Ben Speer sings "Sheltered in the Arms of God"
Ben Speer, the youngest child of Lena and G.T. Speer—"Mom" and "Dad," respectively, in Southern gospel music circles—was part of one of the genre's great family groups, the Speer Family. He died April 17, at 86, leaving sister Rosa Nell Speer as the only survivor: Ben's parents, brother Brock Speer and sister Mary Tom Speer had preceded him in death, and Rosa Nell quicklly followed him, on April 7, at 94.
But Ben Speer was more than a legendary Southern gospel singer. He was a musician, music publisher and record company executive, and for Duane Allen, lead singer of the Oak Ridge Boys, a beloved mentor.
When Allen joined the venerable quartet in 1966, the Oak Ridge Boys remained firmly in the southern gospel mode of its formation in the late '40s.
"I'd been rejected by the Army because of a heart condition, and drove all night from Fort Worth through my hometown in Lamar County, Texas, to Nashville, to audition with the Oak Ridge Boys," says Allen, who had sung with other gospel groups and had met the Speer Family a couple years earlier.
"I found out when I got there that they were on the verge of disbanding, but we went to a little church and I sang two songs, and two minutes later they offered me a full partnership in the group and its publishing company. That's where Ben Speer came in."
The Oaks had just started their own music publishing company, and Speer was a major music publisher.
"He took on the administrative part of our publishing company, and when I settled in I took over managing it and started our own sheet music printing—which was a big deal in those days," recalls Allen. "We started selling other people's song catalogs and sheet music: We had 10 staff writers including Paulette Carlson, Jimbeau Hinson and Steve Earle. We published the songs on Steve's [1986 gold debut album] Guitar Town and cut the demos for it. But I leaned heavily on Ben when we started: He taught me so much about publishing—finding great songs, getting in touch with printing people. He was a mentor to me publishingwise."
It was the beginning of a close friendship between the Oaks and the Speers.
"The Oaks are just unbelievable pranksters, and I fell into it by osmosis!" laughs Allen. "People might not know that there's a lot of competition in gospel music: We were at the National Quartet Convention one time in Memphis and had these red 'I love the Oaks' stickers, and while the Speers were on stage, we took all their boxes of records that they were selling there and stickered them with Oaks stickers and put the boxes—and everyone else's--on their bus, and stickered that, too--then watched when they opened the bus door and all the boxes fell out on them!"
More recently, Allen snuck up on Speer while he ate at Nashville's famous Elliston Place Soda Shop, then "scooted him to the wall and started eating off his plate. He laughed so hard I thought he'd mess up his pants!"
But Allen always felt a special love for Ben Speer and his talent.
"I remember a Speer Family concert in Winston-Salem. They'd just recorded a bunch of Bill and Gloria Gaither songs, and Ben sat down to sing 'I Will Serve Thee' and 'There's Something About That Name,' and I remember it as if it were yesterday: There's no voice on earth like Ben Speer's voice when he sat down at the piano and poured out his heart. It was an experience that took me out of the world, and not only did I love him, but I appreciated his soul and his passion for the music."
The Speer Family, notes Allen, were perfectionists.
"You knew you had to be good to be with Ben," he says. "And we're the opposite—a high energy group that sounds like four Peterbilt trucks, but it somehow works for us, and we loved that family with all our hearts and it showed: We wound up together on stage and singing each other's songs."
Allen says that when the Speers started slowing down due to illnesses, Ben Speer had already begun working with Bill Gaither.
"We went to some of the Gaither tapings of his Homecoming concerts, and Ben had written all the charts for all the numbers—every word in every person's part. Then he'd stand where everyone could see him and direct everyone. It was a study in excellence to watch him work: If one person in 20 was off pitch, he knew who it was."
Allen reflects on his last visit with the man he "loved like a brother."
"I saw him two or three days beefore he left this earth, and he smiled when he saw me and squeezed my hand. I'm so thankful I got to be there in his last moments. I sang one of his leads—'Sheltered in the Arms of God'—at his going-home service, and it was one of the hardest things I ever had to do. I got a lump in my throat as big as a baseball and couldn't figure out how to even talk without crying, but you suck it up and do what you need to do to honor someone you love, and I made it through with a few vocal quivers that I couldn't help."
Ben Speer, Allen concludes, was truly "a life well-lived."