The Dixie Hummingbirds
The Dixie Hummingbirds
The Dixie Hummingbirds have been honing their craft since 1928, revolutionizing gospel music with unique harmony arrangements, sartorial elegance, and improvisational dynamics. The group’s sincere yet crowd-pleasing approach to pure spiritual ballads and foot-stomping R&B-tinged Jubilee music has influenced artists in both the soul and pop fields—Hank Ballard, the Temptations, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Jackie Wilson, and Paul Simon among them.
The Hummingbirds, or Birds, as they are sometimes known, were best when their lineup consisted of William Bobo, Ira Tucker, James Davis, Beachey Thompson, and James Walker, with Howard Carroll on guitar. During that era, Tucker and Davis were generally the combo’s most prolific songwriters, while Tucker crafted most of their harmony arrangements. Together they forged a body of work that allowed them to remain gospel headliners years after most of their contemporaries had faded away.
During the 1920s, before the proliferation of mass media and city-sponsored team sports, many young African Americans formed a cappella gospel groups to supplement their social life. As a result, dozens of quartets would spring up in any given community, singing at church gatherings, picnics, and at extremely well attended competitions. The Dixie Hummingbirds began in this fashion. Recruiting some of his fellow choir members from the Bethel Church of God in Greenville, South Carolina, James Davis initially formed them as the Sterling High School Quartet. Soon after, he changed the name to the Dixie Hummingbirds, telling writer David Whited of the Ink 19 website, “that was the only bird that could fly backwards and forwards, and that was how our career seemed to be going at the time.” Many years later, after the advent of such doo wop groups as the Cardinals, the Crows, the Larks, the Ravens, the Falcons, and the Orioles, Davis would proudly proclaim that his was the first of the “bird” groups.
Competing favorably against such Jubilee singing giants as the Heavenly Gospel Singers, Kings of Harmony, and the Swan Silvertones at Atlanta’s National Baptist Convention, the Hummingbirds decided to turn professional. As Davis recalled for a House of Blues promotional biography in 1999, the odds for success weren’t in their favor. “Even my father told me that we wouldn’t make it,” said Davis. “That was before I left home. We didn’t figure we was gonna get rich. We figure we was gonna get by.” Upon hearing the group perform, Davis’s father donated $50 to their cause and advised the youngsters to “stay together.”
For the Record…
Members include Wilson Baker (group member, 1938-mid-1940s), tenor; William Bobo (group member, 1942–1976), bass; William Bright (group member, mid–1980s, 1999–), tenor; Jimmy Bryant (group member, 1938–39), bass; Howard Carroll (group member, 1953–), guitarist; Carl Davis (group member, 1992–), guitarist; James B. Davis (group member, 1928–84), tenor; Barney Gipson (group member, 1928), lead vocals; Claude Jeter (group member, 1939), lead vocals; J. B. Matterson (group member, 1928), bass; Fred Owens (group member, early, 1928), bass; Fred Owens (group member, 1930) bass; Paul Owens 1951–52, 1988–2002), second lead vocals; Barney Parks (group member, 1928–43), baritone; Beachey Thompson (group member, 1944-84), baritone; Ira Tucker (group member, 1937–), lead vocals; James walker (group member, 1952–92), second lead vocals.
Formed as Sterling High School Quartet in Greenville, SC, redubbed the Dixie Hummingbirds by Davis, 1928; signed to Decca Records, 1939; hired by John Hammond to appear at New York’s first integrated nightclub, Café Society, 1942–43; recorded for independent labels Apollo, Gotham, Hob, Manor, Regis, 1942–51; signed with Don Robey’s Peacock label, 1952; backed Paul Simon on his Columbia hit “Loves Me Like a Rock,” recorded their own Grammy Award-winning version for ABC-Peacock, 1973; left ABC-Peacock, began leasing self-produced masters to T.K. and Atlanta labels, 1980; subject of Ashley James’s documentary We Love You Like a Rock, 1995; seventieth anniversary disc for House of Blues label released, 1999.
Awards: Grammy Award, Best Soul Gospel Performance for “Loves Me Like a Rock,” 1973; voted “The World’s Greatest Gospel Group” by Ebony magazine, 1978; induction, Philadelphia Hall of Fame, 1988; induction, Philadelphia Legends Hall of Fame, 1988; induction, Vocal Group Hall of Fame & Museum, 2000; Group Hall of Fame Award, 2000.
Addresses: Record company —MCA Records, 70 Universal Plaza, Universal City, CA 90048, website: http://www.universalchronicles.com; House of Blues, 2001 Butterfield Rd., Suite 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515.
Staying together wasn’t an easy task. As with a lot of groups from that era, the Hummingbirds went through lineup changes that even longtime members couldn’t accurately chart. Singers from the group came and went for a variety of reasons—drinking, personality conflicts, lack of professional commitment—but mostly due to Davis’s desire to improve his group. One of their stellar additions was the crowd-pleasing 13-year-old lead singer Ira Tucker, who had been singing with his own quartet, the Gospel Carriers. Other members were plucked from competing groups as the opportunities presented themselves. The group’s official biographer, Jerry Zolten, told Contemporary Musicians how another of the Birds’signature vocalists eventually came on board: “Then there was this very crucial personnel shift in ’37 or ’38—it’s hard to pin down exactly, but the Heavenly Gospel Singers were the hot group around Spartanburg and Greenville, they had resettled there from Detroit. Their bass singer was Jimmy Bryant who everybody loved and emulated—although I’m told that guy really wasn’t much of a singer—he had personality and he had antics that he did that people loved. Somehow or other, the Dixie Hummingbirds got Jimmy Bryant to join them. Nobody knows if Jimmy was fired from the Heavenlys or what, but William Bobo took Bryant’s place in the Heavenlys.” This situation took a further twist when Bryant left the Hummingbirds; then, with the Hummingbirds’ bass singer drafted into the Army, the mysteriously out-of-work Bobo—not to be confused with jazz percussionist Willie Bobo—joined the Hummingbirds.
The Hummingbirds first started recording for Decca in 1939, cutting such regional favorites as “Little Wooden Church” and “Joshua Journeyed to Jericho.” The success of these a cappella sides led the Hummingbirds to relocate to Philadelphia where they were hired by WCAU Radio to host their own program. Yet, the radio station’s management didn’t like the group’s name and dictated that they perform with the more traditional sounding sobriquet the Swanee Quintet. Subsequently, they performed in and around the area as the Dixie Hummingbirds and the Swanee Quintet.
In 1942 their growing popularity caught the attention of John Hammond and Barney Josefson, who booked them into New York’s first integrated nightclub, Café Society. Hammond, perhaps the greatest of all A&R (Artist and Repertoire) men, made a career out of bringing unique, innovative talent to the public eye. Included among his lifetime of amazing discoveries are Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, Benny Goodman, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Hammond had already made great strides in popularizing black gospel music with his 1938 Carnegie Hall concert “From Spirituals to Swing.” Discovery by Hammond bestowed instant credibility on any artist, and the Hummingbirds were delighted at the opportunity he presented. However, neither Hammond nor Josefson liked either of the group’s names, deeming “Dixie Hummingbirds” too Southern and “Swanee Quintet” too “Uncle Tom.” Their solution was to rename them the Jericho Boys.
Appearing on the same Café Society bill as Lester Young’s early band, Albert Ammons, and Pete Johnson, the group began to develop their trademark style. Dressed elegantly in white tails and tuxedo, the Jericho Boys would run onstage and slide up to the microphone on their knees. Gesturing with great dramatic flourish, posing in art-deco fashion, jumping from the stage without sacrificing any vocal nuance, they stimulated their audience’s visual sense while drawing them into their spiritual message. It is a technique they would expand upon and vary throughout their career, setting the precedent for the onstage antics of Little Richard and James Brown.
All went well until the Jericho Boys chose William Bobo to replace a member lost to the wartime draft. Hammond, for reasons lost to history, disliked Bobo and ended up terminating the group’s Café Society contract in 1944. The quartet returned to Philadelphia with Bobo and for a time performed as the Jericho Boys, Swanee Quintet, and the Dixie Hummingbirds.
During the mid- to late 1940s, the Dixie Hummingbirds recorded for a variety of independent labels such as Apollo, Gotham, Regis, Hob, and Okeh. Although executed with skill and conviction, these sides were tailored for the relatively sedate tastes of mass audiences. It wasn’t until the group signed with the Houston-based Peacock label that they were allowed to give full vent to their onstage style in the recording studio.
Peacock owner Don Robey was a black man whose recording empire was built on both gospel acts like the Five Blind Boys and such pre-rock blues shouters as Big Mama Thornton. Robey was fond of accentuating the rhythmic quality of a gospel act by adding bluesy instrumentation, and he often made up for the lack of drums by having his artists stamp their feet on stomping boards. Further, the Hummingbirds’ Peacock sessions were often produced by Willie Dixon and Lafayette Leake, two artists normally associated with Chess Records, blues, and early rock ‘n’ roll.
It was at Peacock that the Dixie Hummingbirds’ membership solidified. Lead singer Paul Owens’s departure to the Swan Silvertones allowed the group to put in place the classic lineup of Davis, Tucker, Beachey Thompson, and James Walker, with Howard Carroll on guitar. With Tucker and Walker’s twin lead vocals playing off each other’s “trickeration” style of harmonic note-bending and with Carroll’s stinging guitar, the Birds’sound clearly prefigured the popular soul revolution of the 1960s. Such 1950s favorites as “Trouble in My Way,” “Christian Automobile,” and “Let’s Go Out to the Programs”—wherein they deftly imitate some of their gospel singing rivals—established them as major sacred music stars.
Their appeal, however, was not limited to gospel music. Tucker personally trained blues great Bobby “Blue” Bland. Salacious R&B cat Hank Ballard often asked permission from the group when he adapted spiritual song ideas to secular works. Recordings by Clyde McPhatter’s Drifters exhibit much of the Hummingbirds’ feel. Moreover, Otis Williams of the Temptations told author Zolten that his group had been profoundly influenced by the Birds’ music and onstage style.
The Hummingbirds’sound fit right in with the soul groove of the 1960s as their recordings of “Bedside of a Neighbor,” “Going On,” and “You Don’t Have Nothing” as well as their smash appearance at the 1966 Newport Folk Festival will attest. Yet their impact had dulled by the early 1970s, and the group needed a boost. They got it in the form of singer-songwriter Paul Simon who, while creating only his second Columbia LP without Art Garfunkel, asked them to record backup vocals on his composition “Loves Me Like a Rock.” Credited to both Simon and the Dixie Hummingbirds, the single from the There Goes Rhymin’Simon LP became a gold record, reaching number two on the pop charts and number one on the adult contemporary charts in 1973. Quickly the Hummingbirds went back to Peacock, now a subsidiary of ABC, and cut their own Grammy Award-winning version of the tune.
Although the Hummingbirds were back on top, they were unhappy with their recording situation. By the 1970s, Robey had sold his label to ABC, but as long as he remained head of his Peacock and Duke imprints, the Birds felt someone there understood their music. After Robey’s death, the group felt no one at the label paid them any attention, so they departed. Shortly thereafter, they were emotionally shattered by the 1976 death of William Bobo. For over a year, when they played shows, they left an empty mike stand where their beloved bass singer once stood.
Recording independently, the Hummingbirds began leasing their material to such labels as T.K.—famous for housing KC & the Sunshine Band, Mobile Fidelity, and Atlanta. The death of tenor Beachey Thompson and Davis’s retirement during the mid-1980s nearly ground the band to a halt. William Bright and Carl Davis began bolstering the early 1990s lineup, and following James Walker’s 1993 death, Paul Owens returned after a 40-year absence.
A valuable career lift came via Ashley James’s 1995 documentary We Love You Like a Rock, which featured Stevie Wonder, Bobby Womack, Melvin Franklin, and Paul Simon testifying to the Hummingbirds’ artistic impact. The 77-minute historical film led to their 1999 House of Blues release Music in the Air: The 70th Anniversary of the Dixie Hummingbirds. An all-star tribute, the album features duets with Wonder, Simon, Womack, Shirley Caesar, Mavis Staples, Deniece Williams, and Wynonna. Bursting with rhythmic Philly-soul and close emotive harmony, the set proved that the group could still execute with style and verve. However, Paul Owens’s 2002 death and Howard Carroll’s semi-retirement may have pinpointed that critically acclaimed disc as the group’s final hurrah.
Tucker, whose son Ira Jr. is Stevie Wonder’s publicist and whose daughters Linda and Sundray were latter-day Supremes, is the only member of the band’s classic lineup still working. According to biographer Zolten, Tucker intended to retire after the Dixie Hummingbird’s seventy-fifth anniversary.
The Dixie Hummingbirds and a Christian Testimonial, Peacock, 1959.
In the Morning, Peacock, 1962.
Our prayer, peace, 1964.
Scripture in Song, Constellation, 1964.
Every Day and Every Hour, Peacock, 1965.
The Gentleman of song, peacock, 1967.
Ye Shall Know the Truth, ABC-Peacock, 1969.
The Gospel Sounds, Columbia/Legacy, 1971.
We Love You Like a Rock, ABC-Peacock, 1973.
Who Are We, ABC-Peacock, 1974.
Tanks to Thee, ABC-peacock, 1975.
Wonderful to be Alive, ABC-peacock, 1976
The Dixie Hummingbirds live, ABC-peacock, 1977.
Golden flight, ABC-peacock, 1978.
Mama, Atlanta, 1983.
Smooth sailing, Atlanta, 1983.
Live in Philadelphia, 1987.
Our 60th, Atlanta, 1989.
In Good health, Atlanta, 1993.
Complete Recorded Works (1939–1947), Document, 1997.
Music In the Air: The 70th Anniversary of the Dixie Hummingbirds, House Of Blues, 1999.
Best of the Dixie Hummingbirds:1984–1994, Atlanta, 2000.
The Best of the Dixie Hummingbirds: The Millennium Collection, MCA, 2002.
Brown, Tony, Jon Kutner, and Neil Warwick, editors, The Complete Book of the British Charts: Singles and Albums, Omnibus, 2000.
Hyatt, Wesley, The Billboard Book of Number One Adult Contemporary Hits, Billboard Books, 1999.
Olsen, Eric, Paul Verna, and Carlo Wolf, editors, The Encyclopedia of Record Producers: An Indispensible Guide to the Most Important Record Producers in Music History, Billboard Books, 1999.
O’Neil, Thomas, The Grammys: The Ultimate Unofficial Guide to Music’s Highest Honor, Perigree, 1999.
Warner, Jay, The Billboard Book of American Singing Groups: A History 1940–1990, Billboard, 1992.
Whitbum, Joel, editor, The Billboard Book of Top 40 Albums: The Complete Chart Guide to Every Album in the Top 40 Since 1955, Billboard, 1995.
Whitburn, Joel, editor, The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits: Complete Chart Information about the Artists and Their Songs, 1955–2000, seventh edition, Billboard, 2000.
Jet, March 29, 1999.
Philadelphia Tribune, March 9, 1999.
Variety, November 14–20, 1994.
“Dixie Hummingbirds,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (October 29, 2002).
“The Dixie Hummingbirds,” Ink 19, http://www.ink19.com/issues_F/99_06/wet_ink/music_de/072_the_dixie.shtml (February 5, 2003).
“Dixie Hummingbirds,” The Vocal Group Hall of Fame & Museum, http://www.vocalhalloffame.com/lnductees/dixie_hummingbirds.htm (October 29, 2002).
“Paul Simon and the Dixie Hummingbirds, Remaking Music,” Paul.Simon.org, http://www.paul.simon.org/multimedia/dixie.htm (October 29, 2002).
Additional information provided by liner notes to the above-listed MCA compilation, publicity materials from the House of Blues release, and an interview with Jerry Zolten, author of Great God A’Mighty! The Dixie Hummingbirds: Celebrating the Rise of Soul Gospel Music, Oxford Press, 2003.
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