Jubilee was a secularized form of church music that was acceptable in nightclubs and concerts during the ‘30s and ‘40s. The most popular of the Jubilee quartets, the Golden Gate Quartet started singing as the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet in the min-‘30s when they were students at Booker T. Washington High School in Norfolk, Virginia. The membership included Willie Johnson (baritone and narrator), Henry Owens (first tenor), William Langford (second tenor), and Orlandus Wilson (bass). The singers chose their name for its musical sound, and they were more likely describing the doors to heaven than the bridge over San Francisco Bay. Their harmonies became very sophisticated, laced with a heavy dose of jazz and a Mills Brothers influence right down to their vocal imitation of instruments. In fact, next to the Mills Brothers, they were probably the best at that “sounding like instruments” technique.
They built their reputation through performing on local radio shows and in churches.
In 1937 the Gates signed to Victor’s Bluebird affiliate and applied their unique jazz-swing sound to gospel titles like “Go where I Send Thee,” “The Preacher and the Bear,” and “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In.” On August 4, 1937, they recorded an amazing 14 songs in two hours at the Charlotte Hotel in North Carolina. They performed in the same year on NBC Radio’s “Magic Key Hour.”
By 1939 they were working out of New York, and Clyde Riddick had replaced William Langford.
In June of 1940 they recorded several sides with the legendary folk singer Leadbelly, released in 1941 on Bluebird’s parent label, Victor. By now they had dropped the Jubilee portion of their name, presenting themselves strictly as the Golden Gate Quartet.
Though their recorded repertoire from 1937 to 1940 includes mostly gospel and Jubilee songs, they did record two pop-jazz 78s: “Stormy Weather” and “My Prayer.” One of the highlights of this period was a performance for President Franklin Roosevelt’s inauguration, which led to a number of appearances at the White House at the request of Eleanor Roosevelt.
In 1941 they moved to Columbia’s Okeh affiliate, and their entire recorded output during the war years was on that label. The most successful of these records was a version of “Comin’ in on a Wing and a Prayer” in 1943. It was also in ’43 that Wilson and Johnson joined the war effort at the request of Uncle Sam, and Alton Bradley and Cliff Givens replaced them, respectively. Wilson and Johnson replaced them, respectively. Wilson and Johnson rejoined in 1946 and Givens moved to THE INK SPOTS.
Their biggest record success came in 1947 with the song “Shadrack.”
In 1948 the group appeared in the RKO musical A Song Is Born, starring Benny Goodman, Danny Kaye, and Louis Armstrong. Willie Johnson soon left to take the lead of the Jubalaires, and Orville Brooks joined the Gates. Later that year they jumped from Columbia to Mercury and, along with the usual Jubilee tunes, cut a few R&B and pop 78s like “Will I Find My Love Today.”
By 1957 the foursome, now including Caleb J.C. Ginyard of the Dixiaires, were following the lead of other black American groups, like THE DELTA RHYTHM BOYS, who were finding warmer receptions in Europe. In 1959 the Golden Gat Quartet moved to Paris and landed a two-year deal to perform a the Casino de Paris. While based in Europe they recorded for EMI-UK, Pathe Marconi in France, and EMI-Germany, creating over 50 LPs.
By the late 1970s (Orlandus) Orlando Wilson and Clyde Riddick were they only remaining originals singing with Calvin Williams (second tenor) and Paul Brembly (baritone). Over the years the group amassed a travelogue of 76 countries performed in.
One of the truly great vocal groups, the Gates were cited as an inspiration to many rhythm and blues groups of the ‘50s.
– Jay Warner