Singer and bandleader Dr. Bobby Jones is known affectionately as the Ed Sullivan of gospel music. Jones has helped to launch the careers of many gospel stars and his Nashville home is lined with trophies for his contributions to music. But despite the enormous impact he's had in the gospel music world, Jones hails from humble beginnings.
Growing up in a rural Tennessee farming community, Jones sang with the church choir, but had grander ambitions. He set out for Nashville as soon as he could. There, he taught himself to play piano and worked his way through college by playing in churches. Jones became a teacher and completed a PhD in education, but all the while, he was organizing and recording with gospel groups. In 1976, Jones convinced WSM-TV in Nashville to let him launch a gospel show. He spent years highlighting singers from churches in the region on a shoestring budget.
"I just thought I could do it," Jones says. "I always wanted to ... growing up watching Johnny Carson and all those guys."
Still, Jones dreamed of taking his show national. In 1980, the bandleader got his chance when he got a call from Robert L. Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television. Though he says at the time he didn't even know what cable was — "We didn't have cable in Nashville then" — he knew going on BET would mean more exposure. His Sunday morning show, Bobby Jones Gospel, premiered in January 1980 and quickly became appointment viewing for fans of gospel music.
"Some people was late for church because they wanted to see the show," gospel singer Regina McCrary remembers. "It's hard to get dressed and watch TV at the same time ... you can't go in the bathroom and do what you need to do 'cause you start watching Dr. Bobby Jones."
Pastors with tardy churchgoers may have griped, but gospel record labels saw Jones's show as a way to get budding artists in the spotlight. The exposure Bobby Jones Gospel provided was especially important to cutting-edge artists like Yolanda Adams, who was blending gospel with smooth jazz and contemporary R&B.
"He didn't just, I guess, give me the platform. He also validated what I was doing," Adams says. "He never said, 'You need to change your look.' He never said, 'You need to calm your jazz stuff down,' because no one was doing that at the time."
Whether they were total newbies, established stars or gospel elders, Jones welcomed all of his guests with a demeanor that was equally dignified and down-home. People all over the country first saw Kirk Franklin merge gospel and hip-hop on TV thanks to Jones. And when he invited Albertina Walker, the 'Queen of Gospel,' onto the show late in her career, it was his way of showing appreciation to a legend.
"She left this earth knowing that she was important and she had a legacy," McCrary says of Walker's appearance.
Despite the show's own legacy as one of the longest running programs on cable, BET announced Bobby Jones Gospel was coming to an end in 2015. Fans signed a petition pleading with the network to keep Jones on the air, but he admits it was his decision to bring Bobby Jones Gospel to a close. The last episode aired in July 2016.
"I'm the one that retired from it after 35 years," Jones explains. "I told them, 'Well, I'm getting older now and I want to give somebody else a chance to do that. I've had it for 35 years.' And it was just as simple as that."
But Jones wasn't ready to walk away from gospel music entirely. Now, he is back to being as hands-on as he was in the early days. At 79, Jones hosts a weekly radio countdown and produces monthly TV shows for the Impact Network.
"It's full circle," Jones says. "And I kind of welcome it, because it gives me a chance to go back over what started it."
NOEL KING, HOST:
Bobby Jones is a singer and bandleader who was known as the Ed Sullivan of gospel music. If you made it onto his TV show, that could make your career. He retired from his show on the BET network a couple years ago, but he hasn't given up his life's work. Jewly Hight of member station WPLN has this profile.
JEWLY HIGHT, BYLINE: Just inside the front door of Bobby Jones' high-ceilinged Nashville home are shelves lined with trophies, medals and plaques that honor the 79-year-old's contributions to gospel music.
BOBBY JONES: These are just a few of some of the ones that I have left over.
HIGHT: Just a few.
JONES: This is the biggest one that I received. It's from the state of Tennessee. That's the Governor's Award.
HIGHT: Growing up in a rural Tennessee farming community, Jones had no idea that gospel music won people awards. He sang with the church choir but had grander ambitions and set out for Nashville as soon as he could.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOBBY JONES & NEW LIFE SONG, "HE WILL STEP RIGHT IN ON TIME")
HIGHT: There he taught himself piano and worked his way through college by playing in churches. He became a teacher and got a Ph.D. in education. That's why he's known as Dr. Bobby Jones. But he also put together groups to record.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HE WILL STEP RIGHT IN ON TIME")
BOBBY JONES AND NEW LIFE: (Singing) The Lord will step in on time.
HIGHT: Eventually, Jones convinced the Nashville TV station to let him launch a gospel show.
JONES: And I just thought I could do it. I always wanted to, you know, growing up watching Johnny Carson and all those guys.
HIGHT: Jones spent a few years highlighting singers from churches around the region on a shoestring budget but dreamed of going national. He got his chance in 1980 when he received a call from Robert Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television.
JONES: When he spoke to me, he said we're starting a cable network. I didn't even know what that was (laughter) you know. We didn't have cable in Nashville then. And we'd like to use your show. And I said, oh, yeah, that means we're going to be exposed to more people.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BOBBY JONES GOSPEL")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And now, ladies and gentlemen, from Nashville, Tenn., "Bobby Jones Gospel."
HIGHT: The Sunday morning show became appointment viewing for gospel fans and musicians.
REGINA MCRARY: Some people was late for church because they wanted to see the show.
HIGHT: That's Regina McCrary who sang with Jones off and on for decades until starting a group with her sisters.
MCRARY: It's hard to get dressed and watch TV at the same time when you need to be in the bathroom and you can't do what you need to do because you start watching Dr. Bobby Jones.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BOBBY JONES GOSPEL")
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) You know, I want to go...
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing) One day.
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) ...To a city so bright and (unintelligible).
HIGHT: Pastors with tardy congregations may have griped, but gospel record labels saw a chance to get their budding artists in the spotlight. When Yolanda Adams made her first appearance, she was still splitting her time between teaching school and performing.
YOLANDA ADAMS: You had your "Soul Trains." You had "American Bandstand" still. You had all of these other outlets for different genres except for ours.
HIGHT: The exposure "Bobby Jones Gospel" provided was especially important to cutting-edge artists like Adams, who was blending gospel with smooth jazz and contemporary R&B.
(SOUNDBITE OF YOLANDA ADAMS SONG, "MY EVERYTHING")
ADAMS: He didn't just give me the platform. He also validated what I was doing.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY EVERYTHING")
ADAMS: (Singing) Lord, I just want to say I love you. You deserve my praise throughout my days.
I really have to thank him for allowing me to just be me on television. He never said, you know, you need to change your look. He never said you need to, you know, calm your jazz stuff down because no one was doing that at the time.
HIGHT: People all over the country first saw Kirk Franklin merge gospel and hip-hop on TV thanks to Jones.
JONES: Every time we would tape shows, we'd have an overabundance of people who wanted to do it, of course. And so on this particular night, this lady had brought him to do the show and had not called to get him on the show. And the show was full, and she says, please, let him come on. Please let him come on.
HIGHT: Jones relented, and Franklin was a hit, returning many times as his popularity ballooned. Whether they were total newbies, established stars or gospel elders, Jones welcomed all of his guests with a demeanor that was equally dignified and downhome.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BOBBY JONES GOSPEL")
JONES: You are a pioneer. When the history of gospel music is written over and over and over, I want to let you know that this lady is certainly a mammoth part of that industry. Praise God for you.
HIGHT: Jones invited Albertina Walker onto the show late in her career. And Regina McCrary was glad to see Walker get the attention she deserved.
MCRARY: She left this Earth knowing that she was important, and she had a legacy. You know, he brought her on the "Bobby Jones Gospel" show, and her career picked back up again.
HIGHT: Despite the show's own legacy, BET announced it was coming to an end in 2015. Fans signed a petition pleading with the network to keep Bobby Jones on the air.
JONES: Some people thought they got rid of the show. They didn't get rid of it. I'm the one that retired from it after 35 years. That's what - I'm getting older now, and I want to give somebody else a chance to do that. I've had it for 35 years, and it was just as simple as that. But in the same time, I didn't really want to.
HIGHT: So Jones is doing a weekly radio countdown and produces monthly cable TV shows for the IMPACT Network. At a recent taping, he primed the audience before the cameras started rolling.
JONES: Any shouters in the house?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes.
JONES: Over here - how about over here.
UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE: Yeah.
JONES: All right. Now, what I want you to do - I want you to be all - I want you to be all churchy churchy today, all right? This is a television show, and I don't want you to sit and just look. So I want you up and clapping when it's appropriate. It's gospel.
HIGHT: Jones is back to being as hands-on as he was in the early days.
JONES: So this is all volunteer, me as well. Yeah, it's full circle. And I kind of welcome it because it gives me a chance to go back over what started it.
HIGHT: Which was the drive and poise to get in front of the camera and take gospel music to the world. For NPR News, I'm Jewly Hight in Nashville.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRAISE THE LORD")
JONES: (Singing) From the rising of the sun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.