Some drove down from Detroit. Others went across Texas and through Louisiana. Vans and campers travelled west from Georgia, south from Tennessee and across the Alabama state line to be in Tupelo’s Fairpark.

Lee Williams spent decades travelling the country to spread his gospel music. On Saturday afternoon, hundreds of fans came to him to celebrate his 72nd birthday. Between performances and stories from his career, the legendary singer received a key to the city.

“This is his hometown. This is where it all started,” Williams’ wife Annie said. “He was singing here in Tupelo long before anyone knew who he was.”

Vendors selling soul food outlined the edge of the park, and kids splashed in the fountain as Tupelo celebrated one of its most famous sons, who observed the festivities and shook hands from the center of the park. Most people brought lawn chairs, but once the music started around 3 p.m., few needed them. While most gospel singers are animated performers, Williams’ signature style is a comparatively stoic delivery that earned him the reputation as “the coolest man in gospel.”

“I remember the first time I heard Lee Williams. I had just come home from church on Sunday and turned on B.E.T.,” said Marion Montgomery, one of the event’s organizers. “He was singing so powerful, but he doesn’t move. He stands still and his voice was flowing like a pipe was broken, and the music was just gushing out.”

Lee Williams & The Spiritual QC’s have spent years in the top 10 of Billboard’s gospel charts and won ‘Traditional Quartet of the Year’ at the Gospel Music Excellence Awards in 2001. Originality always set the group apart from its peers.

“Lee Williams was one of the first cats who wrote his own stuff. All of it is his original stuff. Most of us imitate other groups or sing covers,” said Wayne Hereford, who performed at the celebration with the Lane Chapel Quintet. “That’s what set him apart. Plus, he’s just a great singer.”

Tupelo will celebrate Lee Williams Day every July 28.

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