Originally created 05/04/05

Featured obituary: James Anderson



An Augusta music pioneer has died.

James "Big Red" Anderson, the last performing original member of the Swanee Quintet gospel group, passed away April 27 at University Hospital after a lingering illness. He was 80.

Born in Augusta on April 8, 1925, he is survived by his wife of many years, Willie Mae Anderson; stepdaughter Mary Bunyon, of New York City; and several step-grandchildren.

"I learned so much from him," said Eddie "Schoolboy" Bynes, 35, an 18-year member of the Swanee Quintet and Mr. Anderson's godson.

"He, Little Johnny Jones, Charlie Barnwell, they were all people persons," said Mr. Bynes, referring to other deceased members of the legendary gospel group, which celebrated 65 years in October. That concert at the Bell Auditorium was Mr. Anderson's last performance with the group, Mr. Bynes said.

Willie James Bush, 75, sang with the group, originally known as the Hallelujah Gospel Singers. He recalls Mr. Anderson joining when they were renamed the Swanee Quintet.

"He was a very good friend of mine. A great bass singer, but quite versatile and could sing tenor and other vocal parts," said Mr. Bush, who now lives in Houston. "I also remember him as a showman."

Another original member William Crawford, lives in Augusta but no longer performs with the group.

Before he became a Georgia lawmaker, state Rep. Henry Howard promoted gospel music shows in Augusta and surrounding communities. He, too, recalls Mr. Anderson.

"'Big Red' always kept the Swanee's traditional sound. He never went contemporary," he said.

When the group gained international acclaim through a European tour with James Brown, and performances at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, N.Y., "they always recognized Augusta as home," Mr. Howard said. "They never claimed Atlanta like other groups did."

In October 2002, Augusta's Steed Street was renamed Swanee Quintet Boulevard as a tribute. Businessman James "J.R." Riles, who was instrumental in the street renaming, said "I'm just happy that 'Big Red' was able to live to see this achievement. It was an honor that he appreciated so very much.

"He loved Augusta and always represented our city at his best," Mr. Riles said.

Mr. Bynes said he and current Swanee members Elder Percy Griffin, Charles Green, Johnny Mims, Steven Jefferson and Pat Leverett will continue the legacy. Mr. Anderson's favorite song was a Swanee recording - Ain't it Sweet, Just to Know One Day We'll Meet.

"It's fitting, now," Mr. Bynes said. "We'll miss 'Big Red,' but we have to keep keeping on."

Reach Timothy Cox at (706) 823-3217 or tim.cox@augustachronicle.com.