‘Bad boy of gospel music’ Calvin Newton of Lookout Mountain mourned

Contributed photo / Calvin Newton with granddaughter Samantha at a school Fun Run.

Calvin Newton, the gifted tenor and longtime Lookout Mountain resident dubbed the "bad boy of gospel" for his boxing prowess, jail stints and radiant charisma, died at the age of 93 and received military honors Tuesday afternoon at Chattanooga National Cemetery.

Newton performed with some of the biggest names in gospel in the mid-20th century. But he fell into a period of exile from the community. According to his biographer, Russ Cheatham, the audacious and talented entertainer self-destructed -- and squandered a promising career.

Newton, who died earlier this month, moved to Lookout Mountain with his wife and two children in 1988. He never stopped singing, his daughter, Jackie Harling, said by phone Tuesday, and his final decades were characterized by his reintegration into the gospel community.

Surviving relatives include his two adult children and his granddaughter.

Born in Illinois to a Pentecostal preacher, Newton sang in church and on the radio throughout childhood. But his charismatic faith isolated him from mainstream religious peers and made him feel like an outcast, he told a Chattanooga Times Free Press interviewer in 2008.

Newton got in fights at a large school in Chicago, and his father sent him to the Church of God Bible Training School, a precursor to Lee University, where a music teacher observed and encouraged his talents, Cheatham said by phone Monday.

As a teen, Newton performed with several groups, including the legendary Blackwood Brothers. And he became a prize-winning boxer across the South.

Newton got a radio program in Columbus, Georgia, and sang in area night clubs -- dabbling in the emergent rock 'n' roll scene. Drafted amid the Korean War, he sang in the military from Texas to Tokyo.

He joined the Oak Ridge Quartet upon his return. The band had flair.

"But the manager didn't have any business sense," Cheatham said.

The group went dormant, but it later became famous as the Oak Ridge Boys.

Newton's own star rose highest with the Sons of Song, Cheatham said.

"There was no other group like them," he said. "I call them The Beatles of Southern Gospel."

They wore tuxes and cummerbunds. They inverted harmonies, swapping baritone and tenor roles -- an uncommon capacity for a gospel group, Cheatham said. And they were all strikingly handsome, he said, with Newton emerging as the consummate schmoozer. The group went to Hollywood and recorded with Ralph Carmichael, "the dean of gospel music," Cheatham said.

But tragedy struck. On the way to Florida in the late 1950s, a group member fell asleep while driving and ran into a truck, leaving all in the trio injured to varying degrees.

They were never the same after that, Cheatham said.

"Calvin went into crime in the 60s," he said.

In and out of music, Newton roved Nashville's Ryman Auditorium bumming cigarettes, Cheatham said. The singer met his eventual wife, Joyce Wonder, during that period. But he was getting erratic.

"He was taking amphetamines," Cheatham said. "He was a risk taker, but taking amphetamines just put him over the edge."

Jail stints for crimes like counterfeiting shaped those middle years, Cheatham said. Harling remembered visiting Newton in prison in Atlanta when she was 5 or 6. Everyone treated her real sweet, she remembered, and she proposed staying with him there so that people would treat him nice, too.

"He had to say, 'Baby, I'm sorry, they're not gonna let you do that,'" she said. "I remember going home in the back seat looking out at the rain, and that was the saddest day of my life because I was so worried about him."

He sang on -- in prison, with his family when he returned home and, increasingly, with old friends in the gospel community, Harling said.

A Monday celebration in Rising Fawn, Georgia, featured such former partners -- Blackwood Brothers and Oak Ridge Boys so old they could barely walk, Newton's friend, Reece Griffin, said by phone Tuesday.

On Tuesday at Chattanooga National Cemetery, Griffin served as a pallbearer through a ceremony featuring an American Legion honor guard. Newton's children sang to the assembled.

Contact Andrew Schwartz at aschwartz@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6431.