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