Bobby Jones, an influential late-twentieth-century gospel music artist and television producer, has played a key role in Nashville’s evolution as one of the most important gospel music centers in the United States. He taped his television show, “Bobby Jones Gospel,” in Nashville for twenty-five years, and it continues to air on the Black Entertainment Television (BET) network to an average weekly audience of 350,000. Through both television and radio, Bobby Jones has assisted gospel acts to reach larger national audiences. Jones and his backup singers, New Life, have been prolific gospel music performers from the 1980s to the present.
Jones was born on September 18, 1938, in Henry County, Tennessee. The youngest of three children, he grew up in an African American community with churches that prized music and often supported traveling gospel music groups and ministries. Jones was proud to have performed as a soloist in a local church choir by the time he was nine years old. Jones did not identify the music in which he participated as “gospel” at this young age, instead calling it “black church music” or “sanctified music.” He was exposed to more of this music in high school and continued to find it appealing.
After Jones graduated from high school, he attended Tennessee State University, where he developed his musical talents and began playing for the First Street Baptist Church Sunday school. After graduating in 1959 with a degree in education, he taught in St. Louis, Missouri. In 1966 he returned to Nashville and began teaching in the public school system. Jones later undertook graduate studies at Tennessee State University and went on to receive a Ph.D. in general curriculum development from Peabody College at Vanderbilt University in 1980.
Between 1976 and 1980, Jones’s career as a musician and television producer met with great success. He helped organized the first Black Expo in Nashville in 1976. This exposition, one of many such festivals held throughout the country, highlighted contributions made by the African American community in Nashville. The same year, and partly as a result of the exposure he received as co-organizer of the Black Expo, Jones began filming a half-hour gospel music program called “The Nashville Gospel Show” for WSMV, the local NBC affiliate. In 1978 he released his first album, “Sooner or Later.” Jones also hosted “Bobby Jones World,” an interview program on Nashville’s public programming
affiliate WDCN. In 1980 WSMV cancelled “The Nashville Gospel Show,” but Jones reformatted the program into a one-hour syndicated program that BET Network acquired for its Sunday morning programming. BET marketed the program as “Bobby Jones Gospel,” and it quickly became a network favorite.
Jones’s BET program has significantly influenced black gospel music. Its enduring popularity demonstrates “how black gospel changed from its mid-century reliance on quartets to more of a mass-choir sound” that often featured “innovative, choreographed choir numbers,” according to historian Carroll Van West in A History of Tennessee Arts (2004). West further noted that the program provided “crucial television exposure for a new generation of black gospel singers, like CeCe Winans, Yolanda Adams, Kirk Franklin, and Hezekiah Walker.” In 1989 Jones began a new
BET show entitled “Video Gospel,” a half-hour music-video program,
which remains on the network. When BET took over production of “Bobby Jones Gospel” in 2001, it moved the tapings from Nashville to its studios in Washington, D.C. “Bobby Jones Gospel” is aired all over the world, including England, Nigeria, Japan, and Uganda. As of 2008, Jones hosts four other television programs and two radio shows, all dedicated to gospel music.
However, just as Jones created a television presence for black gospel
music, he also contributed to gospel music recordings. Jones has
recorded thirteen albums since 1978. In 1983 “I’m So Glad I’m Standing Here Today,”a song Jones performed with Barbara Mandrell, won both a Grammy Award for “Best Vocal Duo for a Soul/Gospel Performance” and a Dove Award.
Ever the educator, Jones told a reporter for the Chicago Tribune
(November 7, 1985): “I want to be one of the people to bring gospel
music to the real marketplace by educating people about its marvelous and unique features.” Through his numerous endeavors on television, radio, stage, and screen, Bobby Jones has already done much to teach the world about the unique sound of black gospel music.
Bobby Jones and Lesley Sussman, Make a Joyful Noise: My 25 Years in Gospel Music (2000)