The matriarch of the influential Southern gospel trio the Singing Rambos, Dottie Rambo looms as one of the most prolific songwriters in the postwar spiritual music canon, composing thousands of ballads and hymns recorded by acts spanning from Elvis Presley to Dolly Parton to Whitney Houston. Born Joyce Reba Luttrell in Madisonville, Kentucky, on March 2, 1934, she learned to play guitar by imitating her favorite Grand Ole Opry headliners, and at age eight composed her first original songs. Two years later she was a fixture on local country radio broadcasts, but at 12 she became a born-again Christian and ceased performing secular music, though she never denounced it. Rambo's decision to embrace Christianity caused an irreparable rift with her father, and the teen soon left home to tour the Midwest and the South as a member of the trio the Gospel Echoes. At 16 she met and married Buck Rambo, and later, with daughter Reba, the family recorded and toured as the Singing Rambos, forging a distinctive approach embracing elements of traditional country and black gospel. In time, fellow Southern gospel act the Happy Goodman Family introduced Dottie to country singer and then-Louisiana governor Jimmie Davis, who signed her to his Jimmie Davis Music publishing firm. By her own estimation, Rambo composed more than 2,500 songs during the course of her career, among them "He Looked Beyond My Fault and Saw My Need," "I Go to the Rock," "Sheltered in the Arms of God," and "Mama's Teaching Angels How to Sing" -- Elvis recorded her "If That Isn't Love," and secular country and bluegrass artists including Bill Monroe, Porter Wagoner, Mel Tillis, and Vince Gill covered her material as well.
In 1967, the Singing Rambos mounted their first overseas tour, including stops to perform for U.S. troops in Vietnam, where Dottie also ministered in a series of field hospitals. (According to legend, the trio was forced to appear credited as "the Swinging Rambos" due to government concerns the Vietcong might attack a Christian group.) The Vietnam dates vaulted the Rambos to new prominence, and in 1968 they signed to Warner Bros., with Rambo winning a Grammy Award for her solo effort It's the Soul of Me, one of the first recordings by a white gospel artist to employ black backup singers. During the decade to follow, the Singing Rambos recorded extensively for the Heartwarming Records imprint, issuing a series of best-sellers including 1971's Reflections, 1975's These Three Are One, and 1978's Down by the Creek Bank. For "We Shall Behold Him," Rambo scored the 1982 Gospel Music Association Song of the Year award, and for six years she hosted her own series on the Trinity Broadcasting Network. However, in 1989 she suffered a ruptured disk that left her left leg paralyzed -- she spent the decade to follow undergoing a series of surgeries that ultimately reinstated limited mobility but sidelined her music career. She and Buck divorced in April 1994, and weeks later he married her secretary. Rambo was also the victim of financial wrongdoing by ministry employees. She returned to touring in 2002, and a year later released the comeback LP Stand by the River; another new album, Sheltered, was completed in late 2007. Rambo died May 11, 2008, of injuries sustained in a tour bus accident en route to a scheduled Mother's Day performance in Mount Vernon, Missouri. She was 74. ~ Jason Ankeny