Bobby Jones
Jason Kempin/Getty Images for BET

It had been rumored for a while, but when BET announced that this season of Bobby Jones Gospel—a show that premiered in 1980—would be its swan song, was the host sad?

“Oh my goodness, it’s like losing a child,” said Jones by phone last week. Then he chuckled and the chuckle turned into a giggle, then into about 15 seconds of outright laughter. He acknowledged that the show had accomplished so much in 35 years that it was impossible not to feel sad, but that the pride in a job well done outweighed the sadness. 

Bobby Jones Gospel, which airs Sunday mornings on BET, is a pioneering show not only in gospel but also in music television in general. One of the longest-continuously-running shows on cable, it premiered a year before MTV launched. The show features performances and in-depth interviews and has served as a springboard to fame for some of today’s leading performers, including Yolanda Adams, Smokie Norful, Mary Mary and Kirk Franklin. The show has played an integral part in a recording boom that took gospel from the fringes to being a prominent genre with nearly 30 million records sold in 2008, before streaming and the Great Recession took its toll on the music industry. 

“Radio can only do so much,” said Jones about the secret to the show’s success. “Also, conventional television only airs gospel in the very early hours of Sunday morning. BET gave us a platform to bring the music to major markets like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago in a way that hadn’t been done before.” 

Jones won a 1983 Grammy for Best Soul Gospel Performance by a Duo or Group for the song “I’m So Glad I’m Standing Here Today,” a duet with Barbara Mandrell. He got his start in television in 1976 as host of Nashville Gospel for WSM (now WSMV). In addition to his flagship BET show, he has hosted Bobby Jones Next Generation for the Gospel Music Channel and Bobby Jones Presents for the Word Network.

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He hosts two radio shows and an international gospel retreat in Las Vegas, and he is the author of two books: the memoir Make a Joyful Noise: My 25 Years in Gospel, and Touched by God, a collection of inspirational stories from top gospel artists. Jones also leads the Nashville Super Choir, and he opened Visions, a recording studio in Nashville, Tenn. 

Is this what he envisioned after his first BET show 35 years ago? He laughed again. “Are you kidding? Very few people knew what cable television was back then much less what BET was. I just hoped we could do a second season,” he said. 

The final season will feature appearances and performances by Franklin, Adams, Mary Mary, Shirley Caesar, Hezekiah Walker, Tamela Mann, Tye Tribbett and numerous other leading gospel stars. Asked if he had any regrets about his tenure, he mentioned that he wished the show could have had a later time slot. “I think even more people would have appreciated what we do,” he said.

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Jones giggled again when asked about his future plans. He mentioned that it only takes two weeks to film a season’s worth of shows, so he plans to maintain a busy schedule, especially with the Nashville Super Choir. Even at 75, Jones shows no sign of slowing down. 

“I have widened people’s perspective on gospel; there’s still a lot of work to be done,” he said.

Editor’s note: The farewell season premieres Oct. 11 at 9 a.m. on BET.

Martin Johnson writes about music for the Wall Street Journal, basketball for Slate and beer for Eater, and he blogs at both the Joy of Cheese and Rotations. Follow him on Twitter