As a solo artist and as a member of her family group the Rambos, Dottie Rambo has exerted a fundamental influence on the development of modern Southern Gospel music. Rambo has released award-winning recordings and appeared on numerous television programs and video recordings. Yet her greatest impact has been as a songwriter, with several major gospel classics among her more than 2,500 published compositions. According to her Kentucky Music Museum Hall of Fame biography, "Dottie ranks with the beloved Fanny Crosby [the nineteenth-century composer of "Blessed Assurance" and other standard hymns] among the women who have had the greatest impact in the field of gospel music."
Dottie Rambo was born Joyce Reba Lutrell in Madison-ville, Kentucky, on March 2, 1934. Her family suffered hard times during the Great Depression, and moved several times between towns and failing farms. In her composition "Mama Always Had a Song to Sing," she wrote that "I've seen my daddy tracking swamp rabbit in our back holler/More than once that was all we had to eat," and whether or not the line was directly autobiographical, she certainly knew poverty at an early age. Her father sometimes worked as a prison guard.
When Rambo was eight, she composed, to her mother's disbelief, her first song. It was secular, and soon she had taken up the guitar and learned country songs that came over the radio from Nashville, Tennessee, like Ernest Tubb's "Walkin' the Floor Over You." Her performing debut came on a local radio station. At age 11 or 12, Rambo had a conversion experience in a local Pentecostal church. "The Holy Spirit did a number on me," she told the Tampa Tribune. "Just washed over me and set everything on fire." From then on, despite various offers to sing secular music when she became famous, she performed gospel exclusively.
Rambo's father was not pleased. "He says he didn't want any Holy Roller in the house," she told the Tribune. "He was so mad, he went outside and destroyed a whole acre of corn. Just pulled it all up by the roots!" He hoped instead that she would become a country star who could appear on the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. As Rambo's commitment to Christianity deepened, her father's anger grew into physical abuse of Rambo and her mother. In order to help her daughter, Rambo's mother altered her own favorite dress so that it would fit her daughter's body, and walked with her for seven miles to the nearest bus stop. Rambo, aged 12, departed on the bus for Indianapolis, where she had been invited to sing.
Abuse from older men continued to mark Rambo's life; living as a teenage Christian singer on the road, she found lodging mostly in the homes of preachers, doing housework in exchange for a room. But often, she told Waveney Ann Moore of the St. Petersburg Times, she had to hide in closets from preachers who tried to molest her. Music provided a positive aspect to her life, as she won applause from audiences at churches, Sunday schools, and revivals. It was at a revival where she was performing that she met Buck Rambo, who had come to hear her sing. The two were married when she was 16, and the couple's daughter, Reba, was born 18 months later.
Rambo's powerful alto voice, smoother than but evocative of country gospel star Martha Carson, gained her fans wherever she went. Dottie and Buck Rambo formed the Singing Echoes (later the Gospel Echoes) and spent $600 making an album, quickly recouping their investment by selling 1,000 copies out of the back of their car. They later began touring as the Singing Rambos, and when daughter Reba was 13 she joined them to form a trio. At first they performed in front of the same small religious groups that had hosted Rambo before her marriage. The group became known for its so-called inverted harmonies, in which members traded off lead vocals over the course of a song.
In the early 1960s Rambo's career as a writer saw a breakthrough: she was signed to a publishing company headed by Louisiana governor Jimmie Davis, who had gone through successful musical careers as a raunchy bluesman and singing cowboy movie star (the latter while serving as governor) and embarked on a gospel career of his own. Davis encountered Rambo's music because other performers had begun to sing her songs—he heard the gospel group Happy Goodman Family sing one of her songs, and asked who had written it. Rambo was subsequently invited to perform at the governor's mansion in Baton Rouge. The Singing Rambos scored a breakthrough of their own in 1964 when they were signed to the Heart Warming label, one of the two most successful gospel imprints (along with Canaan) of the day. They briefly recorded for Warner Brothers, which made an unsuccessful attempt to persuade Rambo to sing secular folk music. She toured Vietnam in support of American troops in 1967.
It was the wide-open spirit of the late 1960s that propelled Rambo to stardom. In 1968 she recorded It's the Soul of Me, a groundbreaking collaboration with an African-American gospel choir that earned her a Grammy Award for Best Soul Gospel Performance, a Billboard magazine Trendsetter award, markedly broadening her commercial reach. The Rambos' albums of the late 1960s and early 1970s also had a strong soul flavor, replaced by an orientation toward country gospel music in the late 1970s. Almost alone among Southern Gospel artists and songwriters, Rambo gained a following in the African-American community. Her best-known song, "He Looked Beyond My Faults" (written in 1970 as her brother converted to Christianity on his deathbed) was recorded by major black gospel artists including Andraé Crouch and Vanessa Bell Armstrong.
Other Rambo compositions were hardly less famous. She could write with equal effectiveness in a variety of idioms, from bluegrass harmony, to soulful religious ballads with long, majestic lines that solo singers loved, to big-beat black-influenced pieces like "I Go to the Rock," sung by R&B star Whitney Houston on the soundtrack of the film The Preacher's Wife. The list of performers who have recorded Rambo's songs includes Barbara Mandrell ("I Will Glory in the Cross"), Jerry Lee Lewis ("He Looked Beyond My Faults"), Connie Smith ("Remind Me, Dear Lord" and others), the Oak Ridge Boys ("On the Sunny Banks"), and Bill Monroe ("It's Me Again, Lord"). A key backer and Rambo friend was Elvis Presley, who recorded "If That Isn't Love" in 1973; at the time of his death in 1977 he was planning to record an entire album of Rambo songs.
The Rambos remained a consistent presence on the gospel scene in the 1970s and 1980s, and Rambo appeared on numerous Christian television programs. She took home a Gospel Music Association Song of the Year award for "We Shall Behold Him" in 1982, and her children's Christmas album Down by the Creek Bank eventually reached million-seller status. But she began suffering from back problems due to a ruptured disc. For much of the 1990s she was sidelined as she underwent 12 surgical procedures to try to correct the problem. One of these left her partially paralyzed, and her marriage to Buck Rambo dissolved after 43 years. Honors came Rambo's way, including an award as Songwriter of the Century from the Christian Country Music Association in 1994 and a lifetime-achievement award from the ASCAP licensing agency in 2000.
For the Record …
Born March 2, 1934, in Madisonville, KY; married Buck Rambo, ca. 1950 (divorced); one daughter, Reba.
Left home at age 12 to tour as gospel singer; began performing with husband, Buck Rambo; performed as the Singing Echoes and the Gospel Echoes; performed with husband and daughter Reba as the Singing Rambos, early 1960s; group signed to Heart Warming label, 1964; toured Vietnam, 1967; recorded album It's the Soul of Me with African-American gospel choir, 1968; wrote widely recorded song "He Looked Beyond My Fault and Saw My Need," 1970; released more than 70 albums as soloist and with the Singing Rambos, later renamed the Rambos; composed more than 2,500 songs; underwent numerous surgeries for back problems, 1980s and 1990s; composed children's gospel musical Down by the Creek Bank, 1996; returned to performing; released Stand by the River album, 2003.
Awards: Grammy Award, Best Soul Gospel Performance (for It's the Soul of Me), 1968; Billboard magazine trendsetter of the year award, 1968; Dove Awards, Songwriter of the Year, Song of the Year, for "We Shall Behold Him," 1981; Gospel Music Hall of Fame, inducted 1991; Christian Country Music Association, Songwriter of the Century award, 1994, songwriter of the year award, 2003; ASCAP lifetime achievement award, 2000; Kentucky Music Hall of Fame, inducted 2006.
Addresses: Office—Dottie Rambo Ministries, P.O. Box 120039, Nashville, TN 37212.
Few would have expected Rambo to resume her performing career, but she did just that. "I decided that I would not go down the road of depression," Rambo told John Lanier of Christian Voice. "Physical pain is one thing, but there is no pain like that of a broken heart, and only God can heal that." Undergoing rehabilitation and learning to walk once again, Rambo welcomed Dolly Parton and other guest stars who appeared on her 2003 album Stand by the River. She conducted seminars for aspiring gospel songwriters, and kept writing songs with an eye to the future. In 2006 she was inducted into the Kentucky Music Museum Hall of Fame.
It's the Soul of Me, Heart Warming, 1968.
Makin' My Own Place, Heart Warming, 1981.
Down by the Creek Bank, Impact, 1996.
Stand by the River, Spring Hill, 2003.
Dottie Rambo with the Homecoming Friends, Gaither Gospel, 2004.
With the Rambos
If That Isn't Love, Vista, 1969.
The Soul Singing Rambos, Heart Warming, 1969.
An Evening with the Singing Rambos, Heart Warming, 1970.
Nashville Gospel, Heart Warming, 1970.
Soul in the Family, Heart Warming, 1972.
Belief, Vista, 1973.
Too Much to Gain to Lose, Vista, 1973.
Alive and Live at Soul's Harbor, Heart Warming, 1974.
Rambo Country, Heart Warming, 1976.
Naturally, Heart Warming, 1977.
Silver Jubilee, Heart Warming, 1979.
Memories Made New, Heart Warming, 1983.
Rambos Collection, Riversong, 1998.
Very Best of the Rambos, New Haven, 2003.
Best of the Rambos, Benson.
Christian Reader, November-December 2003, p. 14.
Christian Voice, November 2006, p. 14.
PR Newswire, January 5, 2006.
St. Petersburg Times, September 2, 2000, p. B6.
Tampa Tribune, September 2000, p. 7.
"Dottie Rambo," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (November 18, 2006).
"Dottie Rambo," Kentucky Music Museum, http://www.kentuckymusicmuseum.com/hall_of_fame.htm (November 18, 2006).
"Dottie Rambo Bio," Dottie Rambo Official Website, http://www.dottierambo.net (November 18, 2006).
"The Rambos," GMA Gospel Music Hall of Fame, http://www.gmahalloffame.org (November 18, 2006).
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