Dozens of major name gospel music stars and political personalities have appeared on WJBF-TV’s Parade of Quartets program over the past 60 years.
But the show itself is the real star.
Not only is the Parade of Quartets one of the longest-running broadcast gospel or religious music TV programs in the nation, it’s one of the longest-airing TV shows of any kind anywhere.
The Guiding Light soap opera, for example, went on the air in 1952 and lasted 57 years, until 2009.
About the only other TV show with POQ’s longevity is Meet The Press, which went on the air in 1947 and still is broadcast weekly.
“Only when you stop and think, it seems amazing to say we’ve been on the air for 60 years,” offered the program’s host, the Rev. Karlton Howard.
“Otherwise, it’s just something we just do every week,” he added. “One of the main reasons for the program’s longevity is that it’s local and caters to the local culture.
“The key to the whole program is there are no guidelines like you have to have a five-piece band to be on it or have a record or have this perfect situation.
“Being on Channel 6 gives us that flexibility to be fresh every week. We don’t have to tell the station what is going to happen two weeks from now. We try to do what is relevant at the time.”
Carrie Anne Allen wrote her doctoral dissertation at the University of Georgia on black gospel music on television in Augusta from 1954 to 2008.
She cited two central themes as emerging from Parade of Quartets over the years:
“The first theme is the role POQ has played in the building, shaping, reinforcing and maintaining of overlapping black communities,” Allen wrote. “Any given episode of POQ reveals a myriad of ways that these multiple communities intersect in front of the television camera.
“The second major theme emerging from the overview of POQ’s history is the tension between continuity and change. The program seems to have achieved longevity through its continual (and non-musical) reinvention of itself. Somehow it manages to remain musically relevant over the decades by simultaneously retaining the legacy and roots of black sacred music while continuing to evolve.”
The Parade of Quartets program first showed up in The Augusta Chronicle’s television schedule April 17, 1955, but it had its roots in local radio before that.
Six decades of the show will be celebrated with a party and awards show honoring area and national gospel singers and groups beginning at 6 p.m. March 1 at Augusta Marriott at the Convention Center.
Several nationally known gospel performers will be there, including Lady Tremaine Hawkins, the Williams Brothers, Bobby Jones, the Wardlaw Brothers and many others.
Proceeds benefit the Henry L. Howard Scholarship Fund.
That’s logical and appropriate since the former Richmond County commissioner and Georgia state representative Howard was co-host and solo host of the POQ program for many years.
The beloved owner of Howard’s Upholstery shop was one of Augusta’s first black TV personalities when Parade of Quartets originator Steve Manderson began co-hosting the show with Howard.
Howard not only booked national black gospel acts into Bell Auditorium and Augusta-Richmond County Civic Center (later James Brown Arena), but he also performed regularly in the area with his group Spirits of Harmony, which made several albums.
He used his influence, vibrant personality and political knowledge to lure an array of celebrities to the show, including the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, the Rev. Al Sharpton, Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes and legendary gospel acts including Mighty Clouds of Joy, Shirley Caesar, F.C. Barnes, Luther Barnes, The Dixie Hummingbirds, Willie Banks and the Rev. Al Green.
One of his proudest moments came in November 2004, when a banquet and gospel concert were held in Bell Auditorium to mark the show’s 50th anniversary in 2004. He died at his home of a massive heart attack at 75 in October 2005 after attending the Swanee Quintet’s anniversary concert at Bell Auditorium.
Flo Carter, who has performed for many years on POQ with her group The Sounds of Joy, remembered Howard being at the Sept. 26, 2005, taping of the program.
“He came over and gave my mother (96-year-old guitarist Ada Collins) and my daughter, (bass player) Toni, each a hug. I told him that we were going to do Ain’t Giving Up Now just for him, and he was sitting in a chair near us smiling when we taped it,” Carter said.
His son, the Rev. Karlton Howard, became the show’s host in 1982 as a result of a family crisis back when the show aired live on Sunday mornings.
Henry Howard’s mother died on a Saturday, so he lined up a substitute for the next day’s show, but the backed out around 11 p.m. Saturday night, saying he was so nervous he couldn’t sleep.
So Henry got on the phone with his son, Karlton, and told him that he had to do the show. The next morning Karlton stopped by his dad’s house for a briefing and then headed to the studio for his first time in front of the camera.
“About halfway through the television show, Dad called and said I needed to change my shirt. It was wrinkled,” the Rev. Howard said.
For many years now, the program has been taped earlier in the week.
The program originated shortly after WJBF went on the air in November 1953 with Manderson, a white advertising account salesman for WJBF who knew what people in this area liked to watch and hear.
Manderson, who also booked and promoted wrestling matches and music shows, talked station owner J.B. Fuqua into putting on a black gospel music show at a time when Augusta was segregated and racial relations were strained.
He also talked Fuqua into doing a white gospel music show featuring The Lewis Family, of Lincolnton, Ga., and for many years Manderson served as emcee of both The Lewis Family’s show and Parade of Quartets.
When Manderson died in January 2002, at 85, Henry Howard and his son, Karlton, were speakers at his funeral.
Henry Howard laid down strict rules for the Parade of Quartets guest performers. They had to look nice on TV and never go over their allotted time.
Soul music legend James Brown was one of those who wanted to appear on the program. George Mathis of The Brewsteraires recalls Brown telling him that he wanted to sing with the group.
“We were one of his favorite groups that he watched all the time,” Mathis recalled. Brown sang lead on three songs, including Oh Ship of Zion.
The program’s variety and its diverse performers and community discussions is why the program attracts so many viewers of all races, faiths, ages and political affiliations.
“You get to know the wide range of our viewers when you move about town,” said Karlton Howard. “People who you don’t expect to watch the program do watch it. It is church for many people on Sunday mornings.
“(WJBF news journalist) Dee Griffin probably said it best,” he noted, “when she said her grandmother started her Sundays with three things: grits, eggs and the Parade of Quartets.”