Spirit Of Memphis Quartet: Tracing the history of a classic gospel group

Friday 30th April 2010

Tony Cummings looks at the music and history of the groundbreaking group SPIRIT OF MEMPHIS QUARTET

Spirit Of Memphis
Spirit Of Memphis

In the long history of gospel music, the Spirit Of Memphis Quartet are considered one of the finest and most influential groups ever to travel the Gospel Highway. They began as sedately cool harmonisers in the 'jubilee' style of the '20s and '30s, reached their apex in the early '50s when their 'church wrecking' style would literally leave dozens in the congregations 'falling out' through the power of the Spirit, and in the '60s featured in their personnel singers like Joe Hinton who was to find fleeting fame as a secular soul singer.

The humble beginnings of the group date back to 1927-28. in an interview James Darling told author/researcher Kip Lornell that the original group consisted of Darling, Burt Perkins, Arthur Wright and Arthur Wight who got together to sing at a house at Looney and Second Streets in Memphis, Tennessee. They chose the name the TM&S Quartet by taking the initials of the three churches the group members attended - The Tree Of Life, Mount Olive and St Matthew's Baptist. In his liner notes of the Spirit Of Memphis album 'Traveling On' blues and gospel expert David Evans states that the original group members included Arthur Wright, A C Harris, Forrest Terrell and James Darling and were soon joined by James Peoples, Luther McGill and Robert White. As the sleevenote of Spirit Of Memphis' 'Happy In The Service Of The Lord' states, "With various singers passing in and out of a group at its formative stage, remembering who was present at the start is a matter of undocumented memory."

Not surprisingly, the dull TM&S Quartet name proved unsatisfactory and in 1930 a group meeting was called to decide on a new moniker. As it turned out it was Charles Lindbergh's 1927 flight across the Atlantic in the plane Spirit Of St Louis which was to be the inspiration for the new name. In the book Happy In The Service Of The Lord: Afro-American Gospel Quartets In Memphis by Kip Lornell, group member James Darling remembered: "The night we had to bring in some names, I hadn't thought up a name until we got almost to [the house at] Looney and Second Street. That's where we were meeting, at Burt Perkins's house. I had a pocket handkerchief, had the Spirit Of St Louis in the corner. That's where the name really originated. I put down the Spirit Of Memphis from this Spirit Of St Louis pocket handkerchief, you know, the design in the corner."

By the late '30s professional gospel groups such as the Soul Stirrers and the Famous Blue Jay Singers were coming to play the city of Memphis and these had a huge influence on the local gospel aggregations. The Spirit Of Memphis Quartet became one of the most respected quartets in and around Memphis. During the Second World War its members continued to travel to the surrounding States for weekend gospel programmes. When travel restrictions eased around 1945 they were eager to increase their out-of-town engagements and James Darling rejoined the group to facilitate this. He told Kip Lornell, "I am the man that started them travelling. I [could] book them all over the country and that's one of the reasons that the Spirit Of Memphis wanted me to take them over. . . the connections that I had across the country from booking my wife's group [the Songbirds Of The South]. I finally agreed after Elizabeth talked me into it. I booked 'em with the Fairfield Four. . .[and] quite often with Mr Harris in Detroit, the Shields Brothers in Cleveland, all those different groups."

Darling added another significant facet to the group when alternating lead singers Silas Steele and Willmer 'Little Axe' Broadnax were brought into the fold. Darling recalled that Steele and Little Axe were fully blended into the group by early 1948. "Silas Steele had talked with me long distance and told me that his fellows was getting old and not well. They couldn't go on the road anymore and he didn't know nothing but singing, had never did nothing else. He asked me if I thought I could get him with the Spirit Of Memphis. . . So I talked with the boys and they said yes. It was 'bout six months after that I got Little Axe, when we were in Pittsburgh. Bledsoe had done all the leading and I wanted to get him some help."

Silas Steele was already a gospel legend, his appearances and recordings with the Famous Blue Jay Singers paving the way for all the "hard" quartets and soul singers that were to follow in the coming decades. In his book The Gospel Sound, Anthony Heilbut wrote, "The Blue Jays emphasized intense, low harmonies. Because they kept things in the basement, they come across roaring like lions, not whistling like birds or yowling like cats, the standard animal analogies for later quartet singers. Their hits 'Canaan Land' and 'Standing Out On The Highway' contained dialogues between the two leads, Charlie Bridges and Silas Steele, that would erupt in frenzied syncopations always swallowed up, as it were, by the bass harmonies. Bridges had the calibrated delivery of an ex-vaudevillian (he was), but Steele's preacher shouts may be the most impassioned of any quartet lead on records. His habit of rephrasing words ('over there, O-ver there, over THERE, way over there') duplicates a standard preacher tactic, but I haven't heard anybody do it on records before him. In his masterpiece, 'Sign Of The Judgment', an old Dr Watts hymn, Steel sings, 'Can't you hear God calling/Calling by the thunder/He formed the world on a wonder,' and the voice is thunder and wonder itself, the Burning Bush in song."

If Steele was an incredible addition to the Spirit Of Memphis Quartet lineup so too was Willmer 'Little Axe' Broadnax. Born in 1916 and raised in Houston the singer's name has at different times been credited Wilmer, Wilmur and Wilbur. With his brother William C Broadnax, known as Big Axe, Little Axe sang in the St Paul Gospel Singers in Houston before William relocated to Los Angeles and joined the Southern Gospel Singers. This group had been formed in the early '40s by A L Johnson who had been the manager with the Soul Stirrers. Little Axe soon joined the Southern Gospel Singers. Their lead singer, J W Alexander, was later to find fame with the Soul Stirrers. The Southern Gospel Singers recorded two records in 1939 and 1940 for the fledgling Bronze Record Company while Little Axe was with them. But all the group members with the exception of Little Axe had day jobs so chances of touring were restricted. Little Axe left to form The Golden Echoes, a group well remembered by other singers as one of the top touring groups of the time who recorded for several different labels and had in their personnel one of gospel's great bass singers, Jimmy Ricks. In 1949 Little Axe joined the Spirit Of Memphis Quartet who had turned professional in 1947. In 1948 another giant of gospel, the sanctified tenor Robert Crenshaw joined the group and who was to find even greater fame with the Five Blind Boys Of Alabama and the Swan Silvertones. Another new member of the group was Brother Theo "Bless My Bones" Wade who had sung in the Mount Olive Wonders in the late 1920s and had initially joined the Spirit Of Memphis as manager, booking agent and inspirational organiser for the group.

Spirit Of Memphis Quartet: Tracing the history of a classic gospel group

That same year, 1948, Theo cornered a staff job at WDIA where he started out with a 30-minute spot. An on-air joke has it that the Spirit Of Memphis only kept Theo on because he had a big enough car. In reality, Theo really put the Spirit Of Memphis on the map. His WDIA gospel programme, Hallelujah Jubilee, started in 1949. The show ran seven to nine on weekdays and Saturday nights and became increasingly popular during the 1950s. In early 1949 the group was noticed by T Wesley Puckett at a concert in Birmingham, Alabama. Puckett produced a record on the group, label copied as the Memphis Gospel Singers, for his newly founded Hallelujah Spirituals label based in Birmingham. The two songs, cut at radio station WJLD, were Faye Ernestine Brown's "Happy In The Service Of The Lord" and "How May Times". More tracks were cut at the sessions.

The recordings via De Luxe ended up in the hands of King Records mogul Syd Nathan who controlled the rights to the De Luxe label once owned by the Braun Bros, in New Jersey. During the spring of 1949 Nathan issued a second version on De Luxe of "(I'm) Happy In The Service Of The Lord" with the group still going by the name Memphis Gospel Singers. "My Life Is In His Hands" was chosen for the underside. Although the record sold well, Syd Nathan, who cared little for black quartet at the time, failed to issue a followup.

Meanwhile, Theo got the group into the WDIA Memphis studios and cut a series of transcriptions from live radio broadcasts. Why these recordings were not made commercially available until they turned up in 1990 on a Swedish Gospel Jubilee album, 'Happy In The Service Of The Lord", is a mystery.

With three great lead voices, Jethroe Bledsoe, Silas Steele and Little Axe, the group were now an unstoppable creative and spiritual force. Shortly before Christmas 1949 the Spirit Of Memphis, now signed exclusively to King Records, cut the first of six sessions in Cincinnati, the results of which included a bass-driven workout of "He Never Left Me Alone", a beautifully blended "Blessed Are The Dead" and an utterly riveting "The Day Is Passed And Gone". In the very first issue of Cross Rhythms magazine it was described thus: "This 78 from the Eisenhower era is one of the most spine-tingling otherworldly recordings ever put out for popular music consumption. Acappella, it consists of three awesome elements: lugubrious lead bluesily intoning a blunt declaration of faith with enough melisma and blue notes to make your average blues enthusiast go ga-ga; a rasped sermonette hoarsely exhorting Christians to keep going over "the rough side of the mountain"; and an eerie drone of precisely-harmonised 'oohs'." "The Day Is Passed And Gone" was later acknowledged as the first gospel recording to include a mini-sermon in its structure.

By 1950 the Spirit Of Memphis had become one of the highest paid quartets in the professional ranks, commanding as much as $200 each week. Breaking from tradition, Memphis-based quartets took on the gospel compositions of Memphis songwriters such as those of Rev W Herbert Brewster and Lucie E Campbell. To counter the gloom of the Cold War, quartets started going out in brightly coloured suits, developed fancy choreography and created programmes that highlighted quartet competition to fill seats. Tonality became the key to success.

On a programme fixed for Sunday afternoon, 4th December 1950 at Chicago's Du Sable high, a roster including the Spirit Of Memphis, Pilgrim Travelers and Soul Stirrers devastated the school gymnasium crowd. Taking the sale of advance tickets into their own hands, the Soul Stirrers alone sold 1,500 tickets for a dollar a pop.

Two King sessions were fulfilled in 1950. The first took place on 10th May and produced the triumphant harmonies of Brewster's "How Far Am I From Canaan", the soulfully conveyed "Calvary" and the incomparable "I'll Never Forget". The 9th December date rendered the picturesque "Automobile To Glory" (with James Keels sitting in for bass singer Earl Malone). A session in May 1951 yielded the beautifully harmonized "Every Day And Every Hour" with a spice of sermonizing added to heighten tension. "Sign Of The Judgment", also recorded at this date, fully demonstrated how close the quartet's vocal back grounding could gel. The 18th August date produced, among others, the disarming "Tell Heaven I'm Coming" and "Ease My Troubled Mind". This date finds Earl Malone returned to the group and in tip top form.

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Reader Comments

Posted by Jewell wilson in Mansfield, ma @ 19:28 on Jul 4 2017

I first heard the Spirit of Memphis Quartet at the "National Baptist Convention" in 1955. I was ten years old, and I have never forgotten the sounds, the words, nor the melody, I heard then. My Grandmother took me to the convention, she was a graduate nurse from Memphis, who moved to Illinois, with her husband and my Mother. She later brought the group to Murphysboro, Il. For appearances. The song Jesus, Lord Jesus, by Bledsoeis ingrained in my mind ..... Forever. AMEN.



Posted by J.L. McCullers in North Carolina, Raleigh @ 13:21 on Oct 12 2016

Its great to here people all over the country speak about Great Gospel singing. My father started singing and playing Gospel Music in 1952. He was and still is an announce at WAUG on Sunday Mornings. I joined his about 20 years later, however we still play great gospel music from the Golden Area of Gospel Music. I have always loved quartet music and I feel strongly about never letting it die. The Spirit of Memphis Quartet was a giant back in the day. One of my favorites. there rendition of " If I should miss Heaven is just heavenly. There intricate harmonies are the foundation of the Gospel. And another rendition of Take Your Burden To The Lord and Leave Them There is a awesome cut. God Bless All OF THE DJ that are still playing the History of Gospel Music.



Posted by Larry Gray Sr in Mississippi @ 04:08 on Jan 10 2016

I was born in Memphis ,in Binghamton, as a little boy in the 50's Nat D Williams and Theo bmb Wade played that good gospel.I road in a school bus Theo Wade drove.I collect old Gospel music,I could brag on my collection before the internet came along,but do have some stuff YouTube haven't played.RC Crenshaw is my goduncle, but we don't use that god uncle stuff,its just Uncle RC,he'll be 93 in April.



Posted by james bradford in los angelas, california @ 22:00 on Sep 26 2015

where can I buy some of there songs, with joe hinton leading?




Posted by tahara mcclary @ 23:26 on Nov 5 2014

Im looking for a booking agent



Posted by William Hawkins in Atlanta, GA @ 01:58 on Jan 22 2014

I was born in 1949, the year that Day's Passed and Gone and Blessed are the Dead was released, but the records were still popular and still being played as I grew into my teens. I loved those songs and the Spirit of Memphis Quartet. I was blessed enough to have been at a concert they did in Arlington, TN when visiting my grandmother. They were my favorite spiritual singing group of all times. Jethroe Bledsoe was one of the best leads of all times. Still have and play "Lord Jesus" Pt. 1 & 2.... AWESOME! Just wondering, is there anyone that knows what happen to Silas Steele once he left the Spirit of Memphis Quartet? There's much out there about Little Axe after he left the group, but I haven't been able to find any information on Steele after the Spirits. He was one of the greats, too. Would love to hear from anyone with any information.


Reply by Eula in Tucson @ 18:43 on Jan 10 2016

Silas was my Stepdad's older brother. He died in 1967 in Los Angeles, CA. My Stepdad was also a singer. His name was Gaines Steele and was a replacement singer for one of the original Ink Spots. He later had his own group, The Four Tunes. He died in 1991 of cancer.

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Posted by Cathy Rodriguez in Columbus, OHIO @ 23:52 on Nov 20 2013

Jethro "Jet" Bledsoe was my step-dad in the late 50's and his oldest daughter - Trina Bledsoe (mother-Bessie Johnson) definately got her lead singing voice from him. He later remarried and had 3 more daughters and one son. Ad a little girl I remember Mama playing his recordings on 78rpm and her eyes would tear up listening, while he was on the road performing.


Reply by Queen Hawkins in Eustis, Florida @ 01:41 on Jan 22 2014

Hi Cathy Rodriquez. My father was a member of a quartet group for many years in Mississippi. Therefore, we grew up loving quartet singing and no group did it better than Jet Bledsoe and the Spirit of Memphis Quartet, which my whole family loved and went to see/hear them as often as possible. My dad and Mom knew most of the members of the group including Mr. Bledsoe. You said in your comments that he was your step-dad at one time, and mentioned his daughter, Trina. Was she your sister?

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Posted by Rev. R.C.Crenshaw in Detroit, MI @ 03:07 on Oct 24 2013

I am the only living member of the Swann Silvertones from 50's and the only living member of the Spirit of Memphis Quartet.. I am living in Detoit I am 90 years old and still serving God. Associate pastor of Jerusalem M.B.Church in Detroit. God bless you Tony for keeping up with the history..


Reply by Janet in Rochester, NY @ 03:44 on Dec 15 2013

God bless you, Rev. Crenshaw! I knew them when Lewis was lead, back in the 80's. I now have a page on facebook, 'GOSPEL LEGENDS HI-LIGHTS' to promote gospel programs and music. I'm also a member of a page, 'Erskin's Quartet of Praise, which is all clips submitted of quartet's only. I aspire to have a radio show of all quartet music, particularly those that brought the music alive. Have a wonderful holiday season. Janet

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Reply by Mark Washington @ 21:44 on Nov 2 2013

God Bless you Rev. R.C. Crenshaw, both groups The Swan Silvertons and The Spirit of Memphis brought great Gospel music to millions. When I was a young boy my father played your records constantly. I cherish yhose memories.

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Posted by Tena Moss in Meridian, MS @ 07:22 on Oct 20 2013

So very AWESOME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Trust and believe, this is the real music. I have in my possession, thanks to my mother, several recordings of The Spirit of Memphis on 45 RPM Peacock Label that I played for many years as a radio personality. I still play and enjoy them at home today. I was never fortunate enough to actually see these gentlemen in concert, but I grew up listening to their music. Loved it then and even more now. Nothing against the contemporary artist of today's world. I love you, own, and play your music. Just know that these are the folks that paved the way for you. Please stop looking over and ignoring the quartet world. You can sleep in the Hilton today and eat anywhere you choose, because they slept in houses and their cars, ate from the backdoor of the few facilities that would feed them and the homes of kind people back then. Quartet music will never die. THANK YOU THE GENTLEMAN RESPONSIBLE FOR THIS MUCH NEEDED INFORMATION.



Posted by James Byrd in Oakland, California @ 05:11 on Apr 25 2013

I was not of that generation and only know about contemporary gospel music, but Lord!, I heard this group on a friend's CD on my visit to SC. and was blown away. CD "Happy in the Service of the Lord," which I purchased as soon as I return home. I tell you, that Jethroe Bledsoe was a phenomena when it comes to singing. That voice is inside my head and heart. Never heard a voice like his. Love this CD and have found other music by The Spirits. Great quartet singing. Jethroe Bledsoe...WOW!



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