The Paschall Brothers

Tidewater Gospel Quartet
A group of men pose for the camera.

Courtesy of the Virgina Folklife Program, VFH


With grace and smooth harmonies, the Paschall Brothers proudly carry on the Tidewater gospel quartet tradition. Founded in 1981 by the late Reverend Frank Paschall Sr., an accomplished gospel singer and devoted father of 11 children, the group performs a classic gospel repertoire along with original compositions.

Reverend Frank Paschall Sr. trained five of his seven sons to accompany him in the earliest configuration of the group, which now includes several grandchildren. When Frank Sr. passed away in 1999, his son Tarrence assumed leadership of the group, but the lead vocal role is often passed around among members for different songs. The gospel quartet, as they are commonly known, typically includes five, not four, members -- "quartet" refers to the four-part harmony rather than the number of members.

The a cappella tradition in Virginia is rich and longstanding. Following the Civil War, the Tidewater, or Hampton Roads, area of Virginia -- including Hampton, Newport News, and Norfolk -- became an important and lively center of African-American culture. Four-part harmony groups were common and performances took place everywhere from churches and street corners to show choir-like competitions in which groups were judged on both vocal gymnastics and appearance.

The local gospel quartet tradition reached its peak in the first half of the 20th century but has largely dwindled since, with the exception of the Paschall Brothers, who carry the tradition forward. The family members do their part to maintain the unique regional style by training their children in the Tidewater tradition and working with the Virginia folklife apprenticeship program.

In a testament to their timeless artistry and influence, the group has gained an increased national following after a breakout performance at the Lowell Folk Festival in 2003. The Paschall Brothers have since taken the stage at the Kennedy Center and Library of Congress in Washington, DC. The group released the album On the Right Road Now in 2007 under the Smithsonian Folkways record label, co-produced by the Virginia Folklife Program. Featuring both original music composed by Frank Paschall Sr. and innovative arrangements of music from groups like the Golden Gate Quartet and Dixie Hummingbirds, the album received the Best Gospel Album award at the 2008 Independent Music Awards and the 2009 Independent Music Award Gospel Album of the Year.

Daniel Sheehy, director and curator at the Smithsonian Folkways program and former NEA director of Folk and Traditional Arts wrote in a recommendation letter, "Their multi-generational membership, their creativity, and their positive energy breathe new life into the old sounds.… The Paschall Brothers are strong, devoted performers and are deeply representative of the Tidewater a cappella quartet tradition."

Interview by Josephine Reed for the NEA
August 27, 2012
Edited by Rachel Gustafson

NEA: You have been at this for 31 years, which is a long time -- that's two generations. Can you tell me how you began?

Tarrence Paschall: I went into the army after high school, and I honestly didn't like it. My father told me, "You signed the contract, so do your three years." I was honorably discharged; I did what I was supposed to do, like he said. My brothers and I, we just went to his house and we celebrated. He had a song by the Persuasions called "The Lord's Prayer" that they did in perfect four-part harmony. And we, on a dare, learned that song in about 20 minutes. We went and showed our father what we had learned. He said, "Man, that thing is right."

We didn't have any [training] -- we were just enjoying ourselves -- so he taught us a couple of [things]. He said, "Why don't you all back me up?" So we said we would be honored, because he sung solo. I [will] never forget it -- that was February 28th, 1981. That next week, which was the first Sunday in March, we sang at Mt. Moriah RZUA Church. As a matter of fact, that's the church I'm now pastoring, and the rest has been history ever since then. [Our father] taught us a song, "I'm Going on with Jesus Just the Same," and "The Lord's Prayer," and we sung them two songs, that was our repertoire. We would go all over Newport News and Hampton, Virginia, singing those two songs. And then we learned another song, "Don't Forget to Pray." Ever since then, no one has been measuring or gauging anything. The Lord has been with us ever since.

NEA: Your father was a remarkable man. He was a singer himself, born in North Carolina, and sang in quartets there, and then moved to the Tidewater area of Virginia when he was 19. You're one of 10 children. And your father, unfortunately, was a widower so he raised you all on his own?

Paschall: Yes, he did. I think that's one of the rewards of his diligence and his faithfulness to his children. I believe, this is just me talking, an investment gains a profit. He invested in us. He raised us all by himself, and to this day, I don't know how he did that.

NEA: When you were kids at home, did you hear him sing?

Paschall: Yes, he had a group called the Kings of Harmony. They would rehearse at the house.

NEA: When you first started, and your father officially formed the Paschall Brothers, how many members were singing in the group?

Paschall: Five brothers and our father.

NEA: Even though it's called a quartet, there can be more than four members, because the quartet signifies the number of voices and harmonies?

Paschall: Exactly. My daddy told us it was always four-part harmony. Regardless of how many people are in the equation, there will always be four voices.

NEA: Johnny, tell me about your connection to the family.

Johnny Lewis: I was raised by my mother, a single parent, and there were four boys in my family as well. We had a group and were known as the Lewis Brothers. We started out pretty much the same as Tarrence and his brothers. My father sang in a group from Lambert's Point, and he used to sing on TV early Sunday mornings, and we would get up and stand around and watch him sing. We used to pantomime everything he did. When I turned five, my baby brother was about three, and my oldest brother was seven, we all decided that we were going to sing. So one Sunday morning, my mom made us stand up in front of the church, and we sang in front of a whole congregation. I cried that day. I think I boo-hooed, through the whole song. But once the crying was over, I felt pretty good.

Later I went into the army, and as you can tell, this story is pretty much compatible with Tarrence's family. I was raised by a single parent, raised in church, and my mother decided that we would sing. The pastor at Tarrence's church was a young man that joined our group and he invited me to come to his church. I didn't know Tarrence was a member there, and I walked in, and there's Tarrence Paschall and Frank Paschall and Billy Paschall, and everybody was there. And it's been history ever since. When his father passed, Tarrence asked me if I would like to join the group. And I told him, "Man, you're kidding," because to me, it's an honor to sing with the Paschall Brothers. I've been with them off and on, ever since 2000.

NEA: You all sound so wonderful together. A cappella singing is not easy. It would seem that staying in pitch when singing a cappella would be very, very hard.

Lewis: It's a gift, believe me, and I say that with all honesty. It has been something that we've always felt: because it's a gift from God, it should be easy to do. It's definitely an ear thing for me. I hear it. If it sounds good, I try it.

Paschall: It's not something that you [can] go out to obtain. It's like my father used to say, the people that go around with the metal detector, they don't really find the coins and things of that nature. But the people that just go around enjoying the beach, they are the ones that seem to gain the benefits of the beach. If you're doing something that you enjoy, the benefits will come. You don't ask for anything, they just come to you. I think it's genetic, I really do. But like my daddy used to say, you can get the scholarship, but you've got to earn the degree.

NEA: What is distinctive about gospel singing in the Tidewater area?

Paschall: Not too many people are singing without music. We are singing without any music whatsoever. We would go to places where choirs sing with keyboards and they even amp things up now.

Lewis: Yes, it's so computerized that they don't really have to work at it. Our music is in our voices. We hear the beats in our head that actually help us keep our rhythms. It's from birth, it's something that you just do for so long that it becomes second nature. Tarrence and I, we have basketball rhythm, like two guys playing basketball. I have played with Tarrence for so long, I know when he's going to move to the left, I know when he's going to move to the right. A cappella music is similar to that. We fine-tune each other.

NEA: Do you remember the first time the Paschall Brothers sang outside the church in a performance?

Paschall: I think the first thing that we did outside the church was at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum. We sang with a man named John Jackson, a folk guitarist.

NEA: Was that different for you, than singing in the church?

Paschall: No, because as my dad always said, a note is a note. The atmosphere was different, you see, but what you had to do was the same thing. Because of the atmosphere, sometimes you would think that people aren't receiving you because the active response is different. People are not moving. However, the evidence of them enjoying it was when all the CDs were sold. People have a tendency to pat their feet. When you sing outside the church, I think it's more conservative.

Lewis: They're paying more attention, they're nodding, studying.

NEA: And what happens in the church? People are responding, and they're being carried away by it?

Lewis: Oh yeah. Verbally, and with the hands.

Paschall: You react towards that [as performers].

NEA: What's so interesting about you as a group is that you have traditional songs, but at the same time you do original music as well, like "Church Folk.” And in fact, your father did a lot of arrangements, even of traditional songs.

Paschall: My father was -- I'd say he was a genius, because audiences vary, [but] no matter where he went, he always sang a song [in] a way to gather the crowd. He had songs he never penned, but we sang them. We'd be on the road sometimes, traveling and he would say, "Look, hit this pitch." And he'd give you that pitch and say, "You do this." We'd learn a song on the way to the program. You know, we miss him. We didn't have a manager, all we had to do was sing.

The Lord blessed us with him, and I think his arrangements were from the heart. That guy experienced a lot of things. He sung with that deep experience. His motto was everything is going to be all right.

NEA: How did the Songs For Our Father album come to be?

Paschall: Dr. Jon Lohman, director of the Virginia Folklife Program, volunteered to help with the CD. Virginia Folklife Program had started an apprenticeship program and we were so successful [participating in] that, that they wanted to do something for us. Dr. Lohman decided, "Look, let us do that [the CD] for you.” He said, "We'll name it Songs For Our Father." He wanted to do that for us, for my father.

We met Dr. Lohman in 2000 or 2001. My father was gone.  We had literally almost quit the group, to be honest with you. It's always [hard] when somebody passes, there is always a lull, and sometimes you start evaluating and examining if you should go on any farther. But something always seems to bring us back out as if we are not supposed to stop. It's always something that brings us back out into the light. Dr. Lohman did it this particular time. We went to Bias Studio in Springfield, Virginia, and we had a blast.

NEA: Tell me a little bit about Virginia Folklife Program's apprenticeship program. You've both taught at it. Who comes to learn?

Paschall: We had nephews and friends of the family that we taught. As a matter of fact, we introduced them to it as a folk art form. Our first apprentices were Tarrence Paschall Jr., Renard Freeman Jr., Eddie Savelles Jr., Christopher Jernigan Jr., and Thomas Batts. They performed and they did very well. As a matter of fact, we're working with two of them -- they joined us to carry on when things got tight on us. We're thinking about reinstituting them back into the group because my brother, Frank, he passed away in July 2011.

NEA: The Paschall Brothers has always been a multigenerational group. First there was your father and you, and now you've brought your son and nephews into the group.

Paschall: We did sing with our father, and now it has extended to another generation, come to think of it.

Lewis: Which is what the apprenticeship actually did.

NEA: 2003 was a pretty big year for your group. That was also the year that you were singing at the Lowell Folk Festival in Massachusetts.

Paschall: The National Council for the Traditional Arts and Joe Wilson got us there. They had us on big stages too, and we just were tickled pink. We enjoyed ourselves, the people, the camaraderie.

Lewis: It's a great thing when people have no idea who you are but still have the heart to treat you as if they know you very well. And that's what they gave us. They made us at home. Lowell was one of the best experiences I've ever had. The sun is down, and the lights are on you, and it was a very warm but still a very, very comfortable evening, and we sang, and they accepted us. They didn't want us to stop singing.

Paschall: We thank God for that experience.

NEA: It has been 31 years since the Paschall Brothers have begun. In all those years, besides Lowell Folk Festival, is there another performance that really stands out?

Paschall: We [performed at] the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts. That was amazing because we were at the Millennium Stage. The Kennedy Center was the one that really had me awestruck. And plus it was broadcast, what they call streaming -- I had never heard of that. And our families got to watch that.

NEA: And what about for you, Johnny?

Lewis: Lowell. I still say Lowell was my joy, I love that outdoor, family setting, the big crowds, and you look out on the audience and you see everybody just amazed. I mean, they're sitting there in awe. Out of everything that we've done, believe me we appreciate everything. We've been honored in ways we never thought we would ever be. When you start out doing this it is not as a career type thing. I didn't do it because it was something I thought I was going to profit from. I did it simply because my mother said to do it. She said, "I want you to stand up and sing for me." That's the way it started -- "sing for me." And we did it. And from that point on, it's been something that's been instilled, it's burned in, it's tattooed in my heart, and we've been doing it ever since.

NEA: Throughout these 31 years, you all have had day jobs. Tarrence, you're a reverend. Johnny, what do you do?

Lewis: I'm retired now. I was an electronic technician. Now I'm just trying to reap some of this fresh air. You retire, but you never stop. All I've done was just make it a little easier on myself, to do what I like to do.

NEA: That also means that when there's a festival, for example, there really is a kind of negotiation that would have to go on with your work or with your church, to get some time to be able to go.

Paschall: We have had very understanding work places -- our bosses, my church family. I've been pastoring for 13 years and they have been very understanding.

Lewis: My boss gave me all the leeway I needed because he actually heard me sing and he knew it was a good thing. It wasn't like I was trying to get an easy day off. I would tell him I had a concert coming up at a certain time, and he made way for me to be there and that was a good thing.

NEA: Since the group has formed, some things have shifted because people have come in and out, and passed on. What stayed the same?

Lewis: The songs, the style.

Paschall: I would say, we did.

Lewis: Our hearts are the same.

Paschall: The thing I see as staying the same is the music. We don't sing the same songs, but we sing the same music. And to me, the spiritual things are more eternal. You can get old and still sing. You know, my father passed and at his last set he had leukemia, and you never would have known it. A man's work keeps him alive.

I've gained a lot of wisdom in these 31 years. I enjoyed sitting with my father for most of those years. Our rehearsals were every Tuesday at seven o'clock. I would go to his house at five o'clock each Tuesday and sit with him until the guys came. Then we rehearsed and at nine o'clock we would leave. Sometimes no one could make it, so I'd just sit there and talk to him until nine. I was with my father in whatever capacity, and a lot of those times I was just sitting there talking. I think that's why I always say, "My daddy used to say this, my daddy used to say that." I picked up a lot of things. That's what it's about, leaving a legacy, and that's what I appreciate. My father ain't gone nowhere. Pardon my vernacular but that is the only way I can say it, because he's in my heart, he's with us. Frank is with us, and every time we hear these songs, they are archives of those things we have done in the 31 years. Even though they're gone, those things that transpired still exist today, and that's what I call eternity.

Lewis: When you're younger there are so many advantages you miss because you don't take it as serious. But as you grow older, you become wiser to your reasons for doing what we do. You grow wiser in understanding of what we do, or why we've done what we've done for so long. You see the benefits from it. Not in the material sense, but your heart grows fonder of it. It is so gratifying, when it's appreciated. We understand the prizes and awards we are getting now are the benefits. We made it -- and it's not going to disappear, because it's in the heart.

NEA: If you had to say what makes the Paschall Brothers the Paschall Brothers, what would you say?

Paschall: Humility. My father had a saying: "Stay low.” Two things will happen if you stay low. First, God will exalt you, scripturally speaking. If you stay low, people can't expect anything from you. You can't fall from the ground. What impresses people is when you give them something they are not expecting. My father says, "If you blow your trumpet loud, you better blow it right.” Because the louder you blow it, the more people hear you, and the more people hear you, the more critics you will have. When you give people things they are not expecting, that impresses them.

Lewis: One of the things that really got me at the concert in Lowell was a little kid. Out of all of the grown folk, this kid just came out of the audience with his pen, with his program, and he said he wanted an autograph and he wanted to take a picture with us. We took pictures with him; he wanted to walk around with us. I mean, we had a ball. We kept him on stage with us most of that day. I mean, these are the little things that make more sense than any large thing. We didn't feel we were famous, we just felt gratitude, we felt appreciated, and when he did that, it was like one of the best things that happened to me. The little things mean the most.

NEA: Because there was a connection.

Lewis: A great connection. The little kid exemplified everything that the audience showed.

NEA: How did you find out you were going to receive an NEA National Heritage Fellowship?

Paschall: I was at work and I was not having a good day. The phone rang, and a guy named Barry Bergey said he was from the NEA. And he said, "I'm calling to let you know that you have been awarded the 2012 National Heritage Fellowship Award." And I said, "Oh, hallelujah!" Barry asked if I was familiar with the award. I said I was not. Then as Barry starts sharing more information with me, and [as he] went on I'm saying, "Are you kidding me?" He said, "This is the truth."

NEA: Did you tell Johnny?

Lewis: Oh yes. Yes, he did. I immediately went to the website, and it was like, "Are you kidding?" That same thing, "Are you kidding me? Us?"

NEA: Well, Reverend Paschall, Johnny Lewis, my hearty congratulations to you both. It's such a pleasure.

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