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Who James Roberts
What James Roberts - Many of minister's songs became gospel standards
When June 23, 2007
Where Lexington, KY

It is only fitting that James Roberts' passing, at the age of 89, will be marked today in Lexington by song and jubilation. In fact, the songs of jubilation will be those the native Kentuckian penned himself.

The songs — Man of Galilee and When God Dips The Pen of His Love In My Heart — are now long-loved gospel standards that have been sung by millions.

And, judging from his family story, his lengthy resume and impressive discography, Mr. Roberts had a hand in most of the important musical movements that ran through Kentucky during the first half of the last century.

Mr. Roberts began singing with his famous daddy when he was only 10. His father, Fiddlin' Doc Roberts, was a bluesy artist and considered one of the fathers of American fiddle music. He was certainly among the state's premier old-time musicians and among the first to extensively record the music of the region. (His papers are archived at Berea College.)

The young Roberts was among the eldest of Doc's 12 children. As a teen, he moved on to work and record with Asa Martin until 1938, recording Knoxville Girl, Give My Love to Nell and The Little Box of Pine on the 7:29. (His is the high childlike voice on some extant works, as many recordings were done before his voice changed.)

Mr. Roberts' first wife was Martha Carson, often referred to now as either "The First Lady of Gospel Music" or "The Rockin' Queen of Happy Spirituals." Carson and her sisters had performed folk and gospel music as The Sunshine Girls before her marriage. Later, touring as James and Martha Carson, the "Barn Dance Sweethearts," the couple worked out of Atlanta radio station WSB.

Mr. Roberts and his wife treated World War II-era audiences to their sterling guitar and mandolin duos. During that time, Mr. Roberts wrote many of their classics, including He Will Set Your Fields on Fire and When He Heard My Plea.

The couple's recordings on the White Church and Capitol labels, around 1950, are considered their signature and finest work.

After 11 years together, Martha left her husband and went on to greater fame, writing the sentimental standard Satisfied, the first gospel tune to cross over to country and pop charts. It was even recorded by Elvis Presley.

Alene Roberts, Mr. Roberts' cousin, says he "loved Martha until the day he died."

He married twice more. He was an ordained minister who never forgot why and to whom he sang. His singing voice began to fail him in the last few years, something he much regretted.

A vibrant man for a very long time, he ventured in his late 70s to take a high school equivalency test, something he had neglected to obtain when he was a younger man. He passed with flying colors.

Visitation was at 1:30 p.m., Saturday, June 23 at Kerr Brothers Funeral Home on Harrodsburg Road. The funeral was to be at 2:30 p.m.

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