more of a peace rally thing.
John: One last question here for you Mr. Gaither. When you and your wife sit down to relax, who do you listen to?
Mr. Gaither: My reading or my listening is all across the board. I still love classical music and would listen to a lot of classical in my car, at the house. I like early country. I'm not real crazy about the current country but I like some of the early country singers. I like a good gospel song.
John: Anyone in particular come to mind or just a nice variety?
Mr. Gaither: It's pretty much across the board. Now I enjoy listening to the Vocal Band.
John: As you well should. There's nothing wrong with that.
John: I'm sorry. I said that was my last question. I would follow that up with how about books? Do you and Mrs. Gaither read a lot?
Mr. Gaither: We read a lot. We read a lot of ... I read a lot of biography myself. It's interesting to learn from the lives of other people. Things they did right, sometimes things they did wrong but that's always an interesting way. I love history books, I'm quite a historian, and I love good spiritual help books.
John: Mr. Gaither, I want to thank you so much for your time today. I know you have an extremely busy schedule and I am so honored to talk with you today. You have been even from a distance such a great example of a godly man and a godly grandfather to me and to my family through all these years, so I'm very grateful for that. I'm thankful that you were able to take my call today.
Mr. Gaither: You're very, very kind and we'll look forward to the Women of Homecoming Video ... it's very special and it will minister to a lot of people.
John: I'm sure it will.
Mr. Gaither: Glad to speak with you, my friend. You have a good day.
When it's all said and done, I am not sure if there is a stopping point for this man.