Paul Belcher ready for a big night in Ashland; Primitive Quartet to perform in Farewell Tour
By John Herndon, KentuckySings.com
TELLICO PLAINS, Tenn. — Paul Belcher can only laugh when talking about the first concert he promoted.
He’d booked The Hopper Brothers and Connie for a night of gospel music in his hometown of Detroit and was waiting when the group arrived for the concert. Belcher chuckles as he picks up the story. “To this day, Claude Hopper still tells the story if I am in the audience,” Belcher says. “He says they pulled up to the auditorium and here comes this little fat boy up to the bus and says, ‘I’m Paul Belcher.’
“Claude says, ‘I drove 800 miles for a 17-year-old kid.”
That 17-year-old kid grew into one of gospel music’s most well-known promoters. He’s put on more than 1,000 concerts in a career that is now in its 51st year. And Paul Belcher is still doing what he loves and feels God has enabled him to do.
“When God gives you a calling, what do you do? You follow that calling,” Belcher said at his home in Tellico Plains, Tenn. “When God gives you a talent, you had better use that talent. He gave me a talent to do this. It’s a calling.”
And yes, he started as a 17-year-old child of the 60s and early 70s. That first concert, held in a high school auditorium, included a $50 rental fee.
Belcher had dreams of playing football for the Tennessee Vols – Paul still has a letter from former coach Bill Battle replying to his inquiry about being a part of the Big Orange family – but the reality was that undersized linemen were not exactly hot commodities in the SEC.
But he’d gotten hooked on gospel music when his parents promoted concerts in the Detroit area. “Mom and Dad used to bring groups into Michigan,” Belcher remembers. “The Singing Echoes were one. The Gospelaires were one. The Pathways. I just enjoyed it and got the itch. We weren’t exposed to gospel music on TV (such as the Gospel Singing Jubilee). We would go to church on Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night. Then Mom and Dad would find a singing somewhere on Saturday night. They were popular back then and we would go to the singing on Saturday night.”
Even though gospel was changing and a pop rock sound was growing in popularity with teens, Belcher fell in love with the music he’s become synonymous with today. “I wasn’t exposed to contemporary-type music,” he smiles. “It was all hand-clapping, foot-stomping type music. It was the old-style Southern Gospel.”
Since that first concert in 1972, Paul has made at least part of his living bringing high-quality gospel concerts to areas that love hearing songs of faith and experiencing the energy coming from some of the nation’s top performers.
He’s coming to Ashland on Saturday, April 1, when he brings Gold City, The Inspirations and Primitive Quartet to Paramount Theatre. The concert begins at 6 p.m. Tickets are still available for the event.
Ashland is a relatively new venue for Belcher. He started going there in 2019, bringing The McKameys to northeastern Kentucky as part of their farewell tour. He’d seen a Facebook post wondering why no one booked gospel music at The Paramount Arts Center and quickly secured the venue. About 800 people saw The McKameys that night and Belcher says Ashland has become one of his favorite places for a concert.
“If I had to quit promoting, Ashland, Ky., would probably be the hardest place to leave,” Belcher says. “The people there, they come to have church! Some concerts you put on, the people come for entertainment, but the people in Ashland will shout. They will run. They will stand up and clap.
“We had a concert there last year. We had The Inspirations, The Perrys and The Primitive Quartet. The Primitives did a song – I can’t think of the name of it, but Jeff (Tolbert) was singing – and there were people shouting everywhere. The Perrys were to go on next and I was standing next to Libbi (Perry Stuffle). I said, ‘Libbi, I am not even going to introduce you. Just go out there and start singing.
“So when they got done, The Inspirations were about to go on. I was standing next to Archie (Watkins). I never tell a group what to do but that night I said to him, ‘Archie, you need to start with your version of Amazing Grace. They do it acapella. I told him, ‘I am not going to introduce you. Just go out there. Everybody knows who you are. I am not quenching the spirit.”
Belcher has seen it all in 50 years of promoting concerts. He books about 10 a year today, but at his peak in the 1990s, 50 to 55 dates were annually part of his calendar.
“We had a lot of dates out west, doing Fort Worth, Houston, Abilene, Little Rock, Joplin, Missouri. Oklahoma City. Baton Rouge,” he says. “We had a concert in Oklahoma City and we were going to Joplin the next night, the same groups. We had Jerry Goff, The Florida Boys, The Inspirations and Rex Nelon. I got a letter the Wednesday before Joplin. It said, ‘We have changed our policies. We will now inventory all of the groups’ record tables and we will collect 20 percent.’
“So on Friday night, I talked with Martin (Cook of the Inspirations) and Rex and Jerry and Les Beasley (of The Florida Boys) and said, ‘When we get to Joplin tomorrow, I want you to unload your bus, everything you’ve got.’ So when I got there, Les and Martin were standing over in a corner watching. We were laughing and giggling.
“So I walked backstage to do something and the auditorium manager stopped me. He said, ‘Paul, you won. We aren’t doing this inventory stuff. We aren’t going to man the record tables.’ He said, ‘I just got done counting 3,000 pens.’ He had records stacked everywhere.”
Belcher could laugh as only a seasoned pro could.
Over the years, he’s had some experiences that range from the ironic to the hilarious, but they’ve all been part of that calling.
There was the night in 1974 when Belcher and legendary promoter J.G. Whitfield scheduled concerts for the same town.
“I had the Hoppers booked. At the same night and same time, he had the Happy Goodmans and The Inspirations,” Belcher recalls. “So I called J.G. up and said, ‘I have a singing the same night as you.’ He said, ‘Oh, no.’
“He said, ‘I’ll tell you what I will do. If you will cancel your date, I will take The Hoppers and put them on with The Happy Goodmans and The Inspirations. I said, ‘OK, if you do that, I will sell tickets for you.’ I sold 400 tickets to The Happy Goodmans and The Hoppers and The Inspirations and there were only 700 people there. And I had to buy a ticket.”
And along the way, Belcher became involved with the popular “Battle of Songs” he still uses from time to time today. Legendary promoter W.B. Nowlin had popularized the event, holding about six a year. “He got that name from some country that had a tulip festival. They had a battle of flowers. He liked that and called it the ‘Battle of Songs,’” Belcher says. “He said you know if you have three or four groups on stage, they are all going to be trying to outdo the other ones. He just made it the ‘Battle of Songs.’
“I told him I wanted to work with him on that. So he gave me a price and I bought half-interest in the Battle of Songs. I got my money back my first year. We were having 2,500-3.000 people at every concert. The Cathedrals were in four of those.
“We sold out the Will Rogers Auditorium (in Fort Worth), 3,000 people. There was another building behind it that had a convention center and we put 700 people in there. We had 3,700 people in there that night. We had the Masters V, The Talley, The Blackwoods and The Singing Americans. We have a group singing to the 3,000 and another going to the other 700. We had four groups and split them up.”
And the 50-plus years have seen changes. Like most veterans, Belcher has seen recorded tracks backing singers going from a novelty to the industry norm. “That’s a cost factor,” he says.
But Belcher believes one of the biggest differences today from when he started is in how some artists present the message. “Maybe I shouldn’t say it, but back then people didn’t witness from the stage as much,” Belcher says. “They might have told a story or two, but today, some of the groups will sing and witness. Eric Bennett (of Triumphant Quartet) is great at it.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is every artist has to have something unique. “You have to have something that appeals,” Belcher says. “Think of the Hoppers and Claude telling his stories. Kim’s singing sells a crowd. You have to have something different. That’s why a lot of groups don’t make it. They are trying to copy somebody and you just can’t. You have to have your own thing.”
Which brings us full circle to Paul Belcher’s upcoming concert in Ashland. While Gold City and The Inspirations are traditional names poised for continued success in gospel music, the concert will mark one of The Primitive Quartet’s final appearances in Kentucky. The group will be retiring from the road on May 20.
Belcher is fond of Primitive Quartet
The Primitives have a distinctive Bluegrass and mountain music sound, but Belcher believes the reason for their success – they’ve been singing together nearly 50 years – is much deeper.
“They are very humble,” he says. “They go on stage for one reason and that’s to bless people. They don’t go out there to laugh and cut up and tell jokes. They are very serious about it. That’s their ministry. They are very humble about it.
“The first time I met them was back in 1977. That was when The Inspirations had them on the bus with them. The Inspirations were appearing for me and they pulled up to the auditorium. They were getting off that bus and there were like 16 getting off that bus. They were taking The Primitives everywhere they went. They were all sleeping on the same bus.”
Why are people drawn to The Primitive Quartet?
“Because they are singing for the Lord,” Belcher says. “They are plain vanilla ice cream. Older people like you and me like them. If you look at The Primitive Schedule, they stay in this part of the country where us country people are and they relate to each other. You get a grandma out there and what is on her mind is going home to heaven and they will sing about it.”
Belcher has booked Primitive Quartet many times over the years and will have them on March 17 in Maryville, Tenn. and the following night in Rome, Ga.
Unlike Primitive Quartet, though, Paul Belcher has no plans on retiring from promoting gospel music anytime soon. He also works as a salesperson in a furniture store while his wife, Helen, works in a factory office near their home. They live on Paul’s family farm along with 10 head of cattle, a horse, 15 chickens, 8 goats and a rabbit. In the summer, Paul stays busy cutting hay on their 103 acres.
“People ask me when I will retire,” he smiles. “When God gets done with me, when things don’t go well for me, maybe I will hang it up. But as long as I can keep going and helping these groups out and helping some of the lesser-known groups, I am going to keep doing it. I am not going to slow down and sit on my front porch.”
If You Go …
Paul Belcher Concerts presents Primitive Quartet, Gold City and The Inspirations at Paramount Arts Center, 1300 Winchester Avenue, Ashland, Ky., on Saturday, April 1, 2023. The concert begins at 6 p.m. Tickets are available by calling the Paramount Arts Center box office at 606-324-0007 or by visiting https://www.paramountartscenter.com/#
Tickets can also be purchased at http://www.paulbelcherconcerts.com.