In January 2014, I decided to write an article about Homer Rodeheaver, the trombone-playing song leader for evangelist William “Billy” Sunday in the first third of the twentieth century. I first learned of Rodeheaver a few years earlier when I visited the Billy Graham Museum on the campus of Wheaton College, Illinois, and saw a near life-size cardboard cutout of him with a trombone in one hand and a songbook in the other. The cutout was of the image of Rodeheaver below. What? Who was this? I had never heard of him and I needed to know more. It wasn’t long before I learned that Rodeheaver (one of the first things I learned was that he pronounced his name “ROW-duh-hay-vehr”) played the trombone for over 100 million people in his lifetime. That’s a lot of people. Did anyone play trombone for more people? Maybe Arthur Pryor? Maybe? I thought his story might be interesting. It didn’t take long for Rodeheaver’s interesting story to change my life.
Above: Homer Rodeheaver promotional postcard.
Several things flowed from what became an obsession to learn more about Homer Rodeheaver. The first was that I met Kevin Mungons, a Chicago-area editor and writer who had also been researching Rodeheaver. We were introduced by Margaret Banks, a curator at the National Music Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota, when I reached out to her with some questions about Rodeheaver’s endorsements for Conn trombones. Peggy told me that Kevin had been asking her some of the same questions a few years earlier. So it was natural for me to contact him and ask him some questions. We immediately became good friends (it didn’t hurt that Kevin also plays trombone).
Secondly, Kevin was very happy to help me as I worked on my article about Rodeheaver which, once completed, was published in the 2015 Historic Brass Society Journal. Click HERE to read and download that article.
Above: Billy Sunday and Homer Rodeheaver, 1917. Courtesy of Morgan Library, Grace College, Winona Lake, Indiana.
And, thirdly, as Kevin and I continued talking about Rodeheaver, we decided that two heads were better than one, and that it might be a good idea—and fun—for us to collaborate and, together, write a book about Rodeheaver. Once we had committed to the idea, we did a deep dive into Rodeheaver’s life and work. Because Kevin was living in the Chicago area and I was living in Arizona at the time (my wife and I moved to the Chicago area in 2018 so we could live closer to our grandchildren), we collaborated mostly through phone and email. But we did meet up a few times, both in the Billy Graham Center Archives at Wheaton College, and in Winona Lake Indiana, where Grace College and the Winona History Center have a remarkable archive of documents, photographs, and ephemera relating to Billy Sunday and Homer Rodeheaver. During our research trip to Winona Lake, I played Rodeheaver’s Conn trombone (below). Of course, I played “Brighten the Corner Where You Are,” which was one of Rodeheaver’s signature tunes (he also owned the copyright to the song, and the big money was, as Rodeheaver knew, in copyrights).
Above: Douglas Yeo playing Homer Rodeheaver’s Conn trombone, 2014, Winona History Center, Winona Lake, Indiana.
Homer Rodeheaver was not only a trombonist, and not only the song leader for Billy Sunday for 20 years, but he established the first gospel music record label (Rainbow Records), established what was, for many decades, the largest publisher of Christian hymnals, songbooks, and other music (Rodeheaver Music Co., later Rodeheaver-Hall Mack Co.), was a driving force behind the popularization of African American spirituals, and had an influence on church and community singing that is still felt today. The subject of daily front page news and feature stories and celebrity gossip, nobody during his lifetime (1880–1955) had to ask, “Who is Homer Rodeheaver?” But for people today, Homer Rodeheaver is the most famous person you never heard of. Until now.
Last week, after seven years of writing and research (not including the many years before we met when Kevin was also researching Rodeheaver), the submission of our book manuscript to University of Illinois Press, several rounds of peer review, even more rounds of rewriting and editing, our book, Homer Rodeheaver and the Rise of the Gospel Music Industry came to market. It is published as part of UIP’s Music in American Life series of books. On Saturday, I held it in my hands for the first time.
Rodeheaver’s story is a rich story about music, publishing, Chicago, the Civil War, Jim Crow, race, the Ku Klux Klan, the perks and perils of being a celebrity, churches, money, religious devotion, Christian evangelism, community singing, marketing, airplanes, speedboats, philanthropy, Billy Graham and Cliff Barrows and George Beverly Shea, and the trombone. Lots of trombones. And that’s just the tip of Rodeheaver’s very large iceberg.
The back cover of the book features two reviews. Here’s what Robert Marovich, author of A City Called Heaven: Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music, says:
Kevin Mungons and Douglas Yeo’s biography of Homer Rodeheaver brightens an important corner of gospel music history that has gone unexplored for far too long. What they reveal in their remarkable portrait of “Reverend Trombone” is a man both of his time and ahead of his time. It’s more than a tale of the emergence of gospel singing and revivalism, it’s a quintessentially American story about a quintessential American.
And Harold Best, emeritus professor of music and Dean emeritus of Wheaton College Conservatory of Music, past president of the National Association of Schools of Music, and author of Music Through the Eyes of Faith, wrote:
I am truly taken by the book. It is good, informative, comprehensive, and free of the usual assortment of clichés, academic hems and haws, and over-spiritualization. It takes the often over-simplified view of music and revivalism and exposes it to a fascinating cross-weave of thought, content, and context which, to my embarrassment, I thought I had already had a handle on. I recommend it without reservation. There is no doubt in my mind that general readers and specialists alike will benefit from reading this book.
If what you’ve read so far piques your interest, then, as the late night television pitchman says, “Do I have a deal for you!” Right now, University of Illinois Press is offering a 30% discount on the book, both the softcover and the hardcover editions. If course, you can pay full price if you’d like; just go to the book’s page on amazon.com. But if you’d be interested in paying less, click HERE go to the book’s page on the University of Illinois Press website and enter this promo code:
If you’d like to tell your friends about the book, click HERE to view and download a one page promotional PDF that has full information about the book and the same 30% off discount code.
After seven years of delving into every aspect of Homer Rodeheaver’s life, I still find his story to be interesting, informative, inspirational, challenging, and thought-provoking. I hope you, too, will enjoy the story of the man who called himself, “Reverend Trombone.”
Above: Homer Rodeheaver leading singing, 1950s.