Robert Brooke Summerour
Bob Summerour, a psychiatrist in Riverside, California, is also a gifted musician and the guiding and creative force in the Wedgwood Trio, an internationally known male vocal and instrumental ensemble in the Seventh-day Adventist church. An accomplished singer, guitarist, and banjo player, he also composed and arranged numerous works for that group.
Bob was born in San Bernardino, California, the oldest of four children of Brooke Franklin and Edna Arlyn Walker Summerour, and grew up in Dalton, Georgia, where his father practiced medicine. During his earliest years, he frequently visited his father's parents, who lived in Atlanta. His grandmother, Gradye Brooke Summerour, had been one of the first diploma graduates in music from Southern Training School, now Southern Adventist University. She later returned to serve to be its first music teacher with a degree in music.
His father was an anesthesiologist and a cellist and singer who loved classical music so music was an important activity in the home. A natural singer, Bob started trumpet and guitar while very young and later, while a student at Mount Vernon Academy in Ohio made his initial foray into folk music with a banjo he purchased at a pawnshop near the school. He practiced incessantly and by the time he graduated had become an accomplished performer on the instrument and was playing in a folk trio called The Sons of Thunder.
In the summers, Summerour worked at a youth camp in the Southern Union, where he, Jerry Hoyle, and John Waller formed a trio that sang and played their instruments during the evening campfire programs. He and Hoyle, who learned to play string bass at this time, arranged the music, which was then introduced in that setting.
When Summerour and Hoyle, who had become students at Southern Missionary College, now Southern Adventist University, sailed for England in 1964 for a year of study at Newbold College, they planned to continue their musical collaboration as a duo, with Hoyle playing string bass and harmonica. When his father saw Bob was taking his banjo, he was chagrined and expressed his disappointment.
In their second year at SMC, they had become acquainted with Roy Scarr, visiting professor from Newbold College who enjoyed their music and encouraged them to come to NC for a year. He promised if they would come, to obtain a string bass so that they could continue their musical collaboration as a duo.
Don Vollmer, a classmate of Hoyle at MPA and a casual acquaintance of Summerour, learned about the trip from Hoyle and decided at the last minute to join them and other friends he knew. He secretly gained acceptance to the college as a student and traveled to the campus, where he surprised them by showing up shortly after school started. The three men started to sing American folk music and arrangements of spirituals and other religious music to the delight of both students and faculty at the college.
By the end of the first semester, they had started to play off-campus, known as the Shady Grove Singers, a name taken from their opening song at concerts. They began playing at the New Gallery Center, an Adventist evangelistic venue in London, on a regular basis. One of the goals of the center was to present religion in a setting that would attract non-Adventist youth, a strategy facilitated by the trio with its folk music.
One of the programs presented by the center, a variety show called "The Best Saturday Night in Town," became a showplace where the trio, which would engage in humorous repartee and Southern style kidding between numbers, became a highlight. When their stay in England ended, they were given the "New Gallery Personality Award," an acknowledgement of the pivotal role they had played in the center's programs.
The return to the U.S. would have meant an end to the trio unless Vollmer, who had been attending Atlantic Union College, decided to transfer to SMC. Following a summer of extensive travel throughout Europe, all three enrolled at SMC, where they changed their name to The Wedgwood Trio.
Word of their success in England preceded them to the SMC campus, and when they played at the first college program of the year, a hootenanny, they were a hit with the students. By the beginning of the second semester, they were frequently playing off campus at numerous church functions and at events in other Adventist schools. When Hoyle graduated at the end of the year, he took a job at a school in nearby Chattanooga so that the trio could continue.
During the school year they had worked with Jim Hannum, a teacher at SMC, to produce their first record, My Lord, What a Morning. When the next school year started, the trio resumed singing and began selling their record at concerts. Record sales and its being played on religious music radio stations led to increased popularity and more requests to perform.
H.M.S. Richards, Jr., heard them perform while visiting on campus and approached them about singing at evangelistic meetings he was holding in Texas on behalf of the Voice of Prophecy. Their success in that and another series of meetings led Richards to invite them to join with him and Del Delker in the summer of 1967 during their tours to camp meetings on behalf of the VOP.
By the end of that summer, The Wedgwood Trio was nationally known in Adventist circles and hugely popular with young people. The reception accorded the group by older Adventists, however, was mixed.
Some negative reactions were visceral, surfacing more than any other time during their travels with Richards and Delker that summer. After one introductory performance in an evening meeting at a Mid-western camp meeting, Richards was told the trio would not be allowed to perform at the youth meetings the next day. This action, the most extreme that summer, was a blow to the trio as well as Delker and Richards. Both would later talk about how they had enjoyed working with the trio and the positive impact the group had had on the young people that summer during their travels in thirteen states and two provinces in Canada.
Two more additional recordings led to their acceptance into mainstream Adventist music. Bookings for performances had to be done six to nine months in advance, and they were performing in sellout concerts to enthusiastic and appreciative audiences in large, well-known venues such as the Pasadena Civic Auditorium in California.
By the summer of 1969, however, a decline in the size of audiences and a drop in record sales occurred. In mainstream music, edgier sounds in rock music and more sophisticated folk music were emerging as the new rage with young audiences.
With the approach of a new decade, Summerour and Hoyle felt the trio should experiment and incorporate some of these newer trends into their performances. They wanted to use more rhythmic activity, electric keyboards, and amplified string instruments. They also wanted to sing more thought-provoking lyrics about issues developing in the church and society.
Vollmer, however, became increasingly uneasy with these changes. For him, the new approach was a departure from what they had wanted to do when they had started five years earlier. The newer music conveyed a message of anger and rebellion that stood in sharp contrast with the music of hope and affirmation they had been singing.
He was troubled over what he felt would be a compromise of his principles if he continued with the group and after discussing his concerns with the other two, withdrew. It was a troubling development for the trio, the end of an experience that had created extremely close personal bonds and many satisfying memories.
Volmer left the group three weeks before a major concert scheduled at La Sierra College, later University. A cancellation of the contract wasn't possible and since time was of the essence, the two men invited Gary Evans, a senior at Glendale Academy and an accomplished guitarist, to audition.
Although Evans' life experience of growing up in California and his age differed from that of the other two men, musical aspects meshed surprisingly well from the start. Evans became part of a new group called Wedgwood, one that began forging a new identity, a more contemporary sound.
Electric string instruments were added, and Hoyle's acoustic string bass was replaced with an electric one. Electric keyboards were added, played by John Waller, a medical student who had worked with Hoyle and Summerour years earlier at the youth camp. When the transformed group played the concert at LSC previously scheduled for the older trio, some in the audience began leaving during the program. Besides the new sound, the group adopted a more contemporary look that included long hair, a beard, moustaches, and modish clothes.
Although their concerts created some controversy as they performed in different settings, it was a concert at Pacific Union College that became a turning point for them. At the time of the concert, the students responded with increasing enthusiasm as the program progressed and then gave them a rousing ovation at the end.
Shortly after their return home from PUC, however, they received a letter from F.O. Rittenhouse, president of the college. In it, he revealed that although the music department had unanimously urged a cancellation of the scheduled performance prior to their coming, the school had felt it should honor its agreement with them. Rittenhouse concluded his letter by stating that in light of its performance and college standards, the school had decided the group would not be invited back for another appearance on campus.
Additionally, he noted that a copy of his letter was being sent to all of the other Adventist colleges and universities. Rittenhouse's letter, distorted news about the group, and false rumors about supposed drug use resulted in fewer and fewer invitations for concerts.
Wedgwood felt it was speaking to cultural issues with thought-provoking lyrics and finely crafted music suitable for Adventist youth in the 1970s, an era characterized by rebellion against authority and the status quo. Increasing numbers of Adventists began, however, to see them as facilitating turmoil among the church's youth.
They began working on an album titled Dove that would present their most creative work. For a year, they rewrote and rescored some of the songs and had multiple recording sessions, redoing numerous tracks in their quest for perfection.
During that year, they presented a concert at the Loma Linda University Church in September 1972. The concert was recorded and released as a live-concert album. The church was packed and from the start of the concert, the performers, sensing the growing excitement in the crowd, responded with one of the best performances of their lives. A third of the way through the concert, the audience began applauding, an unheard of response in Adventist church sanctuaries at that time.
The euphoria following the obvious success of the program vanished a few days later when the Loma Linda city newspaper panned the concert in a review headlined "Wedgwood: Shall We Dance?" When the album of that concert was released a few weeks later, the university church requested that its name not be mentioned in the jacket liner. Yet another blow followed when the just released Dove album was recalled from Adventist bookstores a month later. The musicians now made moves to begin their post-Wedgwood lives.
Summerour did a residency in psychiatry at Loma Linda University and set up practice in nearby Riverside. Disillusioned by the university concert and what had happened to the Dove recording, a project he had led out in, he put his guitar and banjo in a closet, rarely touching them and then only to try out a tune and lyric that occasionally came to mind.
In 1990, twenty-one years after the original trio had disbanded, Summerour was contacted by Hoyle, who had become a psychologist, with a suggestion that they get together with Vollmer and play for the fun of it. Although Vollmer was hesitant, they and their families met at Hoyle's home, where, following a meal together, they tuned their instruments and began to sing. It was an emotional reunion that started with Down in the Valley and ended with Shall We gather at the River, the song they had used as the ending number at every concert they had given as The Wedgwood Trio.
Inspired by that informal reunion, they agreed that they would perform together again as The Wedgwood Trio, if invited to do so in the future. Two years passed before they received an invitation to play at a reunion concert for a convention of baby boomers in Long Beach, California. The concert ended in a standing ovation, a resounding affirmation of the role they had played in the lives of their audience some two decades earlier.
Still unsure about whether to continue, they accepted an invitation to perform during alumni weekend at Southern Adventist University. Because of the enthusiastic reception they received at this appearance, they made personal and financial commitments to continue as a trio.
By 1995 three years after that first reunion concert, they were giving up to 25 performances a year, many ending in standing ovations. They bought back the rights to their earlier records and in February 1993 released a CD with highlights from recordings done from 1964 to 1969. The success of that collection led to a second CD featuring music done from 1970 to 1973. They have since recorded additional CDs, with sales of the collections and new releases totaling over 50,000 copies.
In 1995 The Wedgwood Trio traveled to Australia, where they sang in camp meetings and at Avondale College to enthusiastic audiences. Two of their more meaningful concerts abroad, however, were performed at alumni weekend at Newbold College in England in the summer of 1995. They took their families along and shared with them nostalgic visits to sites that had had meaning to them as college students.
A week before going to Newbold, they performed at the General Conference Session in the Netherlands. While three decades earlier they had been viewed with alarm by many in the Adventist church, they were now featured at the largest church gathering in history to that point and greeted with applause, after their numbers.
In subsequent years, they have traveled and performed extensively. Dick Walker, a fiddler who has played with them since 1996, recently wrote about that experience, noting particularly the unspoken communication he enjoyed with Summerour during performances:
During our concerts, Bob is the leader. It has gotten to the point where he and I can read each other with eye contact and make adjustments as we are performing, a form of communication I really enjoy. All of us have a good way of pulling together to make things work.
The passage of years and the changes around them in society and the church as well as in each of their lives have forged lifelong friendships. Like the Voice of Prophecy broadcast and Faith for Today telecast, which pioneered new ways in which to do evangelism for those outside the church, The Wedgwood Trio was the first to show a way to reach and keep young people and members with differing tastes in the church.
Summerour recently observed:
Our music was one thing, but our stage style was what really made our group successful. We were able to put people at ease with religious issues. Don was really good at this type of interaction. We had this rhythm where I played the rebellious one, he was the innocent, and Jerry was the peacemaker. These usually secular exchanges, when combined with the music, enabled us to connect with our audiences and enhance our spiritual message.
Sources: This biography is based primarily on interviews conducted by Marilyn Thomsen with members of the Wedgwood Trio, which were then edited and placed in context by her in Wedgwood: Their music, their journey, Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1996; conversations, interviews, and email exchanges by me with Summerour, Hoyle, and Vollmer in March 2009; and "Dick's Forum - No.13,"; California Birth Index.