Cliff Barrows (1923-2016): A man of song. And the trombone.

Cliff Barrows (1923-2016): A man of song. And the trombone.

Clifford “Cliff” Barrows, long-time song leader for evangelist Billy Graham, died yesterday at the age of 93. He was part of a trio – along with Graham and singer George Beverly Shea – who defined large-scale Christian evangelism in the second half of the twentieth century. Graham, Shea and Barrows preached, sang and led singing before millions of people since they first worked together in 1946. The photo above shows Cliff Barrows leading singing at the 1946 Youth for Christ meeting in Seattle, Washington.

The newspapers today are full of tributes to Cliff Barrows and a good summary of his life and career is found in his obituary in the Charlotte (North Carolina) Observer. This was a Godly man who changed lives in many ways and he is more than deserving of all of the warm remembrances that are being written about him today.

But several years ago, I learned about a side of Cliff Barrows that most people had either not ever known about or had long forgotten: he played the trombone.

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I first learned that Cliff Barrows played trombone while touring the Billy Graham Center Museum at my undergraduate alma mater, Wheaton College (Illinois). As I came around a corner, I saw photographs of two men that were holding trombones: Homer Rodeheaver (I had never heard of him before) and Cliff Barrows (I didn’t know he had played trombone). I learned quickly that Rodeheaver was the trombone-playing song leader for evangelist Billy Sunday in the first third of the 20th century. And this realization – that the two most influential Christian evangelists of the 20th century were both named “Billy” and both had song leaders that played the trombone  – sent me running to learn more.

I turned my attention to Rodeheaver, a man who was a household name for decades but today has been largely forgotten. Here was a man who played the trombone for over 100 million people; his tremendous influence as a trombonist is incalculable. “Surely,” I thought, “there must be a story in all of this.” And indeed there was. It first led to my writing an article, “Homer Rodeheaver: Reverend Trombone” that was published in the Historic Brass Society Journal earlier this year. And, happily, it has now led to my co-authoring a book about Rodeheaver for University of Illinois Press with my friend, Kevin Mungons. We are, at this moment, deep into the process of writing the book and when it appears in a few years, it will be accompanied by a two-CD set of recordings of Rodeheaver singing, speaking and playing trombone. More on this in time! But while doing research about Rodeheaver at the Billy Graham Center Archives and at Grace College in Winona Lake, Indiana (where Billy Sunday and Rodeheaver had their homes and archives for both Sunday and Rodeheaver are found) and the Winona History Center, photos of Cliff Barrows kept popping up. I needed to know more.

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As I researched Cliff Barrows, I learned that he had played trombone while growing up in Ceres, California. With his first wife, Billie (shown above, with Cliff Barrows and Billy Graham around 1946), Barrows worked with evangelist Jack Shuler. The Statesville (North Carolina) Record & Landmark newspaper had this to say about Cliff Barrows at one of Shuler’s meetings in an article from June 26, 1945:

The Barrows’ specialize in piano and trombone arrangements, and their duets and solos have made them friends of everyone who has attended their performances. It was ventured by one who attended the great Billy Sunday campaigns that Mr. Barrows is the equal of Homer Rodeheaver, song leader for the late evangelist, so skillfully does he lead the large crowds in congregational singing of hymns and choruses. Billie Barrows, who, by the way, has been Cliff’s wife for just 13 days, has thrilled young and old with her renditions of favorite songs at the piano.

The mentioning of Cliff Barrows in the same sentence with Homer Rodeheaver was no accident. On April 1, 2014, I interviewed Cliff Barrows and he spoke about Rodeheaver’s influence on his life and ministry:

Homer Rodeheaver  was a most wonderful man. He had a way of using a crowd to prepare them for Billy [Sunday] and Billy would get anxious; he’d want to get up and start to preach and Homer would turn around and say, “They ain’t ready yet.” So he’d pick up his trombone and say, “This is a Methodist trombone, it slips and slides all over the place.” . . . I never met a more gracious man. We had him come to every [Billy Graham] Crusade when he was alive until he died in 1955 and I went to his funeral. They asked me to stand by his casket at the piano at [his home at] Rainbow Point [in Winona Lake, Indiana] and lead some of his favorite songs. And I did. I led “Beyond the sunset, O blissful morning…”

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Unfortunately, there are no known recordings of Cliff Barrows playing the trombone. But there is a brief moment where he is seen on film with the trombone in his hands. The screenshot above is from a video of Cliff Barrows playing the trombone at the 1949 Christ for Greater Los Angeles Billy Graham Crusade. You’ll find the footage of Barrows at around 5:00 in the video (click on the link in the text above to view the complete film).

In my conversation with Cliff Barrows, his affection for the trombone was palpable. By that time, he had not played the trombone in many years. After the 1953 London Billy Graham Crusade, Graham and Barrows began making changes in their manner of presenting the Christian Gospel, creating their own style after having been compared so frequently to Sunday and Rodeheaver. By 1957, he had put the trombone down. Still, during our interview, he told me that he was holding a trombone in his lap that had been given to him by the 1950 Atlanta Billy Graham Crusade Choir, on which was inscribed the verse from Psalm 98:1: Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things; his right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him. As we spoke at that moment, Cliff Barrows was nearly blind and near the end of his life, yet when we talked about the trombone, he wanted it in his hands. Of Rodeheaver and the trombone, Cliff Barrows said, “Well, they are two of my best friends.”

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Cliff Barrows, like Homer Rodeheaver before him, found that the trombone was an effective tool in leading song for large groups of people. The photo above, from the 1946-1947 Youth for Christ meetings in England, show the young Billie Barrows, Billy Graham and Cliff Barrows standing out with their exuberant, youthful energy. In our interview, Cliff Barrows talked about how he used the trombone to lead singing:

I would play with the choir and bring the downbeat with my horn and when I would hold a long note, I’d hold it out with them and the horn was just a part of me. I felt so natural with it hanging on my arm.

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Of all of the photographs I have seen of Cliff Barrows, it is the one above, taken at the 1954 Billy Graham Crusade at the Olympic Stadium in Helsinki, Finland, that I like the best. Look at the tens of thousands of people sitting in the stadium. The infield is empty. And on the platform is Cliff Barrows, playing his trombone accompanied by an upright piano (see the enlargement, below). Two people playing a hymn tune. They are minuscule and nearly lost in the enormity of the crowd. But when a trombone was in his hand, Cliff Barrows knew how to make it sing.

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When my interview with Cliff Barrows was drawing to a close, I thanked him for his time and insights. But this humble man turned it around on me, and said,

You’re welcome, Brother Yeo. God bless you brother. Thank you for letting me visit with you.

And with that, two trombone players named Cliff Barrows and Douglas Yeo hung up the phone. Today, as I reflect on the life and ministry of Cliff Barrows, I am so grateful my life intersected with his for a brief moment, where our shared love of Jesus Christ, music and the trombone came together. It was Homer Rodeheaver who led me to Cliff Barrows, the same Homer Rodeheaver who was such an encouragement when Cliff Barrows was just beginning his ministry with Billy Graham. And like Rodeheaver, shown below with Billy Sunday (in a white suit standing behind Rodeheaver) at Winona Lake, Indiana in 1931, Cliff Barrows used the trombone as a tool for leading singing and for bringing the Good News of Jesus Christ to millions of people. It’s something I’ll be doing this Sunday when, with my wife at the piano, I pick up my trombone and play the great song by George Beverly Shea and Rhea Miller, I’d Rather Have Jesus Than Silver or Gold as the offertory in our church’s Sunday morning service. At that moment, I certainly will be thanking God for the life, ministry and influence of Cliff Barrows, a man of song. And the trombone.

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[With thanks to the Billy Graham Center Archives and Winona History Center and Grace College for the photos that accompany this post.]