The Rev. J. Bazzel Mull

Farewell, 'Ain't that right. . . ?' Southern gospel music icon dies at 91

"Ain't that right, Mizz Mull?"

The Rev. J. Bazzel Mull, who died Tuesday at age 91, may be the most quoted man in East Tennessee.

For 60 years, his gravel-truck voice was a staple of regional radio and TV, and his familiar query to his wife and "Mull Singing Convention" co-host was a much-mimicked catchphrase to generations of East Tennesseans.

Elizabeth Mull was best known as "Mizz Mull" or "Lady Mull" to listeners of the "Mull Singing Convention" broadcasts. The couple would have celebrated their 62nd anniversary on Sunday.

J. Bazzel Mull (the "J" stood for Jacob) was born Oct. 4, 1914, in Burke County, N.C. He began preaching in 1939 and moved to Knoxville in 1942, where he began a radio program on radio station WROL-AM. Later, he was heard on WNOX-AM.

The Rev. Mull owned several East Tennessee radio stations during his long career. At the time of his death, he was the owner of gospel radio station WJBZ, Praise 96.3, in Knoxville.

"The Mull Singing Convention," which moved to television in 1956, is still broadcast at 7 a.m. Sundays on WVLT, Channel 8. The program was seen on WBIR, Channel 10, before moving a few years ago to WVLT.

"The Mull Singing Convention" celebrated its 50th anniversary in August. The Rev. Mull's grandson, Doug Hutchison, said the program is confirmed as the longest-running locally produced television show in the United States.

Elizabeth Mull and daughter Charlotte Mull Hutchison now host the program. The Rev. Mull withdrew from the TV show, and from his Sunday evening preaching service on WJBZ, after suffering a stroke about nine months ago.

Hutchison said his grandfather's stroke brought on dementia. Several other strokes followed, including one about a week and a half ago that left the Rev. Mull unresponsive. He was moved from the hospital to a nursing home, where he died at 4:30 a.m. Tuesday.

The Rev. Mull was a businessman who promoted Southern gospel music concerts and published and distributed a series of six "Mull's Singing Convention" songbooks. The latest hymnal was published as "Number 7" in the series, even though it followed edition No. 5.

"He didn't like the number 6," said Hutchison, who explained that he doesn't know why (perhaps it was because 666 is the biblical Mark of the Beast).

"For a blind man to achieve as much as he did, he was bound to have some eccentricities," said Hutchison, who manages WJBZ and the other Mull family enterprises.

The Rev. Mull lost his sight at 11 months old, the result of falling into an open-pit fire.

"Through his 20s he could tell daylight from dark," Hutchison said. "But from his early 30s on, he was completely blind."

Hutchison said that many people didn't realize his grandfather was blind. In public, he wore oversized glasses with thick lenses - possibly to obscure the fact that he often had his eyelids closed during his TV broadcasts, Hutchison theorized.

"He was never one to bring to the forefront his handicap," the grandson said. "I talk to people still today that did not know he was blind."

Elizabeth Mull - who met her future husband at a church revival in Lenoir City - was "100 percent his eyes," Hutchison said.

"Everywhere they went, she drove him; she led him everywhere." She also read the Bible to the Rev. Mull.

As a young man, it was sometimes Hutchison's job to guide his grandfather to the microphone to emcee the gospel concerts he promoted.

During the 1970s and early '80s, the Rev. Mull presented 60 to 75 concerts a year throughout the Southeast, Hutchison said.

More recently, "Mull Singing Convention" concerts have been limited to two per year at Governor's Palace in Sevierville.

During his broadcast heyday in the 1960s and '70s, the Rev. Mull was heard on a network of powerful radio stations that carried his preaching and concerts coast-to-coast.

Family vacations were rare, said Hutchison, who said his grandfather "believed in work."

Once, however, the family took a trip to the Bahamas, and a waiter at a restaurant instantly recognized the Rev. Mull's voice when he ordered a meal. The Bahamian was a regular listener to the "Mull Singing Convention," which reached the islands via New Orleans radio station WWL.

J. Bazzel and Elizabeth Mull were inducted into the Gospel Music Association Gospel Music Hall of Fame and the Southern Gospel Music Association's Southern Gospel Hall of Fame.

The Rev. Mull presented top Southern gospel acts at his concerts, including fellow Hall of Fame members the Chuck Wagon Gang. Hutchison said his grandfather discovered the group, moving it from Texas to Knoxville.

Like his good friend Cas Walker, the millionaire grocer and politician who died in 1998 at age 96, the Rev. Mull truly achieved the status of icon in his home region.

Most longtime Knoxvillians have a J. Bazzel Mull story to tell, or at least have uttered a gravelly "Ain't that right, Mizz Mull?" at some point in their lives.

The Rev. Mull had personality, his grandson said. "He loved to laugh and he loved to preach. And he would mix the two. He'd tell a joke to break the ice, then he would preach to you before you knew what happened."

That voice the Rev. Mull's extended neighbors knew so well and loved to imitate was naturally his own, his grandson said. "He never smoked; he never drank, nothing. That was just his voice. And it was very distinctive."

WJBZ will pay tribute to the Rev. Mull all this week. Listeners and gospel music artists will share their memories on air.

The funeral service will be Thursday at Mann Heritage Chapel, 6200 Kingston Pike. Receiving of friends will be 2-4 p.m. and 5-8 p.m., with a service following. The Revs. Mike Ramage and Dino Bray will officiate.

The burial service will be 11 a.m. Friday in Lenoir City. Internment will be at Lakeview Cemetery at Lenoir City Park.

"Its hard to be sad for him at 91," Hutchison said of his grandfather's death. "The sorrow is for us, the joy is for him. He can see now and the first thing he had ever seen was the face of Jesus."