Led by family patriarch George Thomas Speer (1891-1966), the Singing Speer Family was a well-known gospel group with its origins in Alabama. George Thomas "Dad" Speer, Lena Brock "Mom" Speer, and children Jack Speer, Rosa Nell Speer, Mary Tom Speer, and Ben Speer were all part of the family group at some point. The group was popular for much of the latter half of the twentieth century, appearing on radio and television shows in Alabama and Tennessee and making more than 60 recordings.
George Thomas (G. T.) Speer was born to James J. and Emma Speer on March 10, 1891, in Fayette, Georgia. Speer's musical aptitude can be traced to his father, who played the fiddle. The family moved first to Cullman County and then to a farm near Double Springs, Winston County. Emma Speer died soon after her fifth child, daughter Pearl, was born in 1902. James Speer remarried Mary Estes Seymour and had nine more children. G. T., known as Tom growing up, soon became adept at playing the organ and giving music lessons to his younger siblings.
Speer gained most of his musical knowledge from gospel convention–produced songbooks for shape-note singers. All-day gospel conventions were once common and greatly anticipated social events in rural areas of Alabama and surrounding states. Speer met his future wife, Lena Brock, at one such event in Tennessee when she was just 14. Brock was born on November 4, 1899, in Cullman County to Charles A. and Clementine Brock. The Brocks eventually moved to Lawrence County, Tennessee. Lena Brock's father was a singing-school master.
Speer served overseas during World War I. Returning from France after the war ended, he married Lena on February 27, 1920. The couple settled on a farm outside Double Springs, and during their first year of marriage, they attended singing conventions throughout Alabama and Tennessee and taught music schools to supplement their income from their farm, billing themselves as "vocal instructors" and "evangelistic singers." Their first son, Jackson Brock Speer, who would become the bass singer in the group, was born on December 28, 1920, followed by Rosa Nell (who became the soprano and piano player) in 1922.
G. T. Speer sold the farm to his uncle in 1922 and moved the family to the town of Double Springs, where he decided to pursue music full time. Two other children followed: Mary Tom, who would sing alto, born June 13, 1925, and Ben Lacy, who would sing tenor, born June 23, 1930. The family's first official group was known as the Speer Quartet; it consisted of G. T., Lena, G. T.'s sister Pearl, and her husband, Logan Claborn. As the children matured, they joined the group as well.
With the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, the G. T. Speer Family moved to Lawrenceburg, Tennessee. Speer eked out a living as an insurance salesman and a singing-school teacher, with his singing-school fees generally paid through bartered goods and services. In 1934, Speer took a job with the James D. Vaughan Music Publishing Company of Lawrenceburg and blossomed as a music teacher and songwriter. He co-wrote many of his songs at that time with Adger Pace, who wrote the lyrics for Speer's compositions as well as for many other gospel writers who published songs for the Vaughan Company. G. T. Speer wrote or co-wrote more than 600 songs.
In 1941, G. T. left the Vaughan Company when its founder died. The Speers were invited by another shape-note publisher, the Stamps-Baxter Music Company, to do a 15-minute live gospel radio program on WSFA in Montgomery, Montgomery County, after moving there from Tennessee. The Speers' show became so popular that an afternoon version was soon added to the WSFA schedule. The Singing Speers became one of the most popular gospel groups in Alabama and were sought after to sing at events of all kinds.
During the family's time in Montgomery, Brock Speers enlisted in the Army Air Corps and left the group temporarily when World War II began. After the war, he entered Trevecca Nazarene College in Nashville. The family followed him there from Montgomery and began producing weekday and weekend gospel radio shows on WSIX Radio in Nashville. In 1948, daughter Rosa Nell married Edwin Powell and retired from touring with the family, but she continued to make periodic appearances. Brock Speers married fellow college student Faye Ihrig, who joined the group as an alto when daughter Mary Tom married Robert Reid and left to raise a family.
In the early 1950s, the Speers transitioned from radio to television on Nashville's WLAC Channel 5, where they hosted a popular early morning program. In 1955, the family made its first recording on 78 rpm discs, on the Bullitt label. The Speers recorded with a number of different labels over the years, including Skylite, Columbia, and RCA, eventually producing more than 60 albums spanning 1955 to 2003. In 1964, they became regular performers on Singing Time in Dixie, a popular syndicated gospel show filmed in Atlanta. Three years later, they began to work with their long-time friends the Lefevres, a nationally known gospel singing family from Smithville, Tennessee, on the Gospel Singing Caravan, a nationally syndicated television show out of Atlanta.
In the 1960s, Ann Sanders and Charles Yates were added to the Speer Family Singers, with G. T. and Lena joining in as their health would permit. G. T. Speer died on September 7, 1966, and his wife Lena passed away on October 6, 1967. After Lena Speer's death, Bob and Jeannie Johnson from North Carolina were added to the group. When Ann Sanders left the group, also soon after Lena Speer died, she was replaced by Linda Robinson. Brock and Ben Speer led the group for several decades afterward, working with various singers. Well-known singer, songwriter, and editor Harold Lane became band director after G. T.'s death. The Speer's recording of Lane's best-known composition, "I'm Standing on the Solid Rock," holds the record as the Singing News's longest-running top song. The new line-up of The Singing Speers went on to attain even greater popularity among gospel music fans. After a few years, Linda was replaced by Sue Chenault. A third generation of Speers also was added to the group, with Brock's children Susan and Marc and Ben's son Stephen joining the group.
Ben Speer retired from the group in 1993, and Brock Speer officially retired the Speer Family as a group at the 1998 National Quartet Convention. Ben Speer continues to be involved in the Ben Speer's Stamps-Baxter School of Music, a Southern Gospel singing school.
The Speer Family was inducted into the Gospel Music Association's Hall of Fame in 1998, following individual inductions for
"Dad" Speer (1971); "Mom" Speer (1972); Brock Speer (1975); and Ben Speer (1995). Brock Speer died in 1999. Ben, Mary Tom,
and Rosa Nell still make appearances at singing conventions and have appeared in Gaither Homecoming videos, a series of gospel
concerts with featured guests presented by songwriter and impresario Bill Gaither.
Becker, Paula. Let the Song Go On: Fifty Years of Gospel Singing with the Speer Family. Nashville, Tenn.: Impact Books, 1971.
Alabama Center for Traditional Culture
Published October 18, 2010
Last updated July 3, 2012