Horace Clarence Boyer had a profound impact on gospel music over the past 50 years. He rose to fame in the late 1950s as one half of the Boyer Brothers. He later embarked on an equally important career in music education, becoming one of the first scholars to formally study African-American sacred music.
Boyer died in July at age 74. This month, teachers, students and fans honored him at a memorial service in Central Florida.
The Boyer Brothers hit the road before they were even teenagers. But James Boyer says that their father, a pastor, set some ground rules.
"As little brothers will do, you fight. And my father didn't want us to fight each other," James Boyer says. "So he gave us an ultimatum when we were 10 and 11. He said, 'You cannot go anywhere to sing until you stop fighting a year.' That was the longest year of my life, and after that, I never hit him again."
James and Horace came from a family that took gospel music seriously, and that gave their singing credibility, composer Carl Maultsby says.
"When one heard the Boyer Brothers, it was clear they were not just performers," Maultsby says. "They were ministers of music."
Boyer Brothers' Big Break
They began in Central Florida and headed to the Midwest, where they had relatives. James Boyer says he remembers returning from one of those trips.
"We were on the Greyhound bus," Boyer says. "We saw signs as we came into Nashville that said Mahalia Jackson was performing at the Ryman Auditorium Sunday night."
They called their father and asked if they could stay to hear Jackson.
"It was common for local singers to sing on the program before the star attraction would close the program," Boyer says. "We went backstage and said, 'Miss Jackson, we're singers, and we'd like to sing a song on your program.' She said, 'Sure, boys you can sing.' "
Just in their teens, the Boyer Brothers sang "Step by Step" that night and recorded it the next day. The song brought them a measure of fame, and the little money they got was put toward their education.
Bringing Gospel Music To Academia
Horace Boyer decided to pursue advanced degrees at the Eastman School of Music. But his brother says that Horace had to persuade administrators to let him do so.
"When he shows up and says, 'I want to do my research on gospel music,' they told him he couldn't do it, because there weren't enough resources in the library," James Boyer says. "He said, 'If you allow me, I'll go and record some of the music of which I speak and then do the theoretical analysis.' "
Horace Boyer's research into gospel music was collected in the 1995 book How Sweet the Sound: The Golden Age of Gospel. James Boyer says it's his brother's writing that will stand the test of time, even beyond the music they made together.
"Once you start traveling and recording, new generations don't hear your sound. I think his legacy is going to be in the academic community," he says.
Horace Boyer never stopped researching gospel. In 1999, he told NPR about checking out some new sounds, particularly those of Kirk Franklin.
"Gospel has shifted downtown to the teenagers and they — I couldn't see. I had to stand up the whole time," Horace Boyer said. "But I wouldn't have missed it for anything, because it says now that gospel music is popular music."
Horace Boyer wanted to spread gospel music beyond churches and even concert stages.
"His idea was, 'Why not?' It is just as respectable as the secular music. He took it on, in a way, to prove to the academic community that it had its place on the American music scene," James Boyer says.
And today, in large part because of Horace Clarence Boyer, it does.