Bill Gaither is one of the central figures of 20th century Christian music, a singer and songwriter who originally gained attention as part of the Bill Gaither Trio in the early '70s and became famous in the '90s thanks in large part to Gaither Homecoming, a series of home videos and records that showcased Southern gospel stars. Between those two events — and well beyond the success of Gaither Homecoming — Gaither wrote hundreds of gospel songs, including the standard "He Touched Me," usually with his wife Gloria, and he released dozens of albums, either as part of the Bill Gaither Trio, the Gaither Vocal Band, or the Gaither Homecoming. So deep and lasting was his success, the Bill Gaither Trio was inducted into the Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame in 1999 and, by 2004, the Gaither Homecoming tour was rivaling the ticket sales of such secular superstars as Fleetwood Mac and Elton John. In addition to being a popular performer, Gaither co-founded the major inspirational imprint Chapel Hill Music Group, which was later rebranded as Spring Hill.
Such stardom came from humble beginnings. Gaither was born on a farm in Alexandria, Indiana on March 28, 1936; he'd continue to live in Indiana all his life. With his siblings Danny and Mary Ann, he formed the Bill Gaither Trio while attending Indiana's Anderson University in 1956. Three years later, he graduated and started working as an English teacher, marrying Gloria Sickal in 1962. That year, Danny moved to Ohio, and Gloria joined the trio as his replacement. The next year, he wrote "He Touched Me" upon the suggestion of evangelist Dr. Dale Oldham, who thought "touch" would inspire a good gospel song. It did, and "He Touched Me" steadily gained an audience after both Oldham's son Doug and the Bill Gaither Trio recorded it in 1964. The next year, the Imperials did their own version, which caught the ear of Elvis Presley, who cut it in 1971. By that point, Gaither's star was on the rise. For a while, he attempted to navigate teaching and his musical career, but he dedicated himself to music in 1967.
The Bill Gaither Trio started to regularly release albums in 1966 but in 1973, two years after Presley's version of "He Touched Me," the breakthrough arrived when the group released Let's Just Praise the Lord, which won the Grammy for Best Inspirational Performance in 1974. Two years later, the group took home the same award for Jesus, We Just Want to Thank You. The Bill Gaither Trio would also be inducted to the Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame in 1999.
The Trio released several albums over the course of the '80s but during that decade, Gaither's main focus was the Gaither Vocal Band. Originally called the New Gaither Vocal Band upon its 1981 formation — that's the name on the group's eponymous 1981 debut — the band had a revolving lineup and over the years, featuring such future CCM stars as Michael English, Jonathan Pierce, David Phelps, and Mark Lowry. The Gaither Vocal Band — who'd shed the "New" quickly — recorded regularly from its inception onward, never spending longer than three years between albums. Along the way, they racked up many awards — no less than 17 Dove Awards, along with Grammys in 1991 (Best Southern Gospel, Country Gospel, or Bluegrass Gospel Album for Homecoming) and 2009 (Lovin' Life in the same category).
Gaither's next big project arrived in 1991, when the Gaither Vocal Band recorded an album called Homecoming, featuring several other stars in Southern gospel. Somebody had the foresight to record these guests and the Gaither Vocal Band trading stories and songs, and this footage was released as Homecoming. It turned into a smash hit and, soon, Gaither had the formula for Homecoming: bring in some old stars, some new stars, some emerging artists, and have them all talk and sing on camera. By 1996, the Gaither Homecoming was so successful it spawned a regular concert tour. Later, these live performances could be found on cruises, and the home videos were edited into syndicated television shows.
During the 21st century, Gaither didn't start any new projects, choosing instead to keep Gaither Homecoming and the Gaither Vocal Band thriving. Each project remained popular well into the 2010s, and all the while, Bill and Gloria remained in his hometown of Alexandria, Indiana. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine