Thanks to cotton, tobacco, and its close proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, Rocky Mount, North Carolina, greeted the 20th century as a prominent commercial center. The coming of the automobile and the construction of Interstate 95 through Edgecomb County kept the town acutely involved in travel and trade. In the 1960s, Charles O. Johnson became the region’s first black music mogul, with popular timeslots on WCEC-FM, his own funk and gospel foundry with Goldleaf Records, even a cushy job coaching Mel & Tim circa “Backfield in Motion.”
On the first Sunday of every month, churches from across Eastern North Carolina convened at WCEC to showcase their congregation’s most angelic voices, 15 minutes at a time. It was during such a broadcast in the early ’70s that teenager Robert Arrington heard future bandmate Gaston “David” Battle strumming the guitar and singing baritone with the Shinning Stars of Gethsemane G. Holy Church. Looking to transcend his own 5 Singing Stars outfit, Arrington contacted Battle about collaborating. “He had the singers, we had the musicians,” recalled Battle, whose brother Dennis played bass. Robert Holland came over from the 5 Singing Stars, Arrington’s brother Willie played keyboard, and drummer Wayne “Puddin’” Davis was recruited from secular R&B act the Soul Drivers. Sponsored by Royal’s Clothing Store and Davis Fish Market, the Goldenaires began visiting WCEC twice a month to fill their own dedicated slot. Calls started coming in from throughout the broadcast area. Bishop Dready Manning invited the rising talents to record two sides—“My Life Depends On You” and “I’ll Be Waiting Up There”—in a small studio adjacent to his Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, home for his Manning Big Sound Recordings label. Out-of-the-way-country-church gigs begat gigs further up Highway 258 into Virginia’s tidewater region. It was only a matter of time before Bill Johnson of Norfolk’s Pinewood Records heard the Goldenaires’ name on the wire and, after witnessing a 1973 performance, invited them to record.
The Fantastic Goldenaires, minus Willie Arrington, traveled five-deep in Robert Holland’s decommissioned Pontiac patrol car to track “Thank You Lord” and a reconfigured “I’ll Be Waiting Up There.” While Pinewood serviced its sprawling catalog to religious stores and stations throughout the southeast, most copies of the resulting record got only as far as the Fantastic Goldenaires were willing to carry them. Hoping to expose their talents to a larger audience, Johnson approached the combo about recording with Mel & Tim’s backing unit in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, but their teenaged devotion and religious families kept crossover careers at bay. “The first thing we thought was, ‘If we do this, our mothers will kill us!’” mused Battle. “That’s the biggest sin you can commit!” As the group’s individual talents fully matured, the Fantastic Goldenaires were stripped for parts. Battle, then Arrington, and finally Puddin’ left for Raleigh’s Fantastic Violinaires. Robert Holland stayed in the Goldenaires driver’s seat and, following relocation to Richmond, Virginia, at decade’s end, recorded A Gospel Celebration for Ambient Records. In grand gospel tradition, the 1980 LP featured only one original Fantastic Goldenaire.