Little RichardPhoto: Courtesy of Exquisite Minds Management & PR

The Fisk Jubilee Singers embarked on their first tour on Oct. 6, 1871. Their extraordinary vocal skills not only saved Fisk University, a vital black educational institution, from financial ruin, but also helped establish Nashville as Music City, a cultural pillar recognized around the world.

Since 2016, the Fisk Jubilee Singers Alumni Association has presented the Jubilee Heritage Awards, celebrating the accomplishments of African American figures who’ve played pivotal roles all across the music industry. This year’s honorees possess the same astonishing level of talent as past award recipients like Valerie Simpson and the late Mahalia Jackson. The group includes legendary rock ’n’ roll pianist, singer, songwriter and bandleader “Little Richard” Penniman; gospel singer and broadcast host Dr. Bobby Jones, sometimes known as the Ed Sullivan of gospel; and promoter, manager and record executive Eddie “E.T.” Thomas, whose achievements include helping launch Curtis Mayfield’s career. The trio will be recognized Saturday evening at a ceremony and concert featuring singer Kim Fleming at Fisk Memorial Chapel.

Little Richard’s astounding blend of boogie-woogie and gospel piano licks, his inspired and energetic vocals, and his flamboyant personality lit up stages across the nation and the globe during the 1950s with his band The Upsetters. He made such songs as “Tutti Frutti,” “Good Golly, Miss Molly” and “Long Tall Sally” into genre-defining classics, and in the ’60s and ’70s, he made some tremendous R&B and soul records. It’s no exaggeration to say his work has been a crucial inspiration for generations of artists, from The Beatles to Prince and beyond. He’s had a very small number of public engagements since 2012. Even if he hadn’t been one of the first inductees into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (among heaps of other accolades), his place in the pantheon of greats has long been assured.

Dr. Bobby JonesDr. Bobby JonesPhoto: Courtesy of Exquisite Minds Management & PR

“Any time you get any award, it’s a great moment, and to be recognized by such an institution as Fisk University and the Jubilee Singers, it really means a lot,” Jones tells the Scene. That’s no small praise coming from a man whose exceptional work since the 1970s has been recognized with awards including a Grammy, a Dove and three Stellar Awards.

Jones — a native of Henry, Tenn., and a longtime Nashvillian — has had an extraordinary influence on contemporary gospel music through his radio and television work. His show Bobby Jones Gospel was produced for BET from the cable network’s inception in 1980 until he retired from it in 2016. The program provided the first television exposure for a host of gospel superstars like Kirk Franklin, Yolanda Adams and Mary Mary, while also serving as a platform for legends to get fresh exposure. He continues to make radio and television programs today. He cites the impact of technology on the way people consume music as perhaps the biggest difference he’s witnessed over his many years in the industry. But some key elements to success in the music business haven’t changed a bit.

“You still have to have the gift, and the willingness to work hard and perfect your craft,” Jones says. “I’d say that’s been the thing that’s made all the greats I’ve worked with special. They had something you could spot right away and know it made them different — it made them stand out. Whether you’re working with individual singers or choirs, that special quality pops out, and you can hear it right away.” 

Eddie Eddie “E.T” ThomasPhoto: Courtesy of Exquisite Minds Management & PR

Jones may be one of the few people who could match Chicago native Eddie Thomas’ ability to spot and nurture talent. Early in his career, Thomas took on the responsibility of managing an outstanding R&B group called The Roosters, who after changing their name to The Impressions (at Thomas’ suggestion) landed memorable hits like “For Your Precious Love,” “Gypsy Woman” and “Keep on Pushing.” Those last two songs were examples of the extraordinary talent of Curtis Mayfield, who took over leadership of the group after lead singer Jerry Butler went solo. Thomas continued a long association with Mayfield that included the formation of Curtom Records, and he also launched the highly successful record promotion firm Thomas Associates, whose clients included Ray Charles, Quincy Jones and Barry White. 

Thomas also won a Peabody Award for his work on the invaluable music documentary The Rise and Fall of Vee-Jay Records. But rather than spotlighting his own personal achievements, he prefers to direct praise toward the greats he’s worked with. He also recalls the importance of help from DJs who knew and supported black music, like Music City legend “Big John” Richbourg, known as John R. to listeners of the influential R&B programs broadcast on WLAC-AM in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.

“The thing I really remember about Nashville was that radio station WLAC and John R.,” Thomas says. “Man, he was great. Whenever we had anything that we thought might work or jump out, we were sure to get a copy to him and get it on that station.”

Little Richard, Dr. Bobby Jones and Eric Thomas each helped shape popular culture around the world in the 20th century. And you can hear their work reflected in the creative output of hip-hop, pop, gospel and R&B artists at the tops of today’s charts — their contributions continue to have an enormous impact in this century too.