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Date of Birth: 1917
Place of Birth: Clay Co., Alabama
The Swanee River Boys had a unique sound and were often compared to the Mills Brothers, due to their "black", spiritual sound with smooth, close harmony. The lead singer, Buford Abner, was born in Clay County, Alabama. He wrote many famous songs including "Gloryland Jubilee". His brother, Merle Abner, was born in Randolph County, Alabama and attended school in Wedowee, Alabama, he sang bass for the group. They sang together for thirty-seven years and had network programs on both NBC and CBS. They did some Country, Folk and Western music but specialized mostly in soft spirituals. In World War II the Swanee River Boys disbanded to fight in the war. After the war they picked up their singing career, again with nation wide network programs. In the 1960's they joined the USO shows performing for our troops overseas.
Source: Alabama Music Hall of Fame
SG History 101 - Buford Abner by John Scheideman
This month, I want to write about one of gospel music’s true legends. The great thing about this month’s subject is that he is still alive to appreciate and know. He has been a consistent witness to the gospel in song for most of his life, and he is one of those special people who earned renown in more than one genre of music. Still, it’s southern styled gospel music that Buford Abner will be most fondly remembered for.
James Buford Abner was born November 10, 1917 to Dave and Ovelia Abner in Lineville, Alabama…in Clay County there. He was the child of sharecroppers, but like many children in that part of the country, he was raised in a Christian home with lots of singing present, and like so many of his childhood friends, was a part of “singin’ school” every summer and spent many a Sunday at “all day singin’ and dinner on the ground” events.
And like a select few other southern boys, his singing voice was his way out of the fields and into the world. 15-year old Buford joined his brother Merle in the Pepperel Manufacturing Company Quartet in Columbus, Georgia.
Both Abner boys stayed with that quartet until they left to join their Uncle Stacy in the Vaughn Four on WNOX radio in Knoxville, Tennessee. And by 1938, the Abner boys and Billy Carrier formed what they named the Swanee River Boys. The new quartet used their smooth sound and musicianship to land a job at WDOD radio in Chattanooga, Tennessee where they became part of an entire network of radio stations in the South. The quartet became popular quickly throughout the Southeast.
Not only did Buford find fame and recognition, Chattanooga was where Buford found the love of his life. Dorothy Jean Dalton was singing with her sister Mildred in the Sunshine Sisters along with famous country entertainer Archie Campbell on the same radio station. Buford and Dorothy got married in 1941, and had a daughter, Pamela, in 1943.
Also in 1941, the Swanee River Boys moved to Atlanta, where their program “The Little Country Church” was aired on 50,000 watt powerhouse WSB radio. Their smooth, rhythmic style and flair with black spirituals at times got them booked into black churches to sing, where they were quite a pleasant surprise to the congregations there, proving that music can be a bridge between black and white, young and old, and rich and poor alike.
But the Swanee River Boys didn’t sing only gospel music. Like many of their contemporaries at that time, they also included popular, folk, and western songs in addition to their gospel quartet numbers and the black spirituals they so excelled at. In the early 1940s, it was estimated that about 52% of their songs were gospel or religious in orientation. They also mixed comedy routines in with their music, making them just as suitable for schools and civic organizations as for churches and concert appearances. They exemplified “family entertainment” at its best.
Tenor-George Hughes, Lead-Buford Abner, Baritone-Bill Carrier, Bass-Merle Abner But still, the Swanee River Boys loved their gospel music best, and with Buford’s many original songs and innovative vocal arrangements, they were always a major force and influence on gospel quartets.
In 1944, Buford was drafted into World War II, as was Merle, and while they were away, gospel music greats Lee Roy Abernathy and Bill Lyles took their places in the Swanee River Boys, and the quartet stayed popular all through the war.
When the war ended, Buford and Merle reunited with Billy Carrier and tenor George Hughes at WSB, and they soon relocated to Charlotte and another 50,000 watt powerhouse, radio station WBT, where they occasionally were featured on the CBS radio network.
Up north, another famous vocal quartet that had a similar style and sound to the Swanee River Boys was heard on yet another 50,000 watt radio powerhouse, WLW in Cincinnati. Yet when that group, the Mills Brothers, decided to move west to Las Vegas, it was Buford Abner and the Swanee River Boys that were chosen to take their place.
From there, it was a natural progression to the new medium of television in the 1950s. Their smooth, relaxed style and musical versatility made them quite popular on the small screen, just as it did on radio and in personal appearances.
Despite the personnel changes common to most all vocal groups of long standing, the Swanee River Boys’ sound never changed that much through the years. The only thing that possibly kept them from being recognized as one of the very top gospel quartets was their forays into secular music. Still, with Buford’s popular compostions, his lead singing skill, and his winning manner along with his unique skill at vocal arranging, the Swanee River Boys were always loved and appreciated by gospel music audiences.
Some of those famous Buford Abner compositions include “I Ain’t Got Time”, “I’ve Got It (You Can Have It)”, “I Get Happy”, “Lifted From Sin”, “When I Move”, and “Gloryland Boogie” are still being recorded by gospel artists today, much as they were 30, 40, and 50 years ago.
The Swanee River Boys continued to sing through the 1960s, but Buford said he was tired of the road in 1970, and retired from traveling at that time. The quartet continued on for a few more years before it officially retired from traveling gospel music.
But Buford never stopped singing, or writing, or just telling good stories. After living in Indianapolis for many years, he decided to move back to his home of Clay County, Alabama, where he still sings on occasion with his wife Dorothy and daughter Pamela. And being a family man, he dotes on his grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Buford Abner received recognition for his talents from the University of Florida some time back, when he was presented with a copy of Stephen Foster’s handwritten manuscript of the famous song “Way Down Upon The Suwanee River”. He was also inducted into the Southern Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame in 2002, and given a Living Legend award at the age of 85 at the Grand Ole Gospel Reunion. In addition, the Swanee River Boys are in the Atlanta Country Music Hall of Fame as well.
In 2003, Buford suffered a stroke, and recently dealt with another one. But he is still singing and playing the guitar well, and still writing fine songs that are as pleasing to the heart as to the ear. Two of his better recent songs are “The Great Commission” and “I Stand In Awe”.
Buford Abner is one of gospel music’s all time best singers, songwriters, arrangers, and all-around musicians, and even at the age of 90(fast closing on 91!), he still exudes the joy of loving God, and making music that testifies to all that implies. He is truly one of the people that make this genre of gospel music special, and I felt it appropriate this month to remember and honor him, especially while he is still among us to experience it.
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