For a town with less than 15,000 residents, Canton, Mississippi, has made a significant impact on American music. The birthplace of preacher and gospel artist Cleophus Robinson and home of blues artists Sonny Landreth and Elmore James, Canton is best known for giving the world the award-winning Canton Spirituals.
The quartet was founded in Canton in 1943 by Harvey Lee “Pop” Watkins Sr. In addition to Watkins, original members were the Reverend I.S. Watkins, Isaac Bolton, Eddie Jackson, Theo “Pig” Thompson, Claude “Bubba” Nichols, Warren G. Ward and Roscoe Lucious. Although active performers in churches and auditoriums, the quartet did not record until the late 1960s, releasing two singles on the independent Delta Records of Jackson, Mississippi. Their third single came out in 1976 on Style Wooten’s Memphis-based DIY label, Designer Records. By that point, Harvey Watkins Jr. had joined the group.
The quartet established a national following after signing with James Bennett’s J & B Records in 1976, where they entered the Malaco studios to record albums such as That’s My Train Fare Home (1976), On the Move (1978), I’m Coming Lord (1980) and Mississippi Po’ Boy (1985), the latter’s title track about growing up poor financially but not spiritually. During the J & B era, another member of the Watkins family, Cornelius Dwayne Watkins, joined the quartet.
In 1993, after recording eight albums for J & B, the Canton Spirituals signed with Blackberry Records. Their Blackberry release, Live in Memphis, featured several of their past hits, such as Mississippi Po’ Boy, Ride This Train and I’m Coming Lord. The album was a smash success, sold close to a half million copies, spent 169 weeks on Billboard’s Top Gospel Albums chart, earned a Grammy nomination and spawned a follow-up, Live in Memphis II (1995).
Harvey Lee Watkins Sr. died of cancer on November 16, 1994, and Second Street in Canton was renamed Harvey Watkins Sr. Street in his memory. That same year, the Mississippi Gospel Music Awards bestowed the longtime Canton Spirituals member with its Legend Award.
A decade later, the Canton Spirituals were making albums for Verity, which featured cameos by top-shelf quartet men, such as Paul Porter, Stan Jones, Bishop Neal Roberson and Lee Williams.
The group earned two Stellar Awards in 1997: Best Group/Duo of the Year and Traditional Group of the Year for the Living the Dream: Live in Washington, DC album. The following year, the group was named Quartet of the Year and Artist of the Year at the American Gospel Quartet Awards.
Led by Harvey Watkins Jr., the Canton Spirituals continue to tour and record, with Cornelius Dwayne Watkins, Billy Voss, David Curry, Merlin Lucious, Shannon Lee, Rodrick Jones and Antoine Porter Sr. as the personnel. Malaco released the quartet’s latest full-length album, Keep Knocking (2013), with the title track and Your Life’s About to Change as singles.
—Robert M. Marovich