Tony Cummings chronicles the mammoth career of gospel's THE DIXIE HUMMINGBIRDS
In pop and rock circles "veteran" is used to cover any wrinklies entering a second or third decade of musical activity. But gospel music alone boasts veterans with much longer musical histories and none seem to stretch as far back as veterans of all veterans the Dixie Hummingbirds. These pioneers of gospel quartet music have been around since 1928 moving from being first a local, then a regional, then national, and eventually an international musical phenomenon. In the process the Birds have shaped the very sound of gospel music and in doing so helped formulate R&B, soul and pop.
It all began in 1928 in Greenville, South Carolina, when an amateur quartet of schoolboys known originally as the Junior Boys led by 12 year old James Davis began singing around town. By the 1930s acappella gospel groups like the Famous Blue Jay Singers of Alabama and the Norfolk Jubilee Quartet of Virginia were breaking beyond regional bounds through phonograph records and Greenville's finest, now known as the Sterling Quartet, were eager to follow them. Another name change to the Dixie Hummingbirds lead to concerts further and further afield. In 1938 the group brought into their fold one of the most influential singers of his era, the mighty Ira Tucker. In 1939 the group recorded seven 78s for Decca Records, though without Tucker, adopting a stereotypical close harmony jubilee sound.
By 1942 the Dixie Hummingbirds had relocated to Philadelphia and the group obtained a residency at unique New York nightclubs which were two of the first venues in the USA to go out of their way to challenge the black/white divide, with multiracial audiences welcome through the doors for dinner, dancing and the starstudded stage show. Run by legendary record man John Hammond, Café Society Uptown and Downtown offered the best of jazz (Sarah Vaughan, Mildred Bailey), blues (Big Bill Broonzy, Josh White), boogie woogie (Meade Lux Lewis, Pete Johnson) and gospel (Rosetta Tharpe, the Golden Gate Quartet). Soon the Dixie Hummingbirds were thrilling audiences with their impeccable harmonies and switched lead singers as the new, grittier, more emotional style of quartet singing began to evolve. After the group's residency came to an end the Birds toured across the States headlining the increasing number of multi-artist gospel programmes springing up in all the major cities. A series of successful records followed, including a popular recording with the female Angelic Gospel Singers for Gotham in 1950 and an amazing celebration of the gospel programmes. "Let's Go Out To The Programs" for Peacock in 1953, where the group did impressive impersonations of the other most popular quartets on the Gospel Highway. By 1956 the gospel programme concept had come to Harlem's secular theatre, the Apollo, and the Dixie Hummingbirds were amongst gospel's biggest successes in the R&B enclave. The group (Beachey Thompson, James Davis, Ira Tucker, Jones Walker and William Bobo) recorded steadily for Peacock with well over 30 singles and 10 albums but it was an appearance at the Newport Festival in 1966 that demonstrated to a white audience what the black one had known for years, that the Birds were one of the most exciting vocal groups performing. Their handclapping, footstomping fervour led by a screamingly soulful Ira Tucker was a revelation.
In 1968, influenced by what groups like the Staple Singers were doing in the pop charts, the Birds modernised their sound embracing contemporary themes and instrumentation. In 1972 the group were approached by pop luminary Paul Simon, a gospel music fan who'd already been inspired by a Swan Silvertones track to write "Bridge Over Troubled Water". Now a new Simon song "Loves Me Like A Rock" was being recorded and Simon, having failed to get the Swan Silvertones (they'd disbanded by then) turned to the Birds. James Davis told the Philadelphia Inquirer, "We got telephone calls and telegrams from all over. People said, 'Oh no, the Dixie Hummingbirds, our favourites, are going rock!' But the Birds did not regret their decision. We were satisfied with the words to the song so we did it."
Rubbing shoulders with the pop high flyers didn't stop there. The group re-recorded a version of "Loves Me Like A Rock" without Simon. And with Ira Tucker's offspring, Linda, Sundray and Ira Jr working in various capacities with Stevie Wonder, the group were able to get the superstar to play Fender Rhodes on a storming version of Wonder's composition "Jesus Children Of America". In the '80s, the Birds recorded five albums for Atlanta International (AIR). Their place in music history was now assured. Inducted into both the Gospel Music Hall Of Fame and the Vocal Group Hall Of Fame the group, though James Davis has now retired from active service, continue. In his recently published biography Great God A Mighty!: The Dixie Hummingbirds professor Jerry Zolten wrote, "They personify perseverance, talent and dedication. Now, the iron men of gospel are celebrating their 75th anniversary. The Dixie Hummingbirds are indeed an American institution."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.