‘Big Lew’ inducted into Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame
Published 9:58 am Friday, October 9, 2015
For over 50 years, James Lewis Garrison was known in gospel music as “Big Lew.”
He sang his first song when eight years old in Vacation Bible School, and he went on to sing with the Prophets Quartet, the Atonements, the Song Masters, Melody Men, and Ed Hill and the Silvertones. Big Lew also served in the early 1950s as choir director at First Free Will Baptist Church of Elizabethton.
Last Saturday, Big Lew’s contributions to gospel music were recognized, when he was posthumously inducted into the Southern Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame at the National Quartet Convention in Pigeon Forge.
Big Lew died August 13, 1994, just one day after his 61st birthday. During his lifetime he had traveled all over the United States and across Canada and Mexico singing gospel music at one-night concerts, revivals, festivals and conventions. He sang with the nationally-renowned Prophets Quartet for 13 years.
The quartet was regularly featured on the Gospel Music Caravan.
During his time with the Prophets, the group traveled an average of 150,000 miles annually, working some 300 dates a year. Almost every night during those 13 years with the Prophets, Big Lew sang his signature song “Just A Rose Will Do.”
Additionally, he sang the song at hundreds of funerals and graveside services. It was not only his favorite song, but the song most people identified Big Lew with.
He endeared himself to audiences everywhere he went. Duane Allen of the Prophets in a tribute video to Garrison said, “Big Lew could take an audience into his grasp and lead them anywhere he chose.”
Garrison would prove to be an essential piece of the puzzle for the Prophets, and his high tenor vocals would push the group’s vocal arrangements for years to come. Some say he gave the quartet their unique sound.
He sang with the Prophets during the boom years of gospel music when the LeFevres, the Blue Ridge Quartet, the Statesmen Quartet, Jake Hess, and the Johnson Sisters were household-words.
Big Lew often testified that his great falsetto tenor voice was “God-given.” When singing with the Prophets, Big Lew’s soaring first tenor voice and the solid baritone voice of Ed Hill anchored the group.
“Leroy Abernathy taught him the falsetto style and Big Lew could sing it all night long; it was clear and strong,” Hill said. “More importantly, he practiced what he sang and preached.”
Hill and Big Lew had become friends when Hill’s father served as pastor of First Free Will Baptist in Elizabethton and Garrison was choir director.
“I met a youngster there by the name of Lew Garrison, who suggested I move to Tennessee and go to college. I had just finished high school and wanted to attend the Stamps-Baxter School of Music. I wasn’t at all interested in staying in Tennessee until Big Lew said the magic words which were ‘We could eventually start our own quartet,’” Hill said.
It was the beginning of a life-long friendship between the two.
Big Lew left the Prophets in 1971 and returned to Elizabethton, but he never quit singing. He sang with the Atonement Quartet, the Melody Men, and Songmasters. In 1993 he was recognized for his contributions to gospel music with the Living Legend In Gospel Music Award by the Grand Ole Gospel Reunion in Greenville, S.C.
Many in Cat Island remember Garrison when he was just a boy growing up in the neighborhood. “He would preach to us from the hood of his mother’s car in her garage and wanted to baptize us in a hog trough,” said Peggy Davis.
“He did baptize me in the hog trough,” chimed Dorothy Rasnick, another childhood friend and neighbor. “We all loved him.”
He is fondly remembered by members at First Free Will Baptist Church, where he was a member and sang in the church choir. Friends say he was not only a good singer, but witty and always wore a smile.
They remember at his funeral, a recording of Big Lew singing “Just A Rose Will Do” was played and everyone attending the funeral held a single rose in tribute to the gospel singing legend.
Also inducted into the Southern Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame this year along with Big Lew was James “Ed” Sprouse, another member of the Prophets Quartet.