march 2011

ira tucker
Ira Tucker Sr.: ‘My father was concerned that traditional quartet music was fading away,’ says his son Ira Tucker, Jr. about his father’s inspiration for Gospel Praise Songs--Powered By Quartets.

Dixie Hummingbirds (And Friends) Fly Again

New album spotlights classic quartet style

By Bob Marovich

"We couldn't touch the guys who did those songs originally, and we didn't try. We just wanted to bring back their sound for those who knew it once, and to offer it to young people who might like it."

So says Ira Tucker, Jr. of the Dixie Hummingbirds' recent release, Gospel Praise Songs--Powered By Quartets. Tucker, whose father, Ira, Sr., was the Birds' iconic lead singer, now manages the Dixie Hummingbirds.

Ira Tucker Sr., one of the most influential gospel singers in history, joined the ‘Birds as a 13-year-old in 1938 shortly before the quartet signed with Decca and began its climb into legend. The group was formed in 1928 by James B. Davis and his high school classmates in Greenville, SC. Following graduation they began touring the Southern states, but it was Tucker Sr.’s vocal and showmanship skills that elevated the group into gospel’s top ranks. Raised on the gospel quartet style, Tucker had been performing with his own group, the Gospel Carriers, before his voice changed. He was working as a chicken plucker when the area’s most famous quartet, the Heavenly Gospel Singers, with its formidable bass singer William Bobo (who lived on the same street as Tucker’s family), squared off against the Hummingbirds at a local silver tea party (essentially a rent party). At the end of the competition, both Bobo and Tucker Sr. joined the winning Hummingbirds.

Vintage Dixie Hummingbirds live: ‘I’ve So Much To Shout About’

“So many great quartets--yet among black Southerners, the Dixie Hummingbirds have always been the leaders,” wrote the preeminent gospel authority Tony Heilbut in his essential study of the music, The Gospel Sound. “The Birds are conscious artists, especially Tucker. ‘I’m a firm believer in giving people something for their money. Talent. A variety--fast, slow, something sad, something with a lot of laughs.’ He can beat any blues singer alive, then turn around and subtly parody the hillbilly gospel he’s heard since childhood. Tucker’s talent is no secret among black singers. He helped train Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, a blues shouter whose work became eminently satisfying under Tucker’s tutelage. The Temptations’ harmonies are shot through with Hummingbirds echoes, and the soul singers Jackie Wilson and Brook Benton owe plenty to the quartet master.” The group occasionally stepped out of the gospel world, boosting its profile with a 1942 date at the New York jazz club Café Society; performing with tenor giant Lester Young in the ‘40s; appearing at the Newport Folk Festival in 1966; and most memorably, providing the scintillating rhythmic backup for Paul Simon’s “Loves Me Like a Rock” hit single (and on another track, “Tenderness”) from his 1973 album There Goes Rhymin’ Simon.

As Heilbut notes, “quartet is Tucker’s métier,” and at his death from heart disease on June 24, 2008, the 83-year-old Ira Sr. was focused on raising the public’s consciousness with regard to quartet’s glorious, influential history. To that end he was preparing to produce an album of classic quartet songs from the genre's Golden Age.

Paul Simon and Stevie Wonder and the Dixie Hummingbirds perform ‘Loves Me Like a Rock’ in this clip from 80 Years Young, a documentary about the Hummingbirds directed by Jeff Scheftel. Includes interviews with Ira Tucker Sr. and other group members.

"My father was concerned that traditional quartet music was fading away,” says Tucker Jr. “He had been in quartet music seventy years of his life. He knew people loved this music but they couldn't hear it anymore on radio.

"His idea was to bring the original songs back, and maybe that would help. He came up with a list with like 30 songs on it. When he passed away, that put a hold on the project. Then when Mom passed away, we got together and said, 'Look, this is what Pop wanted to do, let's try to do it.' And it was on me to pick ten songs from his list."

tuckerLouise Tucker, who married Ira Sr. while they were both still high school students, was as fervent a gospel supporter as her  husband. The couple formed the Ira and Louise Tucker Preservation Foundation to assist veteran quartet singers. The album they were planning and that their son has now completed and brought to market will help raise money for the Foundation even as it builds greater awareness of the historic importance of gospel quartets at a time when groups and soloists have all but squeezed quartets off of gospel radio playlists.

"I wanted to do something to honor both my mother and father," Ira Jr. said. "The foundation will help senior quartet members who are down on their luck to get medical assistance. It will also promote quartet singing among youth in the hopes that more of them will aspire to sing quartet."

He added, "At some point in the future, our plan is to subsidize promoters to bring gospel quartets into various cities."

Gospel Praise Songs--Powered by Quartets emphasizes old style quartet singing in ten straightforward readings not of ‘Birds hits, but those of Golden Era quartets with whom the ‘Birds shared the stage: the Harmonizing Four, Golden Gate Quartet, Sensational Nightingales, Soul Stirrers, Pilgrim Travelers and the CBS Trumpeteers.

With songs selected by Ira Jr., the current iteration of the Dixie Hummingbirds--William Bright, Lyndon Baines Jones, Torrey Nettles, Carlton Lewis, and Adebo Wali--agreed to take a year off from touring and get to work on the project, starting in May 2010.

The Dixie Hummingbirds, ‘Move On Up a Little Higher’ (Peacock, 1949)

For musicians, the group turned to an unlikely but ultimately fruitful source: the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts. (After returning to professional work once her children were raised, Louise Tucker was employed in the Philadelphia school system.) Billed as Dixie Hummingbirds and Friends, the album also includes contributions by West Philadelphia's Crusaders for Christ Church Choir, which provides backing vocals on "The Last Mile of the Way," and Philly soul legend Bunny Sigler on "Morning Train."

LaDeva Davis, the high school's dance teacher, had invited the Birds to perform for the students. The quartet enjoyed the experience so much that they decided to give the young people an opportunity to play along with them on six of the CD's ten selections. Austin Lightfoot, a senior who is now studying at Berklee College of Music, wrote the string arrangement for "The Love of God." A student even filmed the companion DVD.

"They all did a marvelous job," Ira, Jr. said. "They didn't know about this music at first, but they got it. It's amazing to see high school kids, regardless of race and demographics, playing traditional gospel quartet music."

Meanwhile, the Birds are working on another CD, Benevolence, which will introduce new songs in the Dixie Hummingbirds style. A third CD is in the works, this one scheduled for a 2015 release, when the legendary quartet's memorabilia, artifacts and photos are placed in the Smithsonian Institution as part of a permanent exhibit on American culture.

Ira, Jr. hopes Gospel Praise Songs not only results in new fans for the Dixie Hummingbirds, but also for groups like the Pilgrim Travelers and Harmonizing Four whose music is featured on the CD.

"We want you to love us and what we've done, but check them out, too, because that gets you into the whole history of quartet. These songs are just as relevant today as they were then."

"If nothing else,” said Ira Jr., “we should keep traditional gospel alive for the sake of those to come. This music spawned everything else."

Gospel music historian, radio announcer, and author Bob Marovich is the editor of The Black Gospel Blog. See more of his gospel coverage in our Gospel Set section.

The DVD is not for sale yet. The CD, currently being shopped to major labels, is available as a pre-release limited edition through LaDeva Davis (267-918-2814).

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