by Rev. Dan White
The audience hushed in anticipation. They and millions watching on TV waited for the name to be called for the Top New Female Vocalist of the Year at the April 1981 Academy of Country Music Awards. Who would it be? All bets were on Reba McEntire. Terri Gibbs waited off stage with her mother in the audience. Her dad was out of town working and watching it on the NBC Television Network from his hotel room. Waiting and waiting and waiting. Seconds seemed like hours. Terri was one of five nominated for the award.
In June 1980, Jim Fogulsong, executive with MCA records and who is now in the Country Music Hall of Fame, signed Terri to produce three records. If any one of them “hit,” he would contract with her to produce an album.
One of them did hit and hit big. “Somebody’s Knockin’” rocketed to number 8 on the country music charts and crossed over to land at number 13 on the pop charts. Based on just nine short months from August 1980 to April 1981, did she really have a chance against Reba McEntire?
Kim Carnes was a nominee. She went on to have four number one hits that she either wrote or sung. Her duet with Kenny Rogers, “Don’t Fall in Love with a Dreamer” hit number one on the charts.
Sissy Spacek was up for the award also. Her sterling performance in the hit movie, “Cold Miner’s Daughter,” won her an Oscar. Her song remake of Loretta Lynn’s hit by the same name earned her a Grammy nomination.
The other nominee was Sylvia who eventually rose to number 1 in the charts with her mega 1982 hit, “Nobody.”
The competition was stiff for a poor little blind girl living in a mobile home from an insignificant village called Grovetown in rural Columbia County ,Georgia.
The envelope was opened.
“And the winner is, “Miss TERRI GIBBS!” Terri recalls that life-changing night. “It was the biggest surprise of my life. I was so new to all this and new to the country music industry. People talked about “Somebody’s Knockin’” Anyone who had a radio had heard it. All the record stores sold it. People knew the song, but did they know me?
“When my name was called, I thought I had died and gone to heaven!
“My manager, Ed Penney, walked with me to center stage to receive the award. The audience burst into loud applause. I heard the rustling of the audience and knew they were giving me a standing ovation.
When my mother came to me after the show, she told me that the camera did a close up of her as joyous tears, tears of unbelief, streamed down her face and ruined her mascara.
“I tried to turn away from the camera,” she said. “I didn’t want people seeing me cry on television. But every time I turned from one camera, there was another one in my face.”
Terri laughs about it now. When her mother returned to Grovetown after the awards show and festivities, her mother couldn’t go anywhere without someone saying to her, “I saw you crying on TV.”
Terri has a rich, long family heritage in music. Her great-grandfather, John Thomas King (1881-1945), traveled from church to church on Sundays in the first half of the 20th century leading hymns. He is the father of the all day gospel sings popular in some churches still today.
John Thomas passed down his love of gospel singing and music to all of his children. His daughter (Terri’s grandmother) Effie King Gibbs, the third of his ten children, played the organ for her church, Marvin Methodist in Martinez, Georgia, for thirty-five years. “There was nothing like Sunday dinner after church with my grandfather, grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins,” according to Terri. “After the table was cleared and the dishes put away, we would all gather around and sing the happy songs of faith. No one was in a hurry to leave or go somewhere. The afternoon would wane before you knew it. Those were happy days that I fondly remember.
“My dad, Donald King Gibbs, and his two brothers worked hard on my grandfather’s dairy farm. On Sundays, they always found time for church where they often sang together.”
Their singing family included one of Terri’s cousins, Ron Gibbs, who sings and writes professionally with the award winning Southern Gospel Quartet, Gabriel’s Call, out of Columbia, South Carolina.
Harold and Iniard Gibbs, uncles, sang and traveled professionally with the Master Workers Quartet. Brenda Lee sang with them when she was only five years old. Brenda, “Little Miss Dynamite, became a super star rockabilly singer in the late 1950’s and 60’s selling over 100 million records.
For Terri’s father, Donald King Gibbs, his life followed a different path. He left his father’s farm, went to work for Western Electric (the forerunner of AT&T), and married Betty Virginia Norris who had moved with her mother from Gibson, Georgia, to Augusta.
Donald lived in Grovetown, but his work took him far and wide installing telephone systems in the 1950’s. He and Betty were gone from their Columbia County home for long periods of time.
In the middle of 1954, Donald received an assignment to install equipment in Miami. He and his pregnant wife drove the long, long trip to the city on the tip of the peninsula. Their first baby was due in September.
On June 15, Betty had to be rushed to a Miami hospital. Her feverish body was racked with pain from a kidney infection. Moreover, she had gone into labor three months before term. Betty and Donald’s tiny two pounds, eleven ounces baby was born struggling for life, struggling for air from under developed lungs.
The look on the doctor’s face was grim. “Mr. Gibbs,” he said, “your baby is going to die, and there’s not much hope for your wife. I don’t think she is going to make it either.”
Stunned, Donald put his head in his hands and cried.
But miraculously, Betty began to improve. Her fever subsided. The primitive early 1950’s antibiotics successfully fought the infection. She was discharged several days later.
In the meantime, their tiny baby barely clung to life. She was placed in the incubator to receive life-sustaining oxygen and fed through a tube. Betty held vigil at the hospital. Don visited after work. For days, it was touch and go. A day, two days, three, and on and on time went by. Every day of life brought hope for another day. Slowly but surely, their baby daughter made progress. She had to reach a weight of five pounds before she could be discharged. On August 15, two months after she was born, the doctor announced, “You can take her home.”
At once, they were filled with joy, but no one, not even the medical staff and doctors, knew about the tragedy the baby suffered in the incubator because her eyes were not covered.
After six months, the couple took the baby back to the doctor. They explained, “When we wave our hand in front of her, she doesn’t respond. She doesn’t react.”
The doctor examined her eyes. “Your baby is blind.” Don and Betty sat in stunned silence. Tears flooded their eyes and rushed down their faces.
“What kind of life will she have, doctor?” they asked.
In a pitiful effort to comfort the distraught couple, the doctor answered, “Don’t worry, you can have other children.”
Their baby’s diagnosis was retrolental fibroplasia, which is an abnormal blood vessel development that is common in preemies and can cause blindness. With today’s medical technology and advancements, the condition is sometimes treatable if discovered in the first few days of a premature baby’s life. But once the damage is done, it cannot be reversed.
Don’s work in Miami soon came to an end, and the family moved back home to Grovetown.
Terri’s parents raised her to be independent and self-sufficient. They refused to allow her handicap to define her. Today, Terri will quickly tell you, “I’m not a blind singer. I’m a singer who happens to be blind.”
Terri learned to ride a tricycle, no small achievement. She rode it round and round the carport. Occasionally, she would ride over the edge, take a tumble, fall off, and get back on again. Her mother, Betty remembers that Terri wore the tires off that tricycle!
Remarkably, she learned to ride a bicycle too! She was determined and resolute. To know where she was going, she listened intently to where her cousin, Jan’s bicycle was going along the dirt path. Terri’s keen sense of hearing guided her.
At age three, her family was shocked again by Terri. This time, it wasn’t a tragedy but a triumph. Terri was fascinated with the music that came from the piano and would go over and pound on it like any toddler is prone to do. Her aunt, Violet Bowman sat down with her at the piano one Sunday afternoon at the family singing. She put her hand over her niece’s little hand and played a simple melody. Terri squealed with delight.
Violet left the room and joined the other adults in conversation in the family room. A melody, the same melody Violet had just played came from the piano room. “Who’s that playing?” someone asked Violet.
“I don’t know.”
She got up and stealthily went to peak into the room. There, Terri was sitting on the piano stool playing the very melody without error that her aunt had previously guided her little fingers over the keys to play.
Everyone was amazed and went to watch and hear Terri play. It was her first audience that would later turn into millions of fans at her concerts and through numerous television shows including a show in New Zealand (1983) where she traveled and taped a show for her fans there.
Terri’s great passion and desire was music. When she was seven years old, Brenda Lee’s smash hit, “Fool Number One” was constantly on the radio. Almost immediately upon hearing it, she sat down at the piano and played and sang the song flawlessly.
Terri’s gift from birth is the gift of perfect pitch. She can hear a tune one time and play it back perfectly.
Terri’s drive to sing and perform and with her parents’ help, led her to sing for venues in Augusta. She soon became known for her talent around town.
Terri dreamed of being up there on stage at the Bell Auditorium in Augusta where her parents took her to the great country music concerts in the 1960’s and ‘70s.
In 1970, at age 16, Bill Anderson, who reached number one on the country charts seven times, asked her to sing at the Bell before his show. Her dream came true. She brought the house down with her performance of Kenny Roger’s “A Stranger in My Place” redone by Anne Murray whose 1970 version had done well on the charts.
Terri was back on the Bell Auditorium stage again in June 1972. She proudly sat in her cap and gown for her graduation from Butler High School earning A’s and B’s in high school. Years later, the Board of Education would build a music building at Butler. The Board dedicated it to Terri and named it the Terri Gibbs Music Center with lots of pomp and fanfare.
Terri’s country music career spanned many years. She appeared and performed on Dionne Warwick’s Solid Gold, The Merv Griffin Show, Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, The Glen Campbell Show, The Barbara Mandrell Show, The Grand Old Opry, and ABC TV’s Good Morning, America. Her performance at Madison Square Garden in New York was taped for TV.
She toured with George Jones and Tammy Wynette. She performed in London with Mel Tillis (1982) and for our troops in Germany (1984). She performed in almost every state in the Union including Hawaii. In 1994, she made a guest appearance on Bill Gaither’s Homecoming show.
Her numerous awards in addition to the American Music Association Award include, the Academy of Country Music’s first-ever Horizon Award given in 1981. The Horizon Award recognizes the best new artist. Accolades poured in including a nomination for a Grammy.
In November 1986, a visitation from the Holy Spirit changed her life’s direction forever. Terri was invited to attend a prayer meeting in a back room of the Koinonia Christian Book Store in Nashville. Terri had sensed for some time that something in her life was missing.
Among those in attendance at that prayer meeting were singing artists Barbara Fairchild, Ricky Scaggs, Jeannie C. Riley, and Connie Smith, whose 1964 hit, “Once a Day” still holds the record for the most weeks spent as number one by a female country artist.
Milton Carroll, who was leading the meeting, almost dismissed the group, but then said, “Hold on, someone else in here needs prayer.” The Holy Spirit directed him to Terri. Milton had no idea what crisis was going on in her life at that time. She had not slept well the night before and almost didn’t go to the meeting. The group gathered around her, laid hands on her, and prayed. Immediately, she felt an outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
That experience is etched in Terri’s mind and heart. She testifies, “The Spirit of God overwhelmed me. It was a wonderful thing. I had never experienced that love from the Lord that emanated from the Spirit of God through the people praying for me. I wept.”
Terri left country music. She signed a contract with Word Music, a Christian company, and has never looked back. She sings today for the Lord in churches and concerts. She and her guide dog, Birdie, recently went to Kansas where she performed for the largest Lion’s Club in that state, and performed at a conference for those who have overcome adversity at Rock of Ages Church in Leavenworth, Kansas.
The faith of Terri Gibbs inspires all who know her and witness her smoky, bluesy, velvet-throated voice which has been described as the deepest alto in music. Terri knows first hand the Nashville music scene. She states, “There are people who thought they were doing great and were happy. But, they are not happy. All that success, does it really matter? People put their lives into it. Some make it their god. If that’s all you concentrate on, it means nothing. They will end up with nothing when the last hit is gone. The idol comes crashing down. I had the big house, glamour, money, and glitz. I won all kinds of awards which I am grateful for. But you know, those awards won’t matter when we get to heaven. All that really matters is knowing Jesus, my comfort, my refuge, my fortress, and the love of my life.”
The First Thing I’ll See
by Terri Gibbs and Donna Douglas
(Terri sang this on the Bill Gaither Homecoming Show)
I have never seen a flower or a tree or sky alive so blue on a summer’s afternoon. I’ve never seen a sunrise or ocean waves at midnight. But one day, I’ll have my sight in a place where there’s no night. And, the first thing I’ll see will be Jesus. He’ll look at me, and then say, “Well done my faithful friend.” I can hardly wait to see those pearly gates, and I know the streets of pure gold, ah, they will be something to behold.
If your church or organization would like to book TERRI GIBBS for a concert, you can reach her through her web site.
You can view and hear Terri’s performances on You Tube. The link is posted for your convenience.
Terri’s performance in the Gaither’s Homecoming video singing The First Thing I’ll See is also there. Note: There are also videos for a Terri Gibbs orchestra. He is not our Terri Gibbs from Grovetown.
Note: Terri and Dan are working on a book about her life, career, and ministry. We hope to finish the manuscript by the end of December and have it published next year. Don Rhodes, entertainment editor and authority on the Country and Southern Gospel music industries for the Augusta Chronicle, is also providing valuable assistance. He has agreed to write the forward for the book.
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