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Dixie Hummingbirds

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The Dixie Hummingbirds began as a student group at a Greenville, South Carolina, high school in 1928. Over the years, their sound evolved from a rural jubilee style to an urban sound that added instruments: guitar, bass, keyboards and drums. Photograph by James J. Kriegsmann, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
The Dixie Hummingbirds, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
The Dixie Hummingbirds, Apollo Theatre collage, New York, New York, 1956, courtesy Jerry Zolten and Ira Tucker
The Dixie Hummingbirds (left to right) Ira Tucker, James Walker, Paul Owens, Howard Carroll, 1992, photograph by Jack Vartoogian
The Dixie Hummingbirds, (foreground) James Walker, (rear, left to right) Ira Tucker, Paul Owens, Howard Carroll, 1992, photograph by Jack Vartoogian
The Dixie Hummingbirds, Courtesy Jerry Zolten and Ira Tucker
The Dixie Hummingbirds, Peacock and ABC Records promotional photograph, courtesy Jerry Zolten and Ira Tucker
The Dixie Hummingbirds, Peacock Records promotional photograph, courtesy Jerry Zolten and Ira Tucker
The Dixie Hummingbirds, ca. 1970s, courtesy Jerry Zolten and Ira Tucker
The Dixie Hummingbirds, courtesy Jerry Zolten and Ira Tucker
The Dixie Hummingbirds (left to right) Ira Tucker, lead; James Walker, lead; Paul Owens. lead, tenor and baritone; Beachey Thompson, tenor; Howard Carroll, guitarist and baritone, courtesy Jerry Zolten and Ira Tucker
The Dixie Hummingbirds art montage, courtesy Jerry Zolten and Ira Tucker
The Dixie Hummingbirds, ca. 1950s, courtesy Jerry Zolten and Ira Tucker
The Dixie Hummingbirds, ca. 1950s, courtesy Ira Tucker
The Dixie Hummingbirds, ca. 1950s, courtesy Jerry Zolten and Ira Tucker
The Dixie Hummingbirds, ca. 1950s, courtesy Jerry Zolten and Ira Tucker
The Dixie Hummingbirds art montage, courtesy Jerry Zolten and Ira Tucker
The Dixie Hummingbirds art montage, courtesy Jerry Zolten and Ira Tucker
Ira Tucker and his wife, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 2001, photograph by Alan Govenar
The Dixie Hummingbirds, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts

In 1928, James B. Davis organized a quartet with fellow students at Sterling High School in Greenville, South Carolina. The group performed locally and became the official school quartet. After high school, the group began performing in earnest, playing in hundreds of churches and developing a regional following. As leader of the group, Davis was a strict disciplinarian who imposed rules: no alcohol and no women in the car when they traveled from job to job. Singers were fined for being late to rehearsal and for wearing clothes that didn't match. "I was the policeman, chaplain and everything else," Davis told an interviewer. "I thought I was the only one mean enough to keep it together."

In 1939, the group recorded sixteen a cappella sides in New York City for the Decca label. One of those records, "Joshua Journeyed to Jericho," became a hit for the group, which then consisted of Davis, Fred Baker, Barney Parks and Jimmy Bryant. Later that year, Ira Tucker joined as a tenor. He became the lead singer two years later. "I was harmonizing a song, 'Feed Me, Jesus,'" he said. "Davis said, 'Try to lead it.' I did, and it went over big." What went over with audiences was Tucker's powerful, searing delivery combined with showmanship.

In 1942, the Hummingbirds relocated to Philadelphia, where they had their own radio show, Ninety Minutes From Broadway, on WCAU. Performing as the Swanee Quartet, they sang a cappella on the program, which was broadcast three days per week. Following the lead of the Golden Gate Quartet, the group also performed at Café Society in New York under the name the Jericho Quartet. After a nationwide recording ban was lifted, the group resumed recording with a new lineup: Davis, Tucker, tenor Beachy Thompson and bass William Bobo. During the remainder of the 1940s, the quartet recorded more than thirty-five sides for the Apollo, Gotham and Regis labels.

The Hummingbirds' sound changed, too, as gospel evolved from the rural jubilee style to the urban "hard" gospel sound. The group added instruments: guitar, bass, keyboards and drums. They shared national fame with gospel groups such as the Swan Silvertones, the Five Blind Boys and the Soul Stirrers.

The 1950s brought more personnel changes with the addition of guitarist and singer James Howard and singers James Walker and Paul Owens. Between 1952 and 1959, the group recorded almost fifty sides for Don Robey's Peacock label in Houston, Texas. Their appearance at the 1966 Newport Folk Festival earned them a significant white following. In 1973, pop singer Paul Simon recruited them to back him on his song "Loves Me Like a Rock." The group later made its own recording of the song, and it won a Grammy Award. Though they never crossed over to become pop stars as the Staples Singers did, the Dixie Hummingbirds' exquisite harmonies and showmanship had a considerable impact on blues and pop stars, including Bobby "Blue" Bland, B. B. King, James Brown, Jackie Wilson, and Al Green.

"I've seen both sides, the high end of rock with the madness and confusion, and the gospel side, where people enjoy what they do," said Tucker, who became the leader of the group when Davis retired in 1984. "There's no distance between performer and audience in gospel," Tucker added. "It's like an extended family."

Bibliography
Boyer, Horace Clarence. How Sweet the Sound: The Golden Age of Gospel. (Washington, D.C.: Elliott & Clark, 1995.)
Broughton, Viv. Black Gospel: An Illustrated History of the Gospel Sound. (Dorset, U.K.: Blandford Press, 1985.)
"Classic Songs by Blacks Among Those Newly Added to Recording Academy's Hall of Fame." Jet (April 17, 2000) 97, 19: 61.
DeCurtis, Anthony, and James Henke. The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll. (New York: Random House, 1992.)
Fox, Ted. Showtime at the Apollo. (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1983.)
Gart, Galen, and Roy C. Ames. Duke/Peacock Records: An Illustrated History with Discography. (Milford, New Hampshire: Big Nickel Publications, 1990.)
Gillett, Charlie. The Sound of the City. (New York: Pantheon, 1983.)
Groia, Phillip. They All Sang on the Corner. (West Hempstead, New York: Philly Dee Enterprises, 1983.)
Hayes, Cedric, and Robert Laughton. Gospel Records 1943-1969: A Black Music Discography. (Record Information Services, 1992.) Heilbut, Tony. The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times. (New York: Limelight Editions, 1985.)
Jackson, Joyce Marie. "The Changing Nature of Gospel Music: A Southern Case Study." African American Review (summer 1995) 29, 2: 185.
Jones, Quincy. "50 Years of Black Music." Ebony (November 1995) 51, 1: 178.
Morthland, John. "Record Label of the Century." Texas Monthly (December 1999) 27, 12: 182.
Oliver, Paul, Max Harris, and Harris Bolcom, eds. The New Grove Gospel, Blues and Jazz. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1986.) Santoro, G. "Gospel Music." The Nation (July 8, 1991) 253, 2: 66.
Strauss, Neil. "Gospel Roots Reaching the Heart and the Soul." New York Times (October 3, 1995): C17.
"TLC Gets Six Grammy Nominations; Whitney and Lauryn Hill Also up for Awards." Jet (January 24, 2000) 97, 7.

Discography
Dixie Hummingbirds. Best of the Dixie Hummingbirds. MCA SP 22043.
______. Dixie Hummingbirds - In Good Faith. A.I.R. 10184.
______. Dixie Hummingbirds - Live. Mobile Fidelity 771.

Filmography
We Love You Like a Rock. Video-to-16mm, 77 minutes. Directed by Horace Clarence Boyer. City Lore/Film Arts Foundation presentation of a Searchlight Films production, 1994.

Watch

Dixie Hummingbirds, 2000 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Washington, D.C., courtesy National Endowment for the Arts

Listen

Carl Davis answers talks about the early history of the Dixie Hummingbirds, Washington, D.C., 2000, interview by Alan Govenar

The Dixie Hummingbirds, 'Joshua Journeyed To Jericho,' Lead James Davis, DECCA 1939

The Dixie Hummingbirds, 'Beaming From Heaven,' Lead Ira Tucker, GOTHAM 1950

The Dixie Hummingbirds, 'Christian Automobile,' Lead Ira Tucker, PEACOCK 1957

The Dixie Hummingbirds, 'Prayer For Peace,' PEACOCK 1964