Tony Cummings chronicles the long history of New York's gospel pioneers the SELAH JUBILEE SINGERS some of whose members found doowop fame as The Larks
As Bible students will tell you, "selah" is a Hebrew word, scattered through the psalms, for which though no exact meaning has ever been established. As gospel students will tell you, New York's Selah Jubilee Singers were in the words of author Horace Clarence Boyer "a major force in gospel during the Golden Age." But what few music fans have appreciated is that the three decade career of the Selahs is a classic case of a recording act co-existing in two worlds, secular entertainment and gospel ministry and gaining success in both. The pivotal figure in the long history is tenor and baritone singer, manager, entrepreneur and at the latter part of his career gospel deejay, Thermon Ruth.
Ruth was born on 6th March 1914 in Pomaria, South Carolina. His parents died when he was young and at the age of eight Thermon moved to New York to live with a grown sister, Beulah. Beulah and her young brother attended St Mark's, a holiness church on Fulton Avenue in Brooklyn. Discovering his vocal talent Thermon became an enthusiastic member of the church choir. Then in 1928 he formed the Selah Jubilee Singers. As Ray Funk wrote in his sleevenote to the Document Records CD 'Selah Jubilee Singers: Complete Recorded Works In Chronological Order Vol 1', "Unlike most quartets one of the members of the group, Andrew Antley, accompanied the group on piano. While most white religious quartets had a pianist accompanying them, it was very rare for an African American quartet to feature a pianist.
The group for many years was made up only of members of this church. Mother Lambert's tent revivals brought many of the group members into first her church, then the group. The Selah Jubilee Singers would at first just perform a few numbers as part of the Sunday church services." Thermon Ruth recalled those early years: "We sang every Sunday night before our minister who was a woman, Mother Lambert, would preach. We were on the radio at the time and we'd announce, tonight we would appear at our home church, St Mark's Holy Church. And at night the church would be packed to hear us sing. So we would sing before Mother Lambert would preach. And it got so after we would sing, a lot of folks would go out. Leave the church before she preached. So Mother Lambert got smart and started letting us sing after she preached. We'd do two or three numbers. At that time, it was different, it was only one group, and that was just before preaching. It wasn't a programme (with different quartets), it was a Sunday evening service. Most of us were in the choir. Se we'd just leave our positions in the choir and go down front. We'd go down from the podium and on the floor just do our numbers."
Mother Lambert was notoriously protective about the Selah Jubilee Singers, discouraging them from appearing at other churches. Despite this the group did land a recording session in 1931 for either Columbia or Brunswick but nothing was released. It wasn't until 1939 when the group - Thermon Ruth, John Ford (lead tenors), Nathaniel Townsley (tenor), Monroe Clark (baritone) and Clifton Antley (bass) - signed with Decca Records that their recording career proper began. Sessions in April and November of that year resulted in six 78s appearing. Their tight harmony sound had roots in earlier harmony groups like the Norfolk Jubilee Quartet. They recorded numbers popular in the '20s like "Royal Telephone" or "They Kicked The Devil Out Of Heaven". This later song is also known as "Join The Band" and it had been the biggest number for the Grand Central Red Cap Quartet who recorded it in 1931 and who had a popular radio show in New York City at the time. The Selah's sound emphasized more slow harmony than the lighter syncopated bounce of the Golden Gate Quartet.
The Selah's were often getting songs from other groups. With Mother Lambert, the group took a memorable evangelical tour to Texas in the late '30s. It was there that they met up with the Soul Stirrers and heard the group's classic song "Walk Around" featuring a young R H Harris. They took the number back to New York and recorded it under the title "I Want Jesus To Walk Around My Bedside". Their 78 of the song was quite popular in New York, something the Soul Stirrers weren't too thrilled about. It became one of their most popular recordings on their first session along with their soulful rendition of Thomas Dorsey's "Precious Lord". Reported Ray Funk, "Ruth was one of the first to break out of the flatfooted harmony singing of quartets and would use a song like "Precious Lord" to leave the group and go down the aisles. Dramatically, he'd walk down the aisles with his eyes closed and, with simple gestures, act out the lyrics." For "I'm Tormented In The Flames" they would act out throwing one of the group members into the flames to add to the entertaining element of their performance. The group also recorded a nice version of Lucy Campbell's "Something Within", taken at a quicker pace than the renditions recorded a few years later by hard gospel groups like the Flying Clouds or the Pilgrim Travelers.
Finally coming out from the protective wing of Mother Lambert, Thermon Ruth took his group all over the New York and New Jersey area singing on programmes. In 1941 the Selah Jubilee Singers recorded six more 78s for Decca. On their radio show, they would introduce groups from out of town like the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Norfolk Jubilees and the Royal Harmony Singers (who would become the Jubilaires). The Selahs weren't exactly getting rich from their Decca releases. The group were given $12.50 per side and never saw royalties although certain numbers like "Precious Lord", "Walk Around" and "Royal Telephone" sold well. The group was not considered to be "professionals" in the '30s with the singers having day jobs and only singing at night or on the weekends. As Ruth recalled, "You couldn't make too much money on 25 cents admission."
In December 1941 the USA was shaken to the core when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour. As America stumbled into the Second World War Thermon Ruth wrote a song which proved to be one of the best selling records for the Selah Jubilee Singers. "Wasn't That An Awful Time At Pearl Harbour" featured the group momentarily recording as a quartet with Ruth (lead vocal), John Ford (tenor), John Kaiser (baritone) and J B Nelson (bass). Commented critic Ray Funk, "Nelson had a powerful melodic bass that added a depth and bottom their earlier recordings lacked. On 'Done With The Troubles Of The World' he comes in as an intermittent lead. His ability to carry the rhythmic pulse of a song is best heard on the pumping bass of a number like 'King Jesus Is A Rock' or 'He's So Real To Me'."
Another hit song for the Selahs was "Mother Don't Cry If Your Son Goes To War", offering consolation for the many mothers who may have attended church programmes worrying about sons overseas. The spoken portion followed the sermonette style of the Southernaires from their popular radio show, The Little Weather-Beaten Church.
Wartime America also provided other changes besides repertory. Ruth decided to take the group on a tour of the South. Several of his long term members didn't want to go and as they travelled others received draft notices. The group was touring military bases playing USO shows as well as church programmes when fate caused them to become stranded in Raleigh, North Carolina. This turned out to be a lucky break s the group showed up for a radio audition and was quickly hired to appear daily on WPFT in Raleigh. They soon became one of the most popular quartets in the Carolinas. The Selahs would be headquartered there for the rest of the decade.
The 1941 death of Len Williams, bass singer and manager of the Norfolk Jubilee Quartet, and the collapse of the group not long after resulted in Ruth being able to draft first baritone Melvin Colden and then tenor Crip Harris into the Selah Jubilee Singers' ranks. Wrote Ray Funk in his sleevenote for the compilation 'Selah Jubilee Singers: Complete Recorded Works In Chronological Order Vol 2', "[Colden and Harris] added an even stronger sound to the group and these recordings represent some of the most complex and accomplished jubilee singing ever recorded, especially on "Let The World See Jesus In Your Life", "Jesus Prayed", "I'll Fare Better" and "When Was Jesus Born". If rock hype had existed at the time, they would have been called a supergroup. Regrettably, this version of the Selahs lasted only a few years before various members left."
The Selahs' light jubilee harmony style was in stark contrast to new hard gospel singing of the Soul Stirrers and others whose songs would often be stretched out to 10 or 15 minutes. The Selahs kept the lighter jubilee feel though they added a soulful ballad singing nature to it. The Selahs never made the transition to hard gospel that many jubilee groups made during this period.
At the end of the Second World War the group, now sometimes dubbed the Selah Jubilee Quartet, consisted of Thermon Ruth and William "Highpockets" Langford - previously a member of the famed Golden Gate Quartet - (lead vocals), Theodore Harris (baritone) and Jimmy Gorham (bass). The North Carolina-based Selahs recorded 12 sides in Los Angeles for Continental Records and the following year another clutch of sides for Arista (purchased by Mercury). In '46, '47 and '48 the Selahs were busy recording a veritable barrage of tracks issued by Continental, Lenox and Cross Records, the latter released under the name The Sons Of Heaven. By the time that The Sons Of Heaven singles began to get released Thermon Ruth had made what was to be a pivotal change in Selahs' lineup. One night in the late '40s the Selahs were appearing in concert in Winston, North Carolina along with another local gospel outfit. Listening to the group backstage Ruth was impressed with their lead singer and guitar player, Alden "Allen" Bunn and asked him whether he'd like to join the Selahs.
Alden Bunn was born in Winston in 1924. By the time he was 12 he'd picked up the rudiments of the guitar and was playing in local gospel groups such as the Gospel Four. With the Selahs, Bunn recorded and toured tirelessly along with Ruth, Junius Parker (tenor) and Jimmy Gorham (bass). One member of the Selah Gospel Quartet for a brief period was Napoleon Brown, who Ruth had spotted singing in another local Carolina group, the Golden Bell Quintet. Napoleon's spell with the Selahs was short but was to later go on to rhythm and blues stardom as Nappy Brown, a solo hitmaker for Savoy Records.
Around the turn of the decade Ruth met up with another gospel outfit, The Four Internes, based in Durham, North Carolina. The lead singer of the group, Eugene Mumford, impressed Ruth. Mumford had recently been released from prison where he had served time for an alleged rape of a white woman, a charge which was eventually erased with Mumford able to prove his innocence. Realising that he had potential, Ruth decided to form a group around Mumford's crystal clear tenor. Quitting the Selahs, Ruth took Alden Bunn out of the group and with Raymond "Peewee" Barnes (tenor), Hadie Rowe Jr (baritone) and David McNeal (bass) formed The Jubilators. They played a local gospel contest in Raleigh, North Carolina, ironically winning against Ruth's former group the Selahs. The prize was a giant 50lb cake!
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