The Inspirations will make history this winter when they perform for the first time ever in Hernando County.
The internationally renowned group will be presented by Landmark Baptist Church and hosted by 500-seat Gulf Ridge Park Baptist Church on Jan. 15.
The Inspirations represent Southern gospel music at its finest, said Chip Gripton, station manager for WKJO-LPFM 102.7, a Southern gospel station, one of the sponsors.
"These guys have been around for 40 years," Gripton said. "These guys are awesome."
In 1964, 27-year-old Martin Cook began working with some of the teens from a high school in Bryson City, N.C. The chemistry and physics teacher was an accomplished singer and pianist and offered them gospel singing lessons in his home.
"We sang in the evening just for fun," Cook said. "We didn't have much TV back then, just a little black and white, and we got to the point where we were singing every night."
After a while, the group was narrowed down to a quartet: tenor Archie Watkins and lead Ronnie Hutchins, both 17, baritone Jack Laws, 21, and bass Troy Burns, 14.
"They stayed the longest and worked the hardest," Cook said.
Of the original quartet, Watkins and Laws remain. Burns was replaced in 1972 by Mike Holcomb; Martin Cook's son, Myron, joined in 1981 and plays bass guitar. Hutchins was replaced in 1998 by Matt Dibler as lead singer. Melton Campbell joined in 2000 as a second baritone.
When it came to a name, Cook recalled hearing a message in church about being an inspiration to others and suggested the name the Inspirations. The group members accepted it, setting for themselves rules of conduct and appearance from which they have never strayed.
The Inspirations soon began performing in churches locally and as far away as Atlanta. In 1966, they got their big break _ performing in the downtown Atlanta City Auditorium before an audience of 5,000.
Watkins, 56, said the group was not affected by success or celebrity. "We were never frightened because we handled our singing as a ministry, and the Lord always took care of that," he said.
That one performance thrust the group to the forefront of gospel music for 40 years.
"I didn't know if we'd be known all over the world, but it turned out that way," Cook, 68, said. "We sang behind the Iron Curtain before it came down."
For the past 30 years, most appearances have taken place on the same date each year.
"We consider this a ministry and feel strongly that it is a help to people and we are carriers of the gospel in music," Cook said. "We take it seriously and try to do a good job."
The group averages a song every three minutes for two hours, including intermission. "We have cataloged what people want to hear, and that's what we give them," said Cook, who serves as the group manager and concert emcee.
In addition, every year the group participates in a six-day gospel singing cruise the first week in November. The event includes all the families of the Inspirations and about 10 other singing groups.
They perform about three times a week.
"We have to control it (performing on the road) after 40 years," Cook said.
The Inspirations have traveled more than 3-million miles, spreading the gospel in song to almost every U.S. state, and have hosted tours to Europe, the Bahamas and the Holy Land.
They have had dozens of songs, including five No. 1 and six songs of the year, listed on the radio air play charts compiled by Singing News, the printed voice of Southern gospel music.
Their repertoire includes the classics What a Wonderful Time, Jesus Is Coming Soon, More to Go to Heaven For, It's Still the Blood, Thank You Lord and The Son Rose.
I'll Not Turn My back on Him Now and We Need to Thank God were voted the 2002 and 2003 gospel song of the year, respectively, by Singing News subscribers.
Original member Watkins, the tenor, is married and has two daughters and a granddaughter. Born and raised in Bryson City, he now lives in Whittier, N.C., "where there's a store and a post office and no red lights."
Watkins enjoys the group's schedule, which allows him to be home on Sundays to attend church and gives him sufficient days off to go bear hunting.
He lives on the edge of the Great Smokey Mountain National Park, where 8-million tourists come each summer to enjoy musical festivals, including the five-day Independence Day Festival, the two-day Labor Day Festival and the two-day Fall Color Festival in the middle of October.
The Inspirations and other well-known gospel groups perform at these celebrations and other concerts.
The group performed at the same locales for 34 consecutive years. Most of the international travel is now done individually, not as a group.
"Back in the '70s and '80s, we did Hawaiian tours. We leased our own plane and took as many as 250 people every summer for 12 straight years," Watkins said. Singing with the Inspirations is all Watkins has ever done for a living.
"We didn't start out to make a business out of it; we just wanted to sing and do something to uplift the name of the Lord, who has just used us in a tremendous way to spread the gospel," Watkins said.
"I like to say we made ourselves available and the Lord used us. It wasn't our ability; it was our availability."
IF YOU GO
WHAT: The Inspirations in concert
WHEN: 7 p.m. Jan. 15
WHERE: Gulf Ridge Park Baptist Church, 20200 Manecke Road, Brooksville
SPONSORED BY: Landmark Baptist Church and WKJO-LPFM 102.7
TICKETS: $10 for adults; $8 for children 12 and younger. No infants are allowed.
For tickets, call Chip Gripton at (352) 442-1559.