A Story about the Briarcliff Hotel
What do The Briarcliff Hotel, Hovie Lister, and Lloyd Preacher have in common?
G. Lloyd Preacher was an Atlanta architect who designed the Henry Grady Hotel (now demolished), Atlanta’s Art Deco Neo Gothic City Hall, the Medical Arts Building, present-day Inman Middle School, and “Rainbow Terrace” — a Mediterranean-style Druid Hills mansion – for Asa Candler’s daughter Lucy. He also designed his own home, a Neo-Spanish Villa, across from Rainbow Terrace on South Ponce de Leon Avenue.
In 1925, Lloyd Preacher drew plans for an H-shaped red brick apartment building, known as “The 750” for its address on Ponce de Leon, for Asa G. “Buddie” Candler, Jr. Later, The 750 became a 400-room hotel and still later a retirement home called Briarcliff Summit. The 750 featured a two-story cast-in-place concrete base and its top floor was stuccoed with terra cotta detailing. Buddie Candler lived and worked in the building, having moved into the nine-room penthouse after selling his mansion at Briarcliff Farm (now owned by Emory University).
Atlanta musician and Baptist preacher Hovie Lister was born in 1926. He formed his band, The Statesmen Quartet, in 1948. The name derived from a newsletter sent out by then-Governor Herman Talmadge called The Statesmen. Along with the Blackwood Brothers, The Statesmen Quartet is considered the most successful and influential gospel quartet of the 1950s and 1960s.
A pianist with a flair for entertaining crowds, Lister learned that Atlanta radio station WCON planned to open a prime-time slot for a gospel singing group, and he hand-picked the best singers to form his quartet. Subsequently, the group went national and became the first Southern gospel quartet with its own television program, “Singing Time in Dixie” (sponsored by Nabisco). The quartet recorded hundreds of songs for Capitol Records, RCA Victor, Skylite, Chime, Artistic, and Temple. They also owned four gospel music publishing companies.
As successful recording artists, the Statesmen toured throughout the United States. In 1955, the quartet traveled to Texas for a performance that also featured several secular acts, including Elvis Presley, who sang gospel rather than his usual rock and roll songs out of respect for his gospel idols – none other than the Statesmen. When Elvis was only nine or ten, he had seen the group perform in his home town of Tupelo, Mississippi. Later, Elvis imitated some of the Statesmen’s vocal stylings and leg shaking. As early as 1950, the Statesmen used the term “Rockin’ and rollin’” in a gospel song. Hovie Lister’s boogie-woogie piano, piano bench acrobatics, and wild head and body shaking preceded Jerry Lee Lewis’s antics by five years or more. Other members of the group demonstrated exuberant singing, arm waving, hand clapping, and dance steps. Since such things were not usually seen in gospel music, the quartet attracted a large following and other groups began to imitate their style. Gospel star Bill Gaither wrote of Lister that he was “bouncing all over the piano stool and pulling at his pant legs, revealing his trademark red socks, when his fingers weren’t flying up and down the keyboard.”
During the 1950s and 1960s, The Statesmen Quartet had offices at the aforementioned Briarcliff Hotel, located at 750 Ponce de Leon Avenue. Hovie Lister and his wife, Ethel, even lived at the Briarcliff for a number of years. The quartet’s business manager and its tenor became partners in another venture at the Briarcliff when they opened the King & Prince Restaurant, an upscale restaurant that offered a bountiful Sunday buffet. The Druid Hills Baptist Church, across from the Briarcliff Hotel, started letting their members out fifteen minutes early on Sundays so they could get in line first for the buffet. Lister was a deacon at the church at the time and later became pastor of the Mount Zion Baptist Church in Cobb County.
Hovie Lister was added to the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1984; The Statesmen were induced in 1998—the first year groups were eligible. The Georgia Music Hall of Fame honored Lister with membership in 1986. The three men mentioned in this article – Hovie Lister, Lloyd Preacher, and Asa Candler, Jr. – were all members of Druid Hills Golf Club.
Hovie Lister died in 2001 at the age of 75. His funeral was held at the Druid Hills Baptist Church. He is buried at Decatur City Cemetery.
Former Georgia Governor Zell Miller recalled that Lister’s “sense of style and flair for showmanship gave his music class and chic.” For a glimpse of the Statesmen Quartet in action, search for “Hovie Lister and the Statesmen Quartet” on YouTube. In the old black-and-white footage, you can see Lister at the piano and hear the group singing exuberantly. It’s easy to see why they were so popular.
Contributed by Jennifer J. Richardson.