Most musical groups would consider themselves fortunate to last 10 years. This year, the Dixie Hummingbirds are celebrating 75 years of singing traditional gospel music together.
No, that is not a typo. This group formed before the stock market crash of 1929. In conjunction with the anniversary, they are releasing a new recording, "Diamond Jubilation," and embarking on a national tour.
Longevity alone doesn't account for the recent buzz surrounding the group. The Hummingbirds are widely considered one of the most influential and innovative singing groups not only in gospel music, but in the broader context of popular music. Admirers of the band include Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, and soul superstar Isaac Hayes.
In a new biography, "Great God A'Mighty! The Dixie Hummingbirds" by Jerry Zolten, Hayes declares, "In the beginning, after the word, and before there was rap, hip-hop, disco, punk, funk, metal, soul, Motown, rock-a-billy, before bebop, doo-wop, and the big band swing, there was the Dixie Hummingbirds."
The current frontman for the group is baritone Ira Tucker Sr., the only member who remains from the early pre-WWII days. He joined the Greenville, Miss., group in 1938 at age 13.
Tucker was indeed young, but he was not a rarity in the Southern gospel circuit. Young kids could be found singing in dozens of gospel groups all over the South. "During that time, blacks didn't have nothing else to do," says Tucker, "You had to find ways to amuse yourself."
Standing out from the glut of youthful singers, Tucker developed a highly energized performance style dubbed "activity singing," where he would leap off stages and rush through the audience, all the while keeping in harmony with his group.
"The people, they all just went for it," remembers Tucker.
In fact, people went for it so much that singers from across the musical divide began to mimic his ebullient style.
Soul legend Jackie Wilson, blues shouter Bobby "Blue" Bland, and The Temptations have all admitted their debt to the singer. Of his secular followers, Tucker explains, "They were all like, 'Hey, this guy could make a heck of a rock 'n' roll singer, but he only loves gospel, so we'll just steal what he's doing.' "
Rock 'n' roll never got its grips on Tucker, who remained steadfast to his gospel roots. "My record company cursed me out, my brother-in-law cursed me out. They told me I could make three times as much money [singing rock 'n' roll], and I would say, 'Yeah, but I wouldn't be three times as happy,'" says Tucker.
By the late 1930s, the Dixie Hummingbirds were becoming one of the most popular gospel groups in the country. They moved north to Philadelphia, and later to New York, where they landed a prestigious gig at the Café Society, one of the first integrated nightclubs in the country.
It was a radically different venue for the Hummingbirds. Admits Tucker, "We never played a cafe in the South. During that time ... they didn't want anything to do with [black musicians]."
Playing to regularly packed houses at the Café, and later at Harlem's Apollo Theater, it became evident that the Hummingbirds had grown beyond their regional popularity in the South, to become a national phenomenon.
The group continued performing throughout the '50's and '60's, enjoying critical and popular praise, highlighted by their standing ovation at their 1966 Newport Folk Festival performance. After a hiatus, the band was thrust back into the spotlight when they joined Paul Simon on the hit "Loves Me Like a Rock," in 1973, which they recorded on their own a year later and won a Grammy.
It was Tucker's son who had the idea to get something together for the group's 75th anniversary.
After hooking up with Jerry Klause, chief of Treasure Records, it wasn't difficult to find musicians to back the historic group. They were lining up to be a part of the recording. New Orleans piano maestro Dr. John, aka Mac Rebbenack, has been a fan since the 1940s. "I can remember seeing them in one of those gospel cavalcades in New Orleans a long, long time ago. "This guy hit a note that was so low, so true, and so rich, that it literally rattled my feet."
Rebbenack believes that there is something more than just fine singing going on with the Dixie Hummingbirds. "You felt like you was being hugged by those cats when they were singing.... When you listened to their records, you felt like they were standing all around you, and you were part of them.... It's such an honor to play on this new record," he says.
When asked the secret for the group's resilience, Tucker replies, "I have no idea. I guess it's just determination."