Mel Rozier quit the most rewarding job he ever had just over a week ago. He directed the Sparrow’s Nest food pantry off Altama Avenue where hundreds get food weekly.
“The budget was always tight,’’ he said, but the need was always great.
He’ll turn 80 soon so you have to figure he’s due some rest, but don’t count on it.
He won’t have a job anymore. Instead he will have a calling, one that settled into his soul when he was a boy in elementary school back in Cochran, Ga.
He wants to bring big name Southern gospel groups to Brunswick, first to some individual churches and then to bigger venues such as Strickland Auditorium at Epworth and perhaps the Jekyll Island Convention Center. And why not? The annual New Year’s bluegrass festival has always had a couple of gospel acts such as The Lewis Family. Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver always include a generous amount of gospel in their act.
His love of Southern gospel came to him the same way it did a lot of southerners.
“On Sunday mornings getting ready for church, it was always on,’’ he said.
He attended First Baptist of Cochran and is now a member of St. Simons United Methodist where he sings in the choir.
The big name groups of his youth performed at night, sometimes in churches with no promise but a “love offering’’ from passing the plate. On Sunday morning, the groups were on tour of local TV studios.
That’s how Rozier got to hear The Blackwood Brothers, Smitty Gatlin and the Oak Ridge Boys, The Happy Goodman Family, The Rambos and J.D. Sumner the Blackwood Boys. A lot of people heard some famous gospel groups, the Imperials and the Jordanaires, in a different context. Both backed up Elvis Presley in the studio and on the road.
So like many others, those great gospel groups provided background music as Rozier perhaps put a last minute coat of polish on his Sunday shoes, looked for a clip-on tie or helped clear the breakfast table.
Music has a way of settling into portions of the human brain that can’t be erased. How else can you explain — this is from personal experience — remembering 60 years later the theme song for Black Draught laxative, a sponsor of the Florida Boys. The group hit the bass and the tenor notes of “feel fresh and clean inside” with the same perfection and enthusiasm as they did on “I Must Tell Jesus.”
Thanks to Bill Gaither, a founding member of the Bill Gaither Trio, a lot of those old groups can still be heard singing in mass along with some younger performers. They’re all sitting around a big hall, but some can’t stand at a microphone anymore even if their voices remain strong.
But Mel and his wife Nancy haven’t settled for that. They’ve attended big gospel concerts in Savannah, Jacksonville and are going to a big gospel convention in late summer in Tifton. He wants to make contact with some groups then and persuade them to come to Brunswick.
As for promoting the enterprise, he has some good help close at hand in his wife, who retired from public relations with Equifax.
He wants to bring the new big names — The Hoppers, the Booth Brothers, the Talleys and the Nealands among others.
Many of the newer groups have wider appeal than their predecessors from the 1950s. In those days, virtually all were quartets with a couple of baritones, a tenor and a bass singer. It’s almost like an unwritten law that the bass stood on the end. The pianist always played energetically with keys struck with a combination of heaviness and grace, sort of like a fat man dancing the shag at Myrtle Beach.
The finish is as explosive as the grand finale of a July 5 fireworks display with the bass going as low as he can and the tenor’s voice soaring above the lights. They hold the notes like a kid gripping a piece of candy when his baby sister toddles up.
Opera singers who think they know basso profundo never heard J.D. Sumner sing bass profoundly.
That appeals to a specific audience and Rozier still loves it, but he also loves the changes the Gaithers, Bill and Gloria, have helped usher in over time in writing and arranging. Their melodies are more modern and the Gaither Vocal Group bring to mind a heavenly choir. In fact, some of their songs are in hymnals.
That’s the music that makes the Roziers’ hearts soar, and Mel said he wants others to hear the music live that he has loved much of his life. For some, it would be a reunion of sorts with the soundtracks at the camp meetings and revivals in the hot summers of their youth. For others it would be a first introduction.
He doesn’t know how this will turn out. He trusts just as he did when he got that most rewarding of jobs at Sparrow’s Nest passing along food to the needy. People in government like to pose their projects as win-win situations. You can’t keep count of the winners at the Sparrow’s Nest.
“We’re right on the edge of this adventure, this calling,’’ he said of his new pursuit. “It’s a calling for me.”
To understand how it can be a calling, you just have to listen to the music.
When a good quartet sings “He Touched Me” it moves the soul in ways a 45-minute sermon can’t.
“It’s wonderful music,’’ Rozier said, ‘’and the words are a wonderful witness to the Lord.”
Anyone who wants to join Mel in his gospel adventure — or calling — can contact him at email@example.com.
Terry Dickson has been a journalist in South Carolina and Georgia for more than 40 years. He is a Glynn County resident. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.