Great God A'Mighty! The Dixie Hummingbirds: Celebrating the Rise of Soul Gospel Music
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From the Jim Crow world of 1920s Greenville, South Carolina, to Greenwich Village's Café Society in the '40s, to their 1974 Grammy-winning collaboration on "Loves Me Like a Rock," the Dixie Hummingbirds have been one of gospel's most durable and inspiring groups.
Now, Jerry Zolten tells the Hummingbirds' fascinating story and with it the story of a changing music industry and a changing nation. When James Davis and his high-school friends starting singing together in a rural South Carolina church they could not have foreseen the road that was about to unfold before them. They began a ten-year jaunt of "wildcatting," traveling from town to town, working local radio stations, schools, and churches, struggling to make a name for themselves. By 1939 the a cappella singers were recording their four-part harmony spirituals on the prestigious Decca label. By 1942 they had moved north to Philadelphia and then New York where, backed by Lester Young's band, they regularly brought the house down at the city's first integrated nightclub, Café Society. From there the group rode a wave of popularity that would propel them to nation-wide tours, major record contracts, collaborations with Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon, and a career still vibrant today as they approach their seventy-fifth anniversary.
Drawing generously on interviews with Hank Ballard, Otis Williams, and other artists who worked with the Hummingbirds, as well as with members James Davis, Ira Tucker, Howard Carroll, and many others, The Dixie Hummingbirds brings vividly to life the growth of a gospel group and of gospel music itself.
reactions, adapted their style as well. They had to, realizing that exclusively sweet would no longer cut it. They experimented by featuring different leads on different songs and switching leads in mid-song. They began thinking in terms of the whole program, starting out easy, building, catching fire, and leaving the audience hollering for more. In spite of Tucker’s increasing ability to handle the lead, James Davis retained a couple of numbers as exclusively his own. “I had an arrange- 72
operation. Negro talent built around a small orch. [sic], a hot pianist and a vocal group, all seasoned with social signiﬁcance, are still the stand-bys here.” Holdovers in the new show were Lee and Lester Young (“The Orch. provides a neat, if not exceptional brand of dansapation . . .”) and Ammons and Johnson (“The pianists beat it hot and hard and pleasurable . . .”). Joining the bill were pianist Connie Berry (“She’ll need a different hair-do . . . to enhance her personality . . . Her pianoing
words of the song. And he loved to be able to sing it four or ﬁve different ways. When he was ﬁnished with that one, the next day, another song. I guess he knew so much about how a song was made. He didn’t ever become attached to no song. But he loved all of them. Maybe he’d get another book, wherever it opened, that was his song. Unlike his son, John Davis never thought to earn a living in music. For him, the reward was in the sheer mastery and in the intensity of the commitment. Although James
personal appearance could now reach greater numbers than ever before. Even the poorest families—including most African Americans—found a way to own a radio, a wind-up Victrola, and a pile of well-played 18 Great God A’mighty! The Dixie Hummingbirds phonograph records. It was a luxury that would signiﬁcantly improve the quality of almost everyone’s life. During the early 1930s, Americans warmed to President Roosevelt’s homey “ﬁreside chats” and forgot their troubles in the music, drama, and