RIP: Clay Graham of the Pilgrim Jubilees

By Bob Marovich

The Journal of Gospel Music learned that Mr. Clay Graham of the legendary gospel quartet the Pilgrim Jubilees has passed away.

One of thirteen children born to Columbus and Josephine Chandler Graham, Clay Graham was born August 26, 1936. He would go on to fame as lead singer and sermonette spinner for the Pilgrim Jubilee Singers.

Formed in 1944 in Houston, Mississippi, the Pilgrim Jubilee Singers (later shortened to the Pilgrim Jubilees, or the “Jubes”) began as a family quartet consisting of brothers Theophilus “Hoppy” Graham and Elgie C. B. Graham, cousin Monroe Hatchett and cousins-in-law Willis Johnson and Alfred Brownlee. The group sang at the family’s home church, New Zion Missionary Baptist Church, and other local venues.

The Jubes disbanded briefly in 1947 when Hoppy migrated to Chicago, but he reassembled the quartet in 1950 when Elgie, Cleave and Monroe joined him up North. They added fellow Mississippian Major Roberson, formerly of the Pilgrim Harmonizers; Robertson was a songwriter who became the group’s booking manager. As soon as he was old enough, Clay Graham became a member.

During their years with Peacock (1959-75), the Jubes hit their stride. In particular, they introduced two elements that became emblematic of their sound: substitution of the bass guitar for the bass voice (“Stretch Out”) and Clay’s use of sermonettes, or brief morality stories, to introduce an old hymn or new song (“True Story”). “True Story” was based on a conversation Clay had with a North Side man who was beaten down by life and wondered whether the Lord would forget him when he died.

In 1980, the Jubes signed with Savoy Records. By now one of the most popular quartets in the nation, the Jubes—comprised of Clay and Cleave Graham, Roberson and Ben Chandler—recorded one album a year for Savoy until 1984.

Three years later, they debuted what would become a longstanding association with Malaco Records with Gospel Roots. The album featured a Clay sermonette called “Barnyard” and a new version of “Old Ship of Zion.” Nearly every Malaco album, in fact, carried a Clay sermonette. For example, “Little Willie” graced the 1989 album Back to Basics, while 1991’s Family Affair introduced “True Story” to a new generation of listeners.

The Jubes were the first gospel quartet to be the subject of a full-length biography. Written by New Zealander Alan Young, The Pilgrim Jubilees was published in 2001 by the University Press of Mississippi. It remains an essential title on gospel music history. That same year, the Jubes were inducted into the American Gospel Quartet Convention Hall of Fame.

More information on Clay Graham’s homegoing services will be available when announced. Meanwhile, we at JGM extend our deepest condolences to Mr. Graham’s family, friends, and many fans.

About Bob Marovich

Bob Marovich is a gospel music historian, author, and radio host. Founder of Journal of Gospel Music blog (formally The Black Gospel Blog) and producer of the Gospel Memories Radio Show.

23 comments

  1. Our heartfelt condolences and prayers are being sent out on behalf of Clay Graham’s family, friends and especially those who had the opportunity of worshipping with him in the music industry. We We would like to say, ” Clay’s labor for the Kingdom of God will always be remembered in our hearts and mind”. His songs will forever be on our lips for years to come. Thank you Mrs. Graham for sharing this spiritual legacy with the World! We will be missed but not forgotten! ” Hannah’s Healing House”

  2. Evangelist Mary Tillman – St Louis, MO
    The Pilgrim Jubilees are dear to the Quartet Lovers in St Louis! We looked forward to The Jubes coming to the Baptist Building for “Stretch Out” Day with Darling Helen Smith Lumpkins and Quartets on Parade. Clay and Cleve Graham blessed our hearts with “down-home” stories of life and that great harmony! R.I.P. our brother! Radio Angel – Radio-One, Inc., WFUN 95.5 FM

  3. Catherine Cooper

    On behalf of the many Pilgrim Jubilee’s fans in Memphis, TN, R.I.P. Clay. We will always love and remember you. My very favorite sermonette from you was The Three Trees. You was a phenomenal gospel singer who made us feel God’s Holy Spirit through song. Cleave and family, our condolences. Memphis is praying for you.

  4. C.w.Vance, lead singer Might Gospel Warriors,Bruce,Ms ,loves me sum Jubes, Mr.Clay always encouraged us to give it our all, I think it was because we was his homeboys, and Mr.Clay I promise, I Won’t Let him Down!!! RIP,Mr.Clay ,I gotcha back!!! Mississippi style!!!

  5. Clay will be greatly missed. Prayers and condolences to the family.

  6. Prayers and condolences to the family. Clay will be greatly missed.

  7. Mr Clay Graham will be missed he bought so much to the gospel 🎵
    Field my heart was truly hurt . I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Clay and he was such a fun person to sit and talk to. My condolences goes out to the graham family . Prayers are with you all.RIH a great legend Clay Graham

  8. Condolences to the Graham Family & Pilgrim Jubilees
    From the Dixie Travelers & CheeseBurger Bro.

  9. Rev. thomas Spann and The Brooklyn Allstar Singers

    God bless those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Matthew 5:4

  10. Rev. thomas Spann and The Brooklyn Allstar Singers

    With the deepest of sympathy for this loss to all the family and friends of one of the few pioneers left in this quartet journey. Many years of trials and victories we have shared. Take your wings and fly my friend until we meet again.

  11. My Deepest Condolences To The Family. So Sorry For The Loss Of One Of The Greatest Singer.

  12. God bless and keep the family, friends, and quartet industry in the death of my friend Mr. Clay Graham. I will forever cherish the memories, pictures, laughter and fun we shared traveling up and down the highway singing praises to the Most High God. The best memories when we use to all sing in Houston then come to Clarksdale. Blessings to all who knew and loved Clay!!! 1978 – 2001 was some good years for us!!!

    I bet Pastor Shawn Jones, Clay Graham, Willie Banks, Frank Williams, Slim, Scotty, Robert Johnson, Willie Landfair, Pastor Cleveland Willingham, Pastor Willie Morganfield are singing in heaven now and i guess DJ – Mr. Early Wright is say “nothing but the best sanging miles around” lol!!! Rest easy guys save my verse for me!!

    • They are resting in the grave awaiting the resurrection, see 1st Thessalonians 4:16, not singing in heaven because in Ecclesiastes the bible says that the dead knows nothing.

  13. A wonderful person from a fantastic group. They gave my kids a ride home to Chicago when they were small and my girls never forgot it. RIP. Your labor will long be remembered.

  14. My condolences to the Graham family on your loss of a real sweet and dear person Mr. Clay Graham his memories will always be dear and sweet to our families. I remember the last time I talked with him in Pensacola, he told me if I knew Pensacola was so far from Chicago I’ll still be in Chicago. It was a joy and pleasure to meet and know him….Rest easy Clay

  15. To the Graham family our sincere condolences to you. Clay Graham was a legend in the gospel world. From the Redding and Rogers Family Sanford N.C.

  16. To the Graham Family our family and I in Tyler Texas love the pilgrim jubilees we were heartbroken to hear about clay we are praying for the entire family sending condolences from Guitar Jesse Green and Family

  17. Rest in peace Clay from the Black Gospel Quartet Lover’s on Facebook and from Bright Star Productions Apex,NC you will be missed!!!!

  18. Rest well clay, you will be missed.

  19. Larry Moore and The Sensation Nightingales

    To The Graham Family and The Jubes. It was an honor to know and have the
    Opportunity to sing on the same programs with Bro Clay. The last time I saw him was December 2017.
    He told me to stay with Bro Sug and Bro JoJo of the gales. He said he was very proud of me. On behalf of Larry Moore and The Sensation Nightingales, we loved you but God love you more. RIP

  20. Shirley Herndon/Barbara Fedrick

    May God continue to surround The Family with His MightyPower. We loved the “Jubes.” Traveled thoughtout Ohio, to hear them whenever in town. Gonna really miss Bro. Clay a Great Singer…Ummm My Lord!!!

  21. Sadness to hear that The Legendary Clay Graham passed away.There Will Never be another voice nor accent like his.RIP Mr.Graham.

  22. Rip Clay Graham! To the family we here in Montgomery Al. are truly sorry for your loss of such a wonderful singer. May God grant you strength to make it through this bereavement. God bless you all.
    Pandora Harris; Montgomery Al.

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