Golden Gate Quartet
Golden Gate Quartet
The Golden Gate Quartet were pioneers in performing and recording close-harmony black spirituals, accentuated with jazz undertones and rhythmic verve. The group reached its pinnacle of fame in 1956 after forming in the early 1930s and were the best known “jubilee gospel quartet” among a large number of similarly popular a cappella groups in the 1930s and 1940s. Their first performances were in high school as well as at a local barber shop in Norfolk, Virginia, and eventually at Carnegie Hall. A favorite group of Eleanor Roosevelt, the Golden Gate Quartet made several appearances at the White House. By 1956 only bass tenor Orland us Wilson remained from the original quartet; other members included tenors Clyde Riddick, Clyde Wright, baritone J. Caleb Ginyard, and pianist Emel Burgess. Original members included bass vocalist Robert “Peg” Ford, tenor A.C. “Eddie” Griffin, baritone Willie Johnson, and tenor Henry Owens. Griffin left the band in 1935 and was replaced by first tenor Willie Langford. Ford left the band in 1936 and was replaced by bass tenor Orland us Wilson.
The group originated in the Norfolk suburb of Berkeley, where barber shop owner A.C. “Eddie” Griffin, a tenor singer, and Robert “Peg” ford, a bass vocalist, recruited two Booker T. Washington High School glee club members: tenor Henry Owns, and baritone Willie Johnson. Together the four formed a quartet to sing gospel music in the then-new “Jubilee” style that was beginning to sweep through churches in Virginia. They called themselves the Golden Gate Quartet and soon became popular throughout the state. Unlike the older Alabama gospel tradition with its trademark reliance on formal song structure and straight-ahead harmonies, Virginia’s gospel music was looser, more rhythmic, and provided more room for experimentation. Adopting several techniques used by the Mills Brothers, such as the vocal imitation of musical instruments, the quartet’s musical career flourish quickly and without much planning. They also were influenced by the swinging jazz of the Three Keys, and the emotional pleading and wailing of area pulpit preachers. The youthful energy of jubilee gospel music was something new and exciting for the band’s members.
The Golden Gate Quartet performed for their first radio broadcast while still in high school, and soon after they graduated, they signed a contract for a radio program in Charlotte, North Carolina. Although they purposely imitated the close-knit harmonies and other techniques used by the Mills Brothers, their material was decidedly different and consisted almost entirely of “jubilee” gospel tunes. As a result, the group was also referred to as “The Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet.” Many black a cappella groups had enjoyed a resounding success within the confines of church audiences for many years, but the Golden Gate Quartet added an element of commercial polish and flair that garnered much wider recognition and a more diverse audience. By 1935 Griffin’s modest ambitions for his musical career had been more than fulfilled, and he felt more certain about his haircutting business than his singing career, so he retired from the quartet. He was replaced by tenor William Langford, a veteran of several local singing groups. In 1936, Orland us Wilson, then 16, replaced the elderly and ailing Ford. The new line-up was posed to set traditional gospel music on its ear.
By 1937 the group was being heard nationwide on NBC’s Magic Key program and was widely considered to be the hottest gospel group in the country. On August 4, 1937, Bluebird talent scout/producer Eli Oberstein recorded the Golden Gate Quartet in a field recording session at the Charlotte Hotel. The group completed 14 tracks in just two hours, and all but two songs required only one take. The release of their debut featuring their signature song, “Golden Gate Gospel Train,” brought immediate recognition to the quartet. In 1938 promoter John Hammond placed them on a bill along with Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Big Joe Turner, and James P. Johnson, for the history-making “Spirituals to Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall. The Carnegie Hall performance
Members included Robert “Peg” Ford (left band, 1936), bass; A.C. “Eddie” Griffin (left band 1935), tenor; Willie Johnson , baritone; Willie Langford (replaced Griffin 1935) , Henry Owens , first tenor; Orland us Wilson (replaced Ford, 1936), bass tenor.
Band formed in 1934 in Norfolk, VA suburb of Berkeley with Ford, Griffin, Johnson, and Owens; Johnson and Owens were high school glee club members; Ford and Griffin were barber shop owners/workers with an interest in gospel “jubilee” music; band reached its pinnacle of fame in 1956; appeared at the Roosevelt White House inauguration, 1941; appeared at Carnegie Hall; made cameo appearances during the 1940s in numerous films, including Star-Spangled Rhythm, Hollywood Canteen, and A Song Is Born; by the 1940s, band consisted of Willie Johnson, Willie Langford, Henry Owens, and Orlandus Wilson; by 1956 only Orlandus Wilson remained from the original quartet and other members included pianist Emel Burgess, baritone J. Caleb Ginyard, and tenors Clyde Riddick and Clyde Wright; group retired to France during the 1950s.
led to a weekly radio show on CBS, as well as to a longterm run at New York City’s Cafe Society club where the quartet was heard by numerous celebrities, including Franklin D. Roosevelt. President Roosevelt was so impressed with the Golden Gate Quartet that he invited the group to entertain at his January 1941 inaugural gala at Constitution Hall, a place where lauded AfricanAmerican singer Marion Anderson had been forbidden to perform just two years earlier by the hall’s owners, the conservative Daughters of the American Revolution.
In June of 1940, the group made a milestone—and final—RCA recording with legendary folk and blues singer Leadbelly. The fruits of their collaboration appeared on RCA’s Leadbelly: Alabama Bound. Soon after that recording session, singer William Langford left the band to form a group called the Southern Sons. The Southern Sons released I Hear Music In the Air for RCA, and Langford’s place in the Golden Gate Quartet was taken by his longtime friend, Clyde Riddick, who had been an early replacement for Griffin even before Langford joined the group in the he 1930s. During the 1940s, the Golden Gate Quartet made cameo appearances in numerous films, including Star-Spangled Rhythm, Hollywood Canteen, and A Song Is Born. The group continued to record for Mercury and Columbia, and in 1948 Willie Johnson exited the group. The group was well-able to deal with Johnson’s departure as well as that of Owens when he left the group in the 1950s to become an evangelist preacher.
During the 1950s the group went through several more personnel changes; the advent of rhythm-and-blues and then rock-and-roll somewhat dampened the demand for their music in the Unites States. However, when the group went on a tour of Europe in 1955, they were surprised and delighted to find that there was a new, global audience waiting for them. The members of the group have primarily lived and worked in Europe since the mid-to-late 1950s. Riddick and Wilson anchor the top and bottom of the trademark Golden Gate Quartet sound, with second tenor Clyde Wright, who has been a member of the band, on and off, since 1954, and baritone Paul Brembly, became a member of the group in 1971. The group remained active well into the 1990s.
Travelin’ Shoes, BMG/RCA (Bluebird), reissued 1992.
Complete Recorded Works Vol. 1-4, BMG/RCA, reissued 1996.
Meet Me At The Golden Gate, Collector’s Edition, reissued 1996.
Radio Transcriptions 1941-1944, Document Records, reissued 1997.
Very Best of Golden Gate Quartet, EMD/Blue Note, reissued 1997.
Kings of Gospel, RCA Victor/Bluebird, reissued 1999.
Golden Gate Quartet: Negro Spirituals, Vol. 1-2, A World of Music, 2000.
—B. Kimberly Taylor
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