Singer and bandleader Dr. Bobby Jones is known affectionately as the Ed Sullivan of gospel music. Jones has helped to launch the careers of many gospel stars and his Nashville home is lined with trophies for his contributions to music. But despite the enormous impact he’s had in the gospel music world, Jones hails from humble beginnings.
Growing up in a rural Tennessee farming community, Jones sang with the church choir, but had grander ambitions. He set out for Nashville as soon as he could. There, he taught himself to play piano and worked his way through college by playing in churches. Jones became a teacher and completed a PhD in education, but all the while, he was organizing and recording with gospel groups. In 1976, Jones convinced WSM-TV in Nashville to let him launch a gospel show. He spent years highlighting singers from churches in the region on a shoestring budget.
“I just thought I could do it,” Jones says. “I always wanted to … growing up watching Johnny Carson and all those guys.”
Still, Jones dreamed of taking his show national. In 1980, the bandleader got his chance when he got a call from Robert L. Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television. Though he says at the time he didn’t even know what cable was — “We didn’t have cable in Nashville then” — he knew going on BET would mean more exposure. His Sunday morning show, Bobby Jones Gospel, premiered in January 1980 and quickly became appointment viewing for fans of gospel music.
“Some people was late for church because they wanted to see the show,” gospel singer Regina McCrary remembers. “It’s hard to get dressed and watch TV at the same time … you can’t go in the bathroom and do what you need to do ’cause you start watching Dr. Bobby Jones.”
Pastors with tardy churchgoers may have griped, but gospel record labels saw Jones’s show as a way to get budding artists in the spotlight. The exposure Bobby Jones Gospel provided was especially important to cutting-edge artists like Yolanda Adams, who was blending gospel with smooth jazz and contemporary R&B.
“He didn’t just, I guess, give me the platform. He also validated what I was doing,” Adams says. “He never said, ‘You need to change your look.’ He never said, ‘You need to calm your jazz stuff down,’ because no one was doing that at the time.”