BELDEN • When Lee Williams, beloved gospel singer and frontman for the Spiritual QCs (Qualified Christian Singers), died on Aug. 31, he left behind a legacy of spiritual music built across more than five decades.
Williams, who retired from performing in 2018, was lead singer for the Tupelo-based group since its origins in the 1950s, when it was known as the Gospel Stars. Williams and fellow band members gained national recognition in 1998 with the release of their first full-length album, “Jesus Is Alive and Well,” and their first big hit, “I’ve Learned to Lean.” The group made it onto Billboard’s gospel music chart and won numerous awards, including a Soul Train Award for Best Gospel Album of the Year.
Willie Thornton, Williams’ oldest brother, lives in Belden and has been with the group since its inception. He served as band manager for 13 years, and as the group’s lead guitarist for 36 years. Thornton said he has fond memories of the group’s early years.
“We started in the 50s, with Lee and my uncle,” he said. “We sang locally for years. We were going out here and there, doing it in our spare time.”
Thornton said times were hard, and band members all had to work to support themselves.
“We all worked,” he said. “I worked in a factory and then in a motel. I was cutting a little hair on the side, doing whatever it took to make ends meet.”
Life, work and everything else was challenging back then. But they performed for the love of it … for the joy it brought themselves and others.
“We’d go out to sing on the weekend, but we weren’t making any money; maybe a little gas money sometimes,” he said. “A lot of times it cost us money.”
In those early years, it was difficult to keep the band together, Thornton said.
“Lee went into the Army,” he said. “When he came back we cranked it back up and got serious about it. I got them back together in ‘68 — Lee, our brother Frank, and another guy named Willie Legon. I played lead guitar and Lee played bass. For a while we didn’t even have a drummer.”
Thornton said he still loves the guitars and sound equipment from those early years.
“I like the sound of a Gibson hollow-body guitar,” he said. “I’ve got two of them. And back in the day, I played through a Gibson tube amp. When it got hot, it would spit that sound out good and clean.”
Thornton said even after the group grew and began to travel more widely, he and his bandmates still had to make sacrifices for the music they loved.
“We got in some tight spots,” he said. “One time, our water pump went out on us about a hundred miles out of St. Louis. Sometimes we’d go to a gig and get back home at 6 in the morning. A lot of times, I wouldn’t even go to bed; I’d just change my clothes and go straight to work. That was my life there for a minute.”
Thornton, who has been the pastor at Victory Temple Church in east Tupelo for the last 32 years, said it would be hard to choose between music and preaching, if he could only do one.
“I love them both the same,” he said. “But I couldn’t leave God’s people.”
His fingers don’t move like they used to, but Thornton said he still plays guitar at church.
“I bump around a little bit,” he said. “I still love to play and sing, but I got disgusted and quit playing for about a year. When I picked it back up, it wasn’t there like it used to be. That’s why I tell guitar players, ‘If you’ve got it, you better stay with it.’”
He misses his brother and former bandmate, but Thornton said Lee fulfilled his mission and he was ready to go.
“It was hard at first, but then I realized Lee had done what God had sent him to do,” Thornton said. “We are all born for a reason. We may not reach it, but we all have one. God let Lee stay here long enough to do that.”