December 1st, 2006
The Dixie Hummingbirds, formed while its four original members were in the Church of God Holiness choir in Greenville, South Carolina, began singing in the traditional quartet style in 1928. After developing a reputation in the southeast and making some personnel changes (which included the addition of lead singer Ira Tucker around 1938), they released their first recording in 1939 on the Decca label. The quartet moved to Philadelphia in 1942, where they recorded numerous sides for various independent labels such as Arco, Apollo and Okeh.
In 1952 the Hummingbirds signed with the Houston-based Peacock label where they experienced over thirty years of success in gospel music. In 1973 they received a Grammy for “Loves Me Like a Rock,” which they had originally recorded (as background vocalists) with Paul Simon. In 1978 they were acknowledged by Ebony magazine as “The World’s Greatest Gospel Group.” As a result of group member deaths and retirements over the years, only one pioneer member remains—Ira Tucker. With the addition of new and younger members (William Bright, Abraham Rice, Torrey Nettles, Willie Coleman, Cornell McKnight and Lyndon Blaines Jones), Tucker preserves the Dixie Hummingbirds’ characteristic sound, which consists of warm triadic harmonies, a rhythmic foundation provided by the bass voice, an electric guitar, and Tucker’s signature lead vocals, which illustrates both his extended vocal register and charismatic personality.
The first track (“Ezekiel Saw The Wheel”) illustrates how the Hummingbirds have preserved the early traditional quartet performance practices of the 1920s-30s by employing Negro spirituals, which are juxtaposed with new songs. The remaining nine tracks consist of a gospelized folk tune and original gospel songs, incorporating lyrics that reflect both social conditions and biblical principles (faith in God, eternal life in heaven, etc). All of the songs on this disc employ a verse-chorus form with an internal call and response between the leader and background vocalists, and each songs ends with an extended vamp.
While the Hummingbirds continue to preserve the traditional gospel quartet sound in their performances, contemporary influences are evident in the way they employ instrumentation, such as the addition of strings and horns and a full rhythm section (bass and electric guitar, piano and trap set), as well as new technologies. In “Christian’s Automobile” (track 7), the latter is used to create sound effects of car crashes and thunder. The Hummingbirds’ also incorporate the harmonic and melodic vocabulary from blues and country music, most evident in the style of the guitar and piano playing on “It Won’t Be Long.”
Still Keepin’ It Real demonstrates the various ways in which the Hummingbirds have expanded their repertoire and sound, reflecting the broadening boundaries of the gospel quartet genre. The disc also celebrates the role of Ira Tucker as the central member and leader of the Hummingbirds (his picture appears on the cover). An extensive summary of the group’s history is provided in the liner notes.
Posted by Tyron Cooper
Editor’s note: check out this interview with Jerry Zoltan, author of Great God A’Mighty – The Dixie Hummingbirds: Celebrating the Rise of Soul Gospel Music.
Review Genre(s): Gospel Music and Spirituals