by Jay Hardwig
photograph by Austin American-Statesman
It was 1921 when a young barrelhouse piano player by the name of Georgia Tom stopped in at the National Baptist Convention in his hometown of Chicago. Thomas A. Dorsey, the father of gospel music, was flush in the middle of what he would later call his sinful days. "At that time," he wrote, "I was a jazz musician playing in wine rooms and buffet flats up and down State Street."
By chance or providence, Dorsey heard a "Professor Nix" lead the convention congregation in an old black spiritual, "I Do, Don't You," and was struck by the song's simple power. While he had dabbled in spirituals before, Dorsey later recalled that song as the moment of his conversion, and over the next decade he forged modern gospel music from the sounds of southside Chicago, mixing spiritual and jubilee songs of African-American religious tradition with elements of blues and jazz from the State Street speakeasies. It took him 11 more years before he gave up jazz entirely -- recording with Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Tampa Red in the interval -- but by 1932, when he wrote his signature tune, "Precious Lord, Take My Hand," Dorsey and the gospel music he created were well on their way to national prominence.
Animated by the raw energy of such early genre stars as Sallie Martin, Mother Willie Mae Ford Smith, and Mahalia Jackson, black spiritual music moved out of the church and onto the road and radio, settling most thickly in the American South where gospel quartets reigned supreme. Suave, golden-throated, steeped in harmony, these quartets sang with minimal backing, often with no backing at all. Most famous were the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Soul Stirrers, and the Swan Silvertones, but it was the Fairfield Four that changed Elmer Akins' life.
On a clear day in the Forties, Austin residents could pick up the feed from WLAC out of Nashville on their AM dial, and if they tuned in at the right time, they could hear the a cappella stylings of the Fairfield Four live from the station's studios. Elmer Akins tuned in regularly -- religiously, you might say -- once in the morning and once at night, to listen to Samuel McCrary and his grand quartet. He liked what he heard so much that he made it his life's work.
Akins' devotion was a blessing for his hometown. For over 50 years, he served as the soul and spirit of Austin's gospel community, a prominent disc jockey, promoter, and founder of the Austin Quartet Association. He spent 51 years as host of KVET-AM's Sunday morning Gospel Train program, a feat that distinguished him as the longest-running radio host in the country -- and over time built Akins a reputation for honesty, humility, and kindness that outstripped even his landmark achievements on the airwaves.
Elmer Akins died on December 9, 1998, but not before achieving the status of living legend. He was celebrated citywide for his contributions to Austin's music community and hailed as a bridge not only between two eras, but between two cultures as well.
"Every announcer throughout this city, and throughout the state of Texas, is greatly indebted to Elmer Akins," says Bill "the Mailman" Martin, a close friend of Akins' and heir apparent to his gospel crown. "There's always a Jackie Robinson to pave the way for somebody, and Elmer Akins has paved the way for everybody to go. Please believe me."
Born March 10, 1911, the fifth child of sharecroppers Hattie and Jim Akins, Elmer spent his early years in Pilot Knob, a small farming community in southeast Travis county. The family later moved to Hornsby's Bend in the Webberville area, and eventually Elmer -- "Dale," as they called him -- was sent to live with an uncle in Austin, where he would be closer to school. Little Dale had quite a taste for baseball, although he was never as good as his brother Walter, or his cousin Woody Dukes, who rivaled hall-of-famer Willie Wells as the best ballplayer in town.
When not shagging flies, Akins went to Austin's Gregory School (now Blackshear Elementary), an all-black primary school on East 11th Street. His formal education ended after elementary school, and in the mid-Twenties he moved back to the country to try his hand at cotton farming. He endured several years of bad crops and low prices before throwing in the towel. "I had 10 acres in 1929," he said with characteristic frankness in a 1989 interview, "and I made one bale of cotton. So that was time to leave the farm."
Done with King Cotton, Akins moved back to Austin and worked a series of jobs, including 10 years as a porter, janitor, and shoeshine outside of the old Varsity Theater on Guadalupe. In 1931, he married Mattie Lee Watson, and they remained husband and wife until her death in 1995. Their first house was an old toolhouse that had once stood on the Varsity site; Akins bought it off a construction crew, hauled it over to Chestnut Avenue, and proceeded to make a home of it for the next 12 years. He left the Drag in 1942 to take a job with the Texas Supreme Court, where he worked as a janitor and clerk for 34 years before retiring in 1976.
It was in the early Forties that Elmer Akins first fell in love with the Fairfield Four, and by 1947 he was on the air at KVET, an upstart radio station run by Jake Pickle and John Connally, whom Akins had met during his time at the Varsity. Akins approached Pickle about getting a gospel show on KVET, the story goes, and Pickle, whose association with Akins had continued on the grounds of the Capitol, agreed to give him a slot on an upcoming Sunday. Akins demurred -- he was hoping to get a year -- and Pickle countered with an offer of 12 weeks. "Those 12 weeks haven't run out yet," says Akins' longtime friend and KVET colleague Bob Cole.
Akins wasn't interested in charity, and he insisted on paying for his time. Fifteen minutes was all he could afford; Akins later recalled that his quarter-hour of time cost him $12.50, and he paid for it by reading advertisements on the air. His sponsors were black-owned businesses in East Austin, whose proprietors were happy for a media outlet that reached their clientele. Among his regular advertisers were the Southern Dinette, Murray Owens' Garage, B.L. Howard's Barbeque, Fuller-Sheffield Funeral Service, Marshall's Barbershop, and White's Barbershop. For most of his life, Akins made it a point to pick up the payments personally, making the rounds of his advertisers on Saturday afternoons.
While KVET was not Akins' first radio gig - he and his own group the Royal Gospel Quartet had appeared on KNOW as early as 1945 -- the association lasted 51 years (the show expanding to an hour-and-a-half), ending only in the months before his death. (Akins co-hort Robert Chambers took over the program, which still airs on Sunday mornings on KVET-AM.)
The Royal Gospel Singers, 1945:
Akins stands fourth from left
Akins began each show with his theme song, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," and a recitation of Psalm 100: "Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands. Serve the Lord with gladness. Come before his presence with singing." Akins was committed to classic gospel, preferring quartets to choirs and disdaining contemporary gospel altogether. He just liked the old-time sound, says Bill Martin: "He was stone quartet."
Akins spent a good part of his program reading announcements and church bulletins, a service that was indispensable to his audience. Akins quickly became known as the source for information in the black gospel community; if Elmer said it, you knew it to be true.
"He was the eyes, ears, and everything for the black community, as far as the churches were concerned," recalls Martin. "If anybody was having a choir annual, mission program, pastor's anniversary, or if anyone died, they had to tune in to Elmer Akins to get the information. If anything happened, you either asked Elmer Akins or called Elmer Akins or listened to Elmer Akins and The Gospel Train."
That he was on the air at all was something of a feat. If Akins was bold to request time on KVET in 1947, KVET was equally bold in granting it in a town whose government, media, and culture were all sharply segregated."KVET was progressive," offers Charles Akins, Elmer's only son and currently associate superintendent at AISD, "and I want to give them their due."
In addition to The Gospel Train, KVET held a slot for the legendary black broadcaster Dr. Hepcat (aka Lavada Durst), who trucked in R&B and remained a friend of Akins' throughout his life. But as impressive as Akins' integration of the Austin airwaves was, his staying power was even more so: He kept his Sunday morning slot even after KVET abandoned block programming, surviving format changes from country to news and talk to all-sports in the process. Even when Akins' audience dwindled, as it did in his later years, KVET remained committed to keeping The Gospel Train on the air.
"That was a no-brainer," says Cole, who sits in on the station's programming meetings. "That his program would be on the air was a decision that was made in 1947. Nobody with the sense God gave a hummingbird would have gone against that."
For what audience remained, Akins' show was a touch of the old familiar. He often spoke of the joy he got knowing that his program was played in nursing homes and convalescent centers around the city, giving solace to shut-ins who weren't well enough to attend church services. "If I couldn't move those ladies in the rest homes," he said, "I wouldn't be doing my job."
"If somebody was sick [or] if somebody had lost a loved one and he cheered one person up," Martin says, "or if the fact that he played a record and somebody heard that record and got saved, hey, that was his self-satisfaction."
"As long as I made one person happy," Akins said of The Gospel Train, "I did my job."
While Elmer Akins' city-wide reputation was built on the gentle, high-pitched voice that announced The Gospel Train, in East Austin his face was familiar as well. Akins was a tireless gospel promoter who could often be seen tacking up posters on the telephone poles, encouraging the community to come out and see his latest show. And there were plenty of shows from which to choose: Akins and his sidekick Martin brought hundreds of touring gospel groups to town, including national stars Clara Ward, Mahalia Jackson, James Cleveland, Joe May, Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers, Inez Andrews, the Jackson Southernaires, the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, the Fairfield Four, Shirley Cesar, Cleophus Robinson, Julius Cheeks, and the Mighty Clouds of Joy.
Tickets were $1, at least in the early years, and Akins and Martin sold them out of barber shops and barbecue joints, even out of their own homes if someone came calling. Many of the shows played to standing-room-only crowds at Doris Miller Auditorium on Rosewood Avenue. "You couldn't even get in there, there'd be so many people," Martin recalls. "The program would start at 7pm, and people would start getting there at five to get good seats."
Of course they had probably heard about the show on The Gospel Train. Akins regularly hosted touring acts on his program, never missing a chance to put in a plug for an upcoming show. Not that The Gospel Train was the only way to get the news: Akins pasted posters and fliers all over the Eastside, sometimes swapping a couple of tickets for prime space on a storefront window. Occasionally Akins would undertake a little old-fashioned barnstorming, renting a bullhorn and sticking it on top of his car.
"We'd ride all over the Eastside," recalls Martin, who served as driver on most of Akins' campaigns. "Big gospel concert coming! Don't forget to come out for the Mighty Clouds of Joy!"
When they reached a crowded corner, Martin would pull to the side of the road and Akins would play a few songs by the featured act, their gospel harmonies spilling from loudspeakers and drifting over the streets of East Austin.
The standard promotional arrangement was a 70/30 split: After deducting money for expenses, Akins would give the group 70% of the take and keep 30 for himself. He may have lacked formal training, but Charles Akins remembers his father as an astute businessman, conscientious about receipts and record-keeping, a generous fellow but nobody's fool. He was careful with money, and he made a profit more often than not. "He made a pocketful," Martin recalls. "He said he made enough money to buy two houses."
When asked the secret of promoting, Akins once replied, "It takes dedication, it takes time, it takes patience, and above all it takes money." Still, his colleagues say, he was motivated more by spreading the music he loved rather than by the opportunity to make a few dollars. More than once, he gave up his share of the take, giving all of the ticket money to a touring group that had fallen on hard times. "We live in this city," Akins would explain. "We've got a home to go to. They got to get on to the next city."
The next city was often Houston, Dallas, or New Orleans; like their contemporaries on the R&B "Chitlin' Circuit," black gospel groups traveled from city to city in the South, often piled into old, beat-up sedans and just trying to net enough gas money to make the next show. Money was generally tight, so if the groups had time, Akins would drive them out to perform "Open Doors" in the smaller towns surrounding Austin -- Seguin, Elgin, Temple, Waco. Admission to the Open Doors was free, and the groups were paid whatever got thrown into the hat. It often wasn't much, but sometimes it was the difference between a good meal and a thin one, or a good night's rest in a boarding house rather than a fitful night in the back of a car.
Widely known for bringing in touring acts, Akins was committed to the hometown scene as well, organizing the Austin Quartet Association to promote local gospel music. The Quartet Association's musical programs, held every third Sunday in local churches, became a popular showcase of area talent. Too popular, in fact; at one point, a group of local preachers asked Akins to move the shows from Sundays because they feared he was pulling too many regulars from their pews. Akins obliged, switching the programs to Friday nights. They came anyway.
In between his time as a radio announcer and concert promoter, Akins was an active member of the David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church and founding member of Austin's Christian Relief Board, a mutual aid society designed to help families with funeral expenses. He was feted yearly during his anniversary programs, week-long events in the local churches celebrating his tenure on KVET, and in 1975, he even got his own day as Mayor Roy Butler declared Elmer Akins Day in Austin. (In newspaper coverage of the event, Elmer claimed to be the first black anywhere in the South to have his own day.) In later years, Akins added an ACTV Gospel Train television program to his schedule. Then there was his day job at the Texas Supreme Court, a post he filled with duty and distinction for 34 years. It is safe to say that Elmer Akins was a busy man.
Sundays, recalls Charles Akins, were the busiest. His father was up at 5am to prepare for his radio show, which ran 9-10:30am. As soon as the show ended, it was time for church: Elmer Akins was famously short with people who tried to chat him up on his way out the station door. He'd pick up Mattie Lee and run her to Wesley United before going to services at his own church, David Chapel. After church, he'd come home for dinner, and maybe catch a catnap or the last half of a football game ("He liked the Cowboys," Charles confides). Before too long, he was up again, gone to host a program for the Quartet Association or perhaps a traveling show. It was the same story, more or less, for better than 50 years.
What kept Elmer Akins going? Part of it, according to his son Charles, was simply resolve. For instance, the elder Akins never wavered from the strict diet his doctors urged upon him in the Sixties to combat frequent ulcers, disdaining chili beans and enchiladas to stick with his prescribed standards: veal or rockfish, spinach, carrots, and potatoes. Dessert was plain cake with Jell-O, no matter how good the banana pudding or sweet potato pie looked. Later in his life, Akins' doctors told him that the medical approach to ulcers had changed, that he could control the problem with medication and eat what he wanted. Akins stuck by his diet. "I admired his discipline and routine," Charles Akins says, although he shakes his head a little bit perhaps wondering at the wisdom of that brand of self-denial that forbids sweet potato pie.
Akins' discipline was also reflected in his dress: Although he grew up with scarcely a change of clothes, he became known in his adult life for his sartorial splendor. In almost every picture of Elmer Akins, he looks dapper, sophisticated, sharp-dressed. He was no stranger to a well-tailored suit.
"He always wore a tie," Charles recalls. "I didn't see him without his tie except maybe around the house a little bit. But if he was gonna go to the grocery store, he was gonna have a tie on. Surely to the bank. He thought you ought to look like a good citizen if you were gonna be a good citizen."
Akins was a stickler for time, often complaining about guests who showed up late for his show. If they made such a gaffe, they were sure to hear about it.
"He had to give them a little lesson about that," Charles recalls, chuckling. "And then he would give them a little lesson about their appearance. He wanted them to look good. I think at first some may have resented that, but after awhile, they began to agree with him."
Elmer Akins, it seems, was nothing if not direct.
"He wouldn't bite his tongue," Martin remembers. "If you did something wrong, whether you liked it or not, he was going to tell you. He didn't have no qualms about it."
"He never talked bad about anybody yet had the ability to tell you exactly what he thought," says Bob Cole, agreeing with Martin's assessment. "You always knew exactly what he thought or where he stood, but he was never rude."
Cole adds that his self-discipline and his frank manner came from a common source: his love for gospel music.
"Here was a guy who was so passionate about what he did -- bringing gospel music to the radio -- yet so polite and calm. When I'm passionate, I could probably be accused of being loud and forward and obnoxious. Yet Elmer was kind and quiet and humble. They're almost characteristics that are at odds with each other, yet they both existed in him so perfectly."
What sustained Akins, then, was not just his discipline, but his passion for his work.
"If you would just mention gospel music, his face would light up like the Fourth of July," says Martin. "He just loved gospel music. He was a religious man, he was a Christian man, he believed in God. He could play some songs, and he would actually cry. Tears would come out of his eyes because of the message."
During one point in the Elmer Akins: Radio Man television documentary, someone puts on a bit of Brother Joe May; Akins stops and listens, and the emotion of the song overwhelms him. He leans back and smiles, rocking on the edge of bliss. It was that bliss that kept him going. "If you're not really sincere and dedicated in what you're doing," Akins said in a 1987 interview, "you're as well to walk on off [and let somebody else] do it."
Elmer Akins hosted The Gospel Train so long, that by the end of his life, hobbled by age, a broken hip, and a series of strokes, he had to be helped from his chair and out of the studio, pausing to rest more than once. He quit broadcasting six months before he died.
While things got decidedly more difficult for Elmer Akins in the last years of his life, those years also saw some of his proudest achievements. Difficulty came first: In 1995, after 64 years of marriage, his wife Mattie Lee died. Elmer was devastated, according to those close to him, but he endured, maintaining his contacts and keeping The Gospel Train running. He lived alone for a year after Mattie Lee's death, says Charles Akins, until one Saturday morning when he called to say he didn't feel too good. He was admitted to the hospital the following Monday and diagnosed with internal bleeding. A series of blood transfusions followed, but during recovery a blood clot caused his leg to swell, extending his stay and weakening his leg. He began to use a walker upon his release, and occasionally a wheelchair.
The walker didn't keep him from his show, however, and in February of 1997, he celebrated his 50th anniversary on the air with a celebration at Bass Concert Hall on the campus of the University of Texas. "I never thought I'd be doing a program 50 years," Akins said at the time. "But it just got me and wouldn't let go and the years passed by."
Akins and Bill "The Mailman" Martin at the Bass Concert Hall concert celebrating Akin's 50th anniversary on the air
photograph by Jon Young
Some 2,300 people came out to honor Akins and listen to the music that wouldn't let him go. The crowd was a mix of East and West Austin, befitting a man who had done much to bridge Austin's cultural divide. Although frail, Akins made a point of walking out to address the crowd, a little slow to the podium but dapper as always. He gave a short speech thanking those who had supported him, then sat back to listen to what he loved best: a gospel show. The Mighty Clouds of Joy, long Akins' personal favorites, headlined the night.
"We talked about that for the next two years of his life," says Charles Akins. "It was just great for him and my family. We had never had anything that big happen to us."
He pauses at the memory.
"I think that added another two years to his life."
Not long after the anniversary, Akins fell in the restroom while at church and broke his hip. In due time Akins was up and at 'em, returning to KVET to do his show, first in a wheelchair, and later climbing the imposing steps inside the KVET studio with help from his son. Six months later, he became ill again, and this time his doctor informed the family that Akins had suffered a series of strokes. He was again admitted to the hospital, and this time he hung up his headset, officially retiring from The Gospel Train after 51 years of broadcasting. Upon his release, Akins could still walk with a walker and hold a good conversation, but slowly, he began losing coherence and slipping into prolonged periods of silence. In time, he lost his ability to swallow, and during his final stay in the hospital he contracted pneumonia. He died on December 9, 1998, at the age of 87.
Talk to those who knew Elmer Akins, and you'll find nothing but kind words for a man who made friends of almost everyone he met.
"He would come in and you'd be really busy," Bob Cole recalls. "In your own world, you know, handling everything you think is so darn important. Phones are ringing, deadlines are being missed, and all kinds of stuff. He'd just walk in with his cane and hat and everything and just sit down. He'd say, 'Hey I want to ask you a question.' And your world would just sort of stop and freeze. Fifteen, 20 minutes later you're still there, and you've forgotten about everything else. Nobody else could do that."
"He was the sweetheart of the universe," says Pat Jasper, who worked with Akins frequently in her role as head of Texas Folklife Resources, the organization that sponsored Akins' 50th anniversary show. "He was a figure of enormous respect, dignity, and authority in the community. And just the sweetheart of the universe."
"He was a hard-working, honest, dedicated Christian man," says Bill Martin. "He worked hard. Nobody gave him anything. Everything he got, he earned. He was a man who loved God and loved people, a man that was kind, loving, and giving."
Martin considers Akins' life and legacy for a moment.
"He had something that I think every man in life strives for, and that's respect. People respected that man to the heights. They loved him and respected him. I'm not talking about just the black community. I'm talking about the black and white community. He was a legend. They don't make 'em like that anymore.
"I miss him."
"He was an outstanding role model for me," says Charles Akins, "and not only as my father. He had a good spirit about him all the time. He wanted to help people."
In choosing his father as a role model, Charles Akins chose well. Not only did he absorb his father's humility and graciousness, he inherited some of his discipline as well. The grandson of sharecroppers, the son of a man whose formal education ended after primary school, Charles Akins holds a master's degree in history and is currently an associate superintendent in the Austin Independent School District. In honor of his years of distinguished service, AISD voted to name a school after him; projected to open in the fall of 2000 near the intersection of Slaughter and I-35. Groundbreaking on Charles Akins High was held on January 10. While his father was not around for the groundbreaking, he did live long enough to learn of the honor.
But Charles Akins is not the only one who learned from his father. Nearly everyone who worked with Elmer Akins was inspired by the kindness and grace of the plainspoken man who had taken his passion and turned it into his life's work, touching thousands along the way.
"In his own way," Charles Akins says, "[the music] was his gospel mission. He wasn't a minister, but I think there was a great affinity for people who preached the word. I think that this was his Christian mission. It was the great love of his life. It was his ambition to try to help the community, to help spread the Good News through gospel music."
"Gospel music gives you something to live for," Elmer Akins once said. "It gives you a joy almost beyond understanding. It's my way of giving people news from heaven."
He lived for gospel music right to the end. Charles Akins is talking of his father's final days now; his voice has dropped and his words are quiet, and there is great love in them.
"On some nights, when I knew he wasn't feeling well, I'd take the CD in there and play a little Mighty Clouds for him. And we'd hum a little bit before we'd go to bed. I didn't want him not to enjoy the kinds of things that he had always enjoyed. I knew his health was failing, but any little thing like that helped. Gosh it helped me too. I still listen to them. We had a great time at the end."