John Murchison “Pop” Pickering of Murchison, Texas was a pioneer of southern gospel music. Born in September, 1900, he was a professional gospel singer from age 19. He was hired as a member of one of the original Vaughan Music Company’s traveling gospel quartets and traveled throughout the South for Vaughan in the 1920s and early 1930s. The James D. Vaughan Company of Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, a forerunner of the Stamps and Stamps-Baxter Music Companies, hired and sponsored the world’s first full-time salaried professional male gospel quartets performing at churches, stage concerts, and “singing conventions” throughout the South. Groups traveled in new automobiles furnished by the company, who hoped to recover expenses through book sales and concert fees. The 5-member groups, consisting of lead, high tenor, baritone, bass and pianist, sold Vaughan song books at personal appearances for 35 cents each or $3.00 per dozen (1923). They sang and promoted newly written Vaughan songs. Generally speaking, concert fees paid their expenses, and all the singers and musicians were trained at the Vaughan Conservatory of Music, called “Master of the South”. All could and did teach music and voice especially by “shaped notes”. In January, 1923, the Vaughan Company announced the availability of its gospel music publication, “Family Visitor”, as well as the availability of the first gospel quartet phonograph records. This was advertised with the issuance of a 14th songbook called “Awakening Praises”. Vaughan Quartets also pioneered gospel music on radio. Gospel music icons, V.O. and Frank Stamps, got their start with Vaughan, and John M. Pickering worked with them and studied under them at the nearby Jacksonville, Texas branch of Vaughan Music. As to quartet personnel, only the most accomplished musicians, sight readers, and singers needed apply. This requirement continues in the southern gospel music industry to this day – almost 99 years since Vaughan began. John M. Pickering was one of the first “Shaped-note” music teachers and voice instructors at week-long “singing schools”, mostly in country churches and school auditoriums throughout East Texas and also in Louisiana. At age 25, at one of those singing schools, he met an eighteen year-old alto from Ben Wheeler, Texas. Her name was Ida Elizabeth “Beth” Nixon and she had a beautiful voice.
Ida Elizabeth “Beth” Pickering was the daughter of a small-town Baptist church choir director and local barber at Ben Wheeler, Texas. Beth was a vivacious pretty teenager, with an up-to-date interest in cosmetics. She and John soon became a duet, not only in music, but also in life. Because her family wanted college for her and objected to the 6-years-older slick-haired traveler with the trademark quartet black mustache who had no visible means of support, the strong-willed Beth eloped with John M. in 1926, and they were married by a justice-of-the-peace. John M. had just returned from the Louisiana State Singing Convention at Monroe, Louisiana, where it is said they “out-performed” a newly–formed Frank Stamps Quartet. As a group, they were, after all, more experienced. John M. continued to travel while Beth stayed with her mother, until the birth of Billy Duane Pickering.
Billy Duane “Bill” Pickering was born on April 5, 1927 near Murchison, Texas. His father John M. continued to sing and teach music, but soon left the quartet to be near his family and try farming. By 1928, plowing a mule paid 50 cents a day, going to a dollar a day in 1929. All John M. knew was music, and in the early 1930s he joined the McClain Brothers singers of Tyler, Texas in a variety music and comedy show. Beth joined the group in performing minstrel shows, and at age 5, a new singer joined them – Billy Pickering. By age 9, Billy was an established professional singer with the McClain-Pickering Quartet on a popular daily radio show at Tyler, Texas.
John Winton “Johnny” Pickering was born at the height of the depression on March 8, 1933. He thought everybody in the world sang, because everybody around him did. When Johnny was 5 years old, he began singing on the radio in Beaumont, Texas with the family gospel group consisting of Beth “Mom” (alto), John M. “Pop” (tenor), Billy (lead) and J.W. Elliot (bass). At first, Johnny did solo work on radio and comedy skits at personal appearances. He was a soprano in those days. The group moved back to Tyler for a short while, then moved 350 miles west to Lubbock, Texas.