The Dixie Hummingbirds are probably the best known of the black gospel quartets, having performed for over 50 years throughout America and Europe. They became the inspiration for countless R&B and soul singers, from Jackie Wilson and Clyde McPhatter to Bobby “Blue” Bland and The Temptations.
The group was formed in Greenville, South Carolina, by James Davis in 1928, a year before the Great Depression. The members were Barney Gipson (lead), Davis (tenor), Barney Parks (baritone), and J.B. Matterson (bass). In their early teens they sang in the Bethel Church of God in the junior chorus. Soon Fred Owens became the bass and the group became the Sterling High School Quartet. Davis changed the name to the Dixie Hummingbirds.
Following local activity, the group went to the National Baptist Convention in Atlanta where they met such top acts of the day as the Heavenly Gospel Singers, THE SWAN SILVERTONES, and Kings of Harmony. The Hummingbirds’ reception there encouraged them to tour.
During the ‘30s the group went through a succession of bass singers until Jimmy Bryant of the Heavenly Gospel Singers joined in 1939, just as the group signed to Decca Records. Also that same year the group obtained the lead singing services of Ira Tucker of Spartanburg, South Carolina. Tucker had been singing with his own group the Gospel Carriers. One night the Carriers competed in a battle of the gospel groups against the Dixie Hummingbirds and the Heavenly Gospel Singers. The Birds were the obvious winners and Tucker became a member that same night. Willie Bobo, one of the legendary gospel basses and the Heavenlies’ bass that night, also joined the Dixies soon after.
Tucker had been influenced by the Norfolk Jubilee Singers, and his mixture of gospel and blues added a versatility to the Dixies’ style that helped make them leading black Southern quartet. As time went on he developed his showmanship, becoming the first to run up and down the aisles and jump off stages; it’s very possible that James Brown learned the moves from Tucker.
The Hummingbirds began on Philadelphia radio at station WCAU as the Jericho Boys and the Swanee Quintet, and performed in packed stadiums without the benefit of a hit record. In 1945 the group recorded for Apollo and then Gotham.
Beachy Thompson of the Five Gospel Singers and the Willing Four joined the group in 1944, and by World War II’s end the lineup was Tucker (lead), Davis (tenor), Thompson (baritone), and Bobo (bass).
They hit their stride in 1952 recording gospel standards like “Jesus Walked the Water” and “I Just Can’t HelpIt” for Peacock. In the early ‘50s James Walker joined and became the group’s second lead. Swan Silvertones great Claude Jeter also spent some time with the group in the ‘50s.
In 1966 the Hummingbirds performed at the Newport Folk Festival and were an instant sensation. Seven years later they backed Paul Simon on his gospel-flavored composition, “Loves Me Like a Rock.” The record sold a million copies and reached number two in the late summer. Soon after, the group recorded its own version.
The Hummingbirds continued into the ‘80s with a number of personnel changes. James Davis retired in 1984 after 56 years on the circuit. Willie Bobo died in 1976. Ira Tucker and James Walker were still featured as of the late ‘80s.
A pioneering force behind the evolution of the modern gospel quartet sound, the Dixie Hummingbirds were among the longest-lived and most successful groups of their era; renowned for their imaginative arrangements, progressive harmonies and all-around versatility, they earned almost universal recognition as the greatest Southern quartet of their generation, and their influence spread not only over the world of spiritual music but also inspired secular artists ranging from Jackie Wilson to Bobby “Blue” Bland to the Temptations. Formed in Greenville, South Carolina by James B. Davis, the Dixie Hummingbirds began their career during the late ’30s as a jubilee-styled act; joined in 1938 by 13-year-old baritone phenom Ira Tucker and bass singer extraordinaire Willie Bobo, a former member of the Heavenly Gospel Singers, the group made their recorded debut a year later on Decca, where they issued singles including “Soon Will Be Done with the Troubles of This World,” “Little Wooden Church” and “Joshua Journeyed to Jericho.”
Upon relocating to Philadelphia in 1942, the Hummingbirds’ popularity began to grow — Tucker, in particular, wowed audiences with his flamboyant theatrics, rejecting the long tradition of “flat-footed” singers rooted in place on stage in favor of running up the aisles and rocking prayerfully on his knees. By 1944, he was even regularly jumping off stages — indeed, the frenetic showmanship of soul music may have had its origins in Tucker’s manic intensity, itself an emulation of country preaching. At the same time, the Hummingbirds’ harmonies continued to grow more sophisticated; the addition of Paul Owens completed the quartet’s development, and together he and Tucker honed a style they dubbed “trickeration,” a kind of note-bending distinguished by sensual lyrical finesse and staggering vocal intricacy. Their virtuosity did not go unnoticed by audiences, and throughout the mid-’40s — an acknowledged golden age of a cappella quartet singing — the group regularly played to packed houses throughout the south.
Under names like the Swanee Quintet and the Jericho Boys, the Dixie Hummingbirds also regularly appeared on Philadephia radio station WCAU; it was as the Jericho Boys that they auditioned for the legendary producer John Hammond, who in 1942 booked them into the Cafe Society Downtown, then the Greenwich Village area’s preeminent showcase for black talent. By 1946, the Hummingbirds were again recording, cutting sides for labels including Apollo and, later in the decade, Gotham and Hob. In 1952, what many consider the group’s definitive lineup — a roster of Tucker, Davis, Bobo, Beachey Thompson, James Walker (replacing Owens) and ace guitarist Howard Carroll, a roster which held intact for close to a quarter century — signed to the Peacock label, where over the course of the following decade they recorded a series of masterpieces including 1952’s “Trouble in My Way,” 1953’s “Let’s Go Out to the Programs,” 1954’s “Christian’s Testimonial,” 1957’s “Christian Automobile” and 1959’s “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See.”
After earning a standing ovation for their performance at the 1966 Newport Folk Festival (captured on the Gospel at Newport LP), the Hummingbirds essentially retired from mainstream appearances to focus solely on the church circuit. They did, however, burst back into the popular consciousness in 1973, backing Paul Simon on his pop smash “Loves Me Like a Rock.” The death of Willie Bobo in 1976 brought to a sad end a lengthy chapter of the Hummingbirds’ history — his membership in their ranks dated back to the late 1930s — but the surviving members forged on; just two years later, Ebony Magazine named them “The World’s Greatest Gospel Group.” After Davis retired in 1984, Tucker was the last remaining link to the quartet’s formative years; despite the subsequent deaths of Walker in 1992 and Thompson in 1994, Tucker continued leading the group at the century’s end, recruiting new blood to keep the Dixie Hummingbirds’ spirit alive for years to follow, celebrating their seventh decade with 1999’s Music in the Air: The 70th Anniversary All-Star Tribute.
— Jason Ankeny