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

Continued from page 1

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

In June 1952 WDIA's daily radio format began to include live broadcasts during the morning hours sponsored by Gold Medal Flour. The Spirit Of Memphis regularly filled the 10:00 to 10:15am slot. Such live presentations continued well into the 1950s. The station also sponsored the Hallelujah Jubilee Caravan. Stellar groups like the Spirit Of Memphis were bussed down to Mississippi or up to Tennessee to perform at a hall or auditorium. Theo served as MC and WDIA would lease the bus and pay for barbecue box lunches.

The group's final King session was set for 10th July 1952. Six titles were conveyed to tape. These included the infectious "Jesus Brought Me" and the spirit-moving "Just To Behold His Face" which touches the soul with its sympathetic narrative. On 7th October 1952 the Spirit Of Memphis were recorded at the 7,000 seat Mason's Temple in Memphis. Shortly before Christmas that same year King Records issued the live "Lord Jesus" in two parts. King Records again took a gamble by issuing not a gospel song as such by a quartet known for its vocal dynamics but a live sermon supported by little except the old church moan. But Syd Nathan needed not to have worried as the release caught notice and sold well in gospel markets nationwide. Demand for the Spirit Of Memphis recordings brought additional work which interfered with their radio commitments. They often had to cancel conflicting radio programmes in favour of well-paying gigs.

Recording-wise though the Spirit Of Memphis were being woefully exploited. Syd Nathan paid the group a small up-front fee for each recording session but no royalties. In late 1952 Spirit Of Memphis signed with Duke/Peacock Records, the Houston-based label run by black entrepreneur Don Robey. The association with Pacock and Robey proved to be long and fruitful, lasting from 1953 until their final 1967 session. The first two years proved to be their brightest period as the group recorded such strong selections as "Surely, Surely, Amen, Come And Go With Me", "Doctor Jesus" and "Storm Of Life". The Spirit Of Memphis continued to revise older hymns and spirituals such as the rubato "When Mother's Gone" which echoes "Motherless Children Have A Hard Time".

By 1956 the popularity of the classic quartets were beginning to wane. Silas Steele and Little Axe Broadnax had left the group and though they found in Joe Hinton a superlative new high tenor. Artistically though Spirit Of Memphis could still cut it. The high tenor of Joe Hinton (who'd previously sung with the Blair Gospel Singers and Chosen Gospel Quartet) was employed to exemplary effect on 45s like "In The Garden" and "Lost In Sin" (the latter a Christianised re-write of the old Spaniels doowop hit "Peace Of Mind"). But in 1958 Duke/Peacock's Don Robey had persuaded Hinton to chase the paydirt of R&B/pop. At first it seemed a bad mistake. Singles on the Backbeat label like "I Know" and "Pretty Little Mama" didn't sell and it wasn't until 1963 after touring with Junior Parker and Bobby Bland that he had his first local hit with "You Know It Ain't Right". A year later Hinton had a huge hit (number one in the US R&B charts, 13 on the Billboard Hot 100) with a stunning rendition of Willie Nelson's country ballad "Funny How Time Slips Away". Hinton's entry in Wikipedia comments how the million seller "culminates in one of the most remarkable falsetto notes ever captured on disc." Sadly, Hinton wasn't to enjoy the music big time for long. He died, of skin cancer, in August 1968.

The Spirit Of Memphis continued to record throughout the '60s but by the '70s had all but retired. They were poised for a major comeback when they were scheduled to record some tunes with Elvis Presley before he fell ill in 1977. They resurfaced in the 1980s as an eight- or nine-member ensemble and re-recorded for David Evans's High Water label.

James Darline, founder and originator of the Spirit Of Memphis, passed away on 12th April 1985 at his home in Riverside, California. Earl "the great pumper" D Malone died in Memphis during July 1987. The formidable Little Axe, who was in fact a man living as a woman, died on 1st June 1992 in Philadelphia. The two remaining, Jethro 'Jet' Bledsoe Snr and Robert J Reed, journeyed on until 1993. Jet dies in Memphis on 24th February and Robert departed this earth (also in Memphis) on 22nd November.

In 2005 a new version of Spirit Of Memphis led by Melvin Mosley cut a live vanity CD recording in Michigan. The independent album offers fine and exciting retreads of "You Better Run", "I John Saw" and "On The Battlefield" plus a number of other equally fired-up familiar gospels. The set is supported by a tough, solid rhythm section that does not once detract from the old, well known recreated harmonies.

Whatever the merits of the revived Spirit Of Memphis, it's their classic recordings made for King Records between 1949 and 1952 which will forever stand as some of the greatest African American religious music ever recorded. As author Anthony Heilbut enthused, "Among the most beautiful quartet records were those issued in the early '50s by the Spirit Of Memphis Quartet. Steele's thunderous baritone could shake a church, the subdued lead of Jet Bledsoe and the ringing tenor of Willie 'Little Axe' Broadnax blended gloriously with his roars. Often James Darling, the group's baritone, would improvise a melodic counterpoint to Steele's lead, while Earl D Malone's bass 'boom-de-boomed' in accustomed style." Classic gospel indeed. CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
About Tony Cummings
Tony CummingsTony Cummings is the music editor for Cross Rhythms website and attends Grace Church in Stoke-on-Trent.

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Reader Comments

Posted by Jerry Johnson in Pontiac Michigan @ 13:12 on Jan 29 2018

My grandmother and grandfather (Jack and Dora Neal), recorded Gospel music at WDIA in the 60's. Although very young, I remember brother Wade and Martha Jean " the Queen" coming to our house too celebrate the release of thier record. Wish I knew the song name or what they call themselves.

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 Annette J Clark in MEMPHIS @ 20:56 on Oct 30 2018

Hello Cathy,my name is Annette and I live in MEMPHIS.Jethro was my uncle.Undoubtedly after he and your mom separated he married my aunt.Glad that l decided to go on a little road trip down memory lane because I never knew that part of his life.Thanks for sharing.

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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.

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