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Kingdom Heirs (1971-Present)
The Kingdom Heirs were formed in 1971 in Knoxville, Tennessee. Original members included Patty Wilson (alto), Jim Bluford (tenor), Gene McKinney (lead), Raymond Parker (bass), and a 13-year-old Gary Bilyeu (piano). They were all teenagers at the time. Within a few months, they had added a bass guitar player named Gary Arnold and a 13-year-old drummer named Jim Ford. The name Kingdom Heirs was based on James 2:5. Wilson, Parker, and Arnold were with the group for less than a year. Steve Gouge became the new bass guitar player in July, and Mike Shuemaker joined to sing baritone in August. That first year, they recorded one 45-rpm single which included the songs "After All" and "I Have Confidence."
For a few years, the group was billed as The New Kingdom Heirs to avoid being confused with another Kingdom Heirs group based in Sparta, Tennessee. The group was incorporated as The New Kingdom Heirs in 1974. Concert promoter Reverend J. Bazzell Mull's recommendation opened the door for their first performance at Silver Dollar City (now Dollywood) in 1976. In 1979, they secured a trademark on the name Kingdom Heirs. At the prompting of Rev. Mull, they dropped the word "new" from the group name.
By 1981, the group had expanded to a total of 12 members (including manager Bill Hutson). That year, they released an album titled 10th Anniversary Edition to celebrate their first decade singing together.
In 1982, after the departure of 8-year veteran bass singer Duane Wyrick, six more members of the Kingdom Heirs decided to retire including founding members Gene McKinney and Gary Bilyeu and original drummer Jim Ford. With Wayne Mitchell, three band members and manager Bill Hutson remaining, they brought in David McGill (lead), Steve French (baritone), Kreis French (bass guitar), and Randall Hunley (piano).
In 1986, Silver Dollar City's name was changed to Dollywood, and the Kingdom Heirs became a full-time resident group at the park. They joined forces with the Sonlite Records label that year as well. In 2010 and 2015, the group released 25th and 30th anniversary CDs respectively. These recordings mark the anniversaries of their full-time status at Dollywood and their partnership with Sonlite Records, not the anniversaries of the group's formation.
Some familiar names who were part of the Kingdom Heirs during the 1980s include bass singers Jody Medford and Bob Caldwell and former Singing Americans members Rick Strickland and Clayton Inman. In 1989, the readers of Singing News magazine took notice of the Caldwell/Strickland/Inman/French line-up, recognizing the Kingdom Heirs as the Horizon Group.
A young drummer named Dennis Murphy joined this version of the group in 1991, but they were only together for a short time after Murphy's arrival. Bob Caldwell joined Hovie Lister & The Statesmen in 1991 and Strickland joined JD Sumner And The Stamps Quartet in 1992. Clayton Inman would leave for Won By One in 1994. The next couple of years were a rebuilding stage for the Kingdom Heirs with Eric Bennett replacing Bob Caldwell, former Singing Americans member David Sutton joining to sing tenor, and Steve Lacey filling the lead spot for about a year starting in 1994.
In 1995, the group's sound gelled after the arrival of lead singer Arthur Rice. The Sutton/Rice/French/Bennett line-up took the Kingdom Heirs to the number one spot on the Singing News chart in September 2001 with a remake of Rex Nelon's "That's Why I Love To Call His Name." Between 1995 and 2002, the only change for the Kingdom Heirs was the departure of pianist/comedian Jamie Graves and the addition of pianist Jeff Stice. The group only toured for a few weeks each winter, so they typically saw large crowds when they were on the road. The rest of the year at Dollywood, they continued to be a main attraction.
Near the end of 2002, David Sutton, Eric Bennett and Jeff Stice announced they would be leaving the Kingdom Heirs to form their own quartet. They would ultimately join forces with another former Kingdom Heirs member, Clayton Inman, and his son Scotty to form Integrity (now Triumphant Quartet). The Kingdom Heirs hired Jodi Hosterman to sing tenor, bass singer Jeff Chapman, and Adam Harman to play the keyboard. The new line-up quickly found their footing. They celebrated two more number one songs in 2005 ("I Know I'm Going There" in February and "Forever Changed" in August).
Jodi Hosterman left the group in 2005, citing vocal difficulties. He was replaced at the tenor position by Billy Hodges. Adam Harman played piano for the Kingdom Heirs for five years. He was replaced in January 2007 for a few months by Joseph Cox. Andy Stringfield was hired to play piano in March of 2007.
In 2008, the Kingdom Heirs' song "What We Needed" reached the number one spot on the Singing News radio airplay chart. Billy Hodges resigned in 2011, and similar to Hosterman, Hodges attributed his departure to vocal strain issues. Jerry Martin took over the tenor role after the departure of Hodges. In 2010, "He Locked The Gates" reached the number one spot on the Singing News radio airplay chart.
The most successful stretch at radio for the Kingdom Heirs came in an 18-month period between April 2012 and October 2014. During this stretch, the songs "Tell Me Why," "Just Preach Jesus," "Just Beyond The Sunset," "The Borrowed Tomb," and "I'll Know I'm Home" were all number one songs on the Singing News radio airplay chart. Baritone and group manager Steve French left the Kingdom Heirs in late 2014. Andy Stringfield sang baritone for several months, followed by Brian Alvey, who was eventually replaced by Loren Harris. The radio success continued in 2020 with "Come To The Well" hitting number one on the Singing News radio airplay chart that April.
In 2022, long-time lead singer Arthur Rice left the Kingdom Heirs to become a church music director. At that point, Loren Harris moved from baritone to the lead role and Andy Stringfield resumed a dual role as baritone/pianist. The shakeup continued in 2023 with the departure of long-time bass Jeff Chapman to join Gold City and Jacob Ellison to take a position with a church in Florida. Former Kingsmen Quartet tenor Josh Horrell and former Monument Quartet and Songfellows bass Brad Smith stepped into the vacant roles. A guitarist and occasional vocalist, John Young, was added around the same time, giving the group a four-piece band. Later that year, health issues forced Loren Harris off-stage for a couple of months, eventually leading to his resignation that September. Former Kingsmen lead Chris Bryant was then announced as the new lead singer on the first night of the 2023 National Quartet Convention.
Singing News Fan Awards:
Horizon Group (1989)
Favorite Band (2002, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019)