Sunday Singing: The Black Gospel Quartet

The Mighty Clouds of Joy
The Best of the Mighty Clouds of Joy

The Dixie Hummingbirds
The Best of the Dixie Hummingbirds

The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi
The Best of the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi

Pops was part of that current of post-World War II migration, leaving his Thompson Georgia home in 1959, and ending up in Harlem with his sister, where he worked as a short order cook. As old-school and country as they come, Pops, negotiated the city with a small transistor radio, where he could at least hear the sounds of home — the south that he left behind — in the music of B.B. King, Jimmy Smith, Bobby “Blue” Bland, and most importantly, those great black gospel quartets of the late 1950s and 1960s. I was oblivious to most of this history as a small child, yet I still watched Pops sitting transfixed on Sunday mornings in our small tenement apartment’s living room in the Bronx.

By then (the early 1970s), Pops was working 10 hours a day, six days a week at a combo drugstore/restaurant in Crown Heights Brooklyn (right on Nostrand Avenue) and traveling more than three hours a day roundtrip from the Bronx to Brooklyn. Pops was a real blur in my life those days, so Sunday mornings were the only time I had to share with him when I was young. Those Sundays were about him reconnecting with his humanity, as a non-educated, barely literate (though brilliant), working class Blackman who held no dreams except those he had for his wife and his young son. Sharing time with my father meant sharing time with his music, which inevitably meant hours of listening to the Soul Stirrers, the Highway QCs, the Swan Silvertones, the Swanee Quintet, the Dixie Hummingbirds, and especially, the voices of Joe Ligon and the Mighty Mighty Clouds of Joy. Pops was never much of a talker, and I’ve spent the better part of my adult life getting to know him and his history through this music he first shared with me 36 years ago. Ironically it is this very music that I have come to celebrate in my professional career, writing books and essays that Pops is incapable of even reading. This piece is a tribute to Pops — A.C. as folks close to him call him — and those great black gospel quartets that gave him and so many other folks the strength to build lives for themselves.

Though black gospel quartets can obviously be traced back to plantation life in the South (According to Alan young in his book Woke Me Up This Morning, the first reference to black gospel quartets was made in 1851), the “modern” quartets were born in the late 1920s and early 1930s with the emergence of groups like the Heavenly Gospel Singers (1934) and most notably, The Golden Gate Quartet (influenced by the Mills Brothers) of Norfolk, Virginia — Norfolk was often referred to as the “home of the quartet”. The intricate four-part harmonies that were the bedrock of the black gospel quartet tradition, were honed over centuries in the work songs that enslaved blacks incorporated into their daily activities as exploited laborers. These harmonies have always had a “public” visibility that connected them more to the secular world, though so many of the narratives were “other-worldly,” which would also include visions of emancipation and a return to the “homeland.” For example, lots of folks became aware of the Black Harmonic tradition in the 1870s via the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who performed “Christian” music for audiences around the globe as a means of raising money for Fisk University, one of the earliest Historically Black University and Colleges (HBUCs).

According to Young, “although [gospel quartets] are an essential part of African-American religious music, few are directly affiliated with churches and much of their singing is done outside the church” (52). As Robin D.G. Kelley acknowledges in his book Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression, many gospel quartets were the focal point of CP (Communist Party) organizing efforts in the deep south, as many of the men in these groups had an intimate understanding of labor exploitation and the groups’ performances would draw large audiences. Kelley gives examples of blacks in Alabama changing the words of classics like “Give Me That Old Time Religion” to “Give Me That Old Communist Spirit” and the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, which organized its own quartet named the Bessemer Big Four Quartet.

Black gospel quartets, helped bridge the spiritual world with the secular one for many blacks. It’s not surprising then that so many of these men would ultimately have a profound impact on popular music when they made the transition to soul music. Lou Rawls, Johnnie Taylor, Wilson Pickett, Otis Clay and of course Sam Cooke (who became the template for the “Soul Man” of the 1960s) are the best examples of this, though Aretha Franklin remains the singularly most important defector from the church to the pop charts. The Soul Man tradition itself, which I (and others) have argued elsewhere gave a popular and accessible “voice” to the political struggles of blacks in the 1960s, can be traced to the “Hard” (Pentecostal or “sanctified”) quartet style that emerged in the early 1940s. Silas Steele of the Famous Blue Jay Singers and Rebert Harris, the original lead of the Soul Stirrers were among the fabulous lead singers who would embody that tradition. (Harris reportedly left the Soul Stirrers in 1950 because of increased “immoral” contact (sexual?) between quartets and their female fans, but was ironically replaced by Sam Cooke, who became gospel’s first acknowledged “sex symbol.”)

Archie Brownlee has been generally acknowledged as one of the greatest of the “hard” lead singers that emerged in the 1940s. Brownlee was a member of the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi (not to be confused with Clarence Fountain and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama), which though technically not a quartet, did employ four-part harmony. The group was founded in the late 1930s at the Piney Woods School for the Blind outside Jackson, Mississippi. Initially known as the Cotton Blossom Singers and the Jackson Harmoneers, the group became professionally known as the Five Blind Boys in 1944. Their most productive years came in the 1950s when the group was signed to Don Robey’s Peacock label. The group’s first single for the label “Our Father (Which Art in Heaven)” (1950) remains one of the group’s signature tunes. Arranged by Robey, the group is simply accompanied by a bass drum (good rocking on a Sunday morning apparently) as Brownlee screams (damn near crying) the lyrics to the traditional hymn.

The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi would become one of the first groups to record the Robey penned “Precious Memories” (1953). The song was given its definitive read with Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “stoned bluesed” 1950s version (see the opening montage to Charles Burnett’s To Sleep With Anger [1990]), though Aretha Franklin and the Rev. James Cleveland do significant justice to the song on Franklin’s like Amazing Grace (1972). Brownlee and Robey were listed as co-writers on “Song of Praise” (1953), which begins with members of the group referencing the “Lord’s Prayer” and the 23rd Psalm. As second-lead Lloyd Woodard sings the lyrics to the track, Brownlee can be heard screaming on top with lyrics like “Everybody can’t sing / If you can’t sang / Then fold up you arms / All you got to do is fold up your arms and just moan.” Rebert Harris is generally credited with creating the “double-lead” style of “hard” gospel singing. By the 1950s, most of the “hard” quartets were using this format and “Song of Praise” is a clear example of why the style gave those groups a more powerful sound. The double-lead is also employed on “Somewhere Listening for My Name” (1953), though Brownlee literally heisted the song from Woodard. Towards the end of the song, where Brownlee’s is shouting “yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah” you can already hear the style that would later become connected to “hard” soul singers like Wilson Pickett, Joe Tex, James Brown and to some extent, Jackie Wilson.

After Brownlee’s passing in 1960 (he was only 35), Roscoe Robinson joined the group as first lead and it his voice that can be heard on the somber Brownlee composition “Oh Why” (1964) and “Sending Up My Timber” (1970), which are as classic as any of the Brownlee leads. Woodard, who had been with the group from the days of Piney Wood, would pay another tribute to Brownlee more than a decade after his death, with an updated version (performed as spoken word) of “Speak Gently to Your Mother” (1973). More than 50 years after their inception, now with different personnel, the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi still receive request to sing the songs associated with Brownlee, who ultimately must be considered among that pantheon of tragic “soul singers” like Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, and Little Willie John.

Long before their collaboration with Paul Simon in 1973, the Dixie Hummingbirds and their lead singer Ira Tucker were known as innovators. Formed in Greensville, South Carolina in 1939, the group, known affectionately as the “Birds” became famous after they recruited Tucker and later William Bobo from the Heavenly Gospel singers. Tucker as lead was a self-described “aisle walker” owing to his belief that gospel performances were as much about entertainment as it was spirituality. Tucker is credited with helping to fine tune the group’s performance style as the group often performed with choreographed movements that would have an impact on soul groups like the Temptations, the Four Tops and The O’Jays two decades later. Tucker was also the vocal tutor for a young Bobby “Blue” Bland, who is recognized as possessing one of the most distinctive voices in the history of black pop.

Influenced by pop vocal groups like The Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots, the “Birds” were also given some stability after they signed to Robey’s Peacock label in 1952. During that first decade with Peacock, the Birds’ transformed the staid and mournful “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” (1959) into a striking and hopeful acknowledgement of survival. Most of the early sides by the Dixie Hummingbirds, like “You Don’t Have Nothing” (1964) and “Bedside of a Neighbor” (1961) reflected a more bouncy and upbeat musical style than some of their counterparts. On the early track “Let’s Go Out to the Programs” (1953) the “Birds” give a wink and nod to the very gospel showcases where they earned their livings. The “Birds” literally call out (affectionately) the Soul Stirrers, The Blind Boys of Mississippi, the Pilgrim Travelers, and The Bells of Joy. By the 1950s, such “programs” were widespread, owing to the early innovations of the “Father of Gospel” Thomas Dorsey, who used exhibitions, like those the “Birds” refer to, in order to sell sheet music of the songs performed during the show.

Outside of black gospel scene, most folks know the Dixie Hummingbirds for the background vocals they provided on Paul Simon’s “Love Me Like a Rock”. The group would record a version of the song themselves on their disc We Love You Like a Rock (1973). That same recording also featured a stinging version of Stevie Wonder’s “Jesus Children of America”, initially recorded on Wonder’s brilliant Innervisions (1973). The song was given part of its energy from guitarist Howard Carroll, who was known as the “B.B. King of Gospel Music”. Both songs were recorded at a moment when the old quartet tradition of singing with a low key accompaniment (usually just a guitar) had given way to instrumentation that rivaled that found in soul music. Robey and Art Rupe at Specialty are credited with beginning this process in the 1950s, (Rupe referred to his overdubbing of instrumentation as “sweetening”) and both the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi and The Dixie Hummingbirds are example of “old-time” groups that survived the transition.

Unlike the “Birds” and the “Boys”, the Mighty Clouds of Joy were part of the second stage of the modern black gospel quartet tradition. Formed in 1955 in Los Angeles (lead singer Joe Ligon hailed from Alabama), the group was signed to Robey’s Peacock label in 1959, after an L.A. DJ Brother Henderson sent a demo of the Mighty Clouds to Robey. Taking from the best traditions of the Dixie Hummingbirds and The Five Blind Boys, the crucial element of the Mighty Clouds was the vocals of Joe Ligon, who powerful, gruff voice, could blast through any kind on instrumentation. Ligon’s reputation was cemented on their brilliant debut “Ain’t Got Long Here” (1960), which was the group’s adaptation of the traditional spiritual “Steal Away to Jesus”. At Robey’s urging, Ligon began the song with a “sermonette”. According to Young “[S]ermonettes are a bridge between preaching and singing . . . a morality tale, usually told be the lead singer while the rest of the singers hum or sing softly in the background” (63). Like so many of Ligon’s sermonettes, he makes reference to his dead mother in the sermonette for “Ain’t Got Long Here”.

Part of the appeal of the Mighty Clouds, besides their stylish performances, was the way the falsetto of tenor Johnny Martin was a perfect balance for Ligon’s gruff vocals. On tracks like “Family Circle” and “None But the Righteous” (a/b sides, 1962), Martin’s falsetto is as striking as Ligon’s leads. Also, as witnessed with “Ain’t Got Long Here”, in the early days, the group specialized in turning traditional tracks into distinct Mighty Clouds’ songs. “Amazing Grace”, “Glory Hallelujah”, and “Nearer to Thee” all from the Family Circle disc (1963), are some of the best examples. The Ligon original “I Came to Jesus” is also included on Family Circle, though it is amped up on the Mighty Clouds’ Live in Houston (1966) which captures their brilliance as live performers. (Martin’s falsetto vocals on the live version of “I Came to Jesus” have been locked in my head since I first heard them as a two-year-old.)

Ligon admits that the Mighty Clouds of Joy “helped bring the contemporary sound into this field [gospel]. . . . We aimed to cross over and get played on R&B radio stations. And we did.” One of the best examples of this strategy was “Nobody Can Turn Me Around” (1965), which was directly influenced by the music of Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions. The Clouds recorded many of their sides in Chi-town under the supervision of the legendary Blues artist Willie Dixon, so the influence of Mayfield on their music is understandable. By the 1970s the group was getting regular play on soul stations (they also appeared on Soul Train) with songs like “Mighty High”. By then the popularity of quartet tradition had been usurped by large choirs (think Edwin Hawkins and the Northern California State Choir and their classic “pop” breakthrough “Oh Happy Day”).

Within black gospel circles, the quartet format still thrives, with Ligon and Tucker, still at the helms of the Clouds and the Birds, respectively. The Best of from the Mighty Clouds of Joy, The Dixie Hummingbirds and the Five Blind Boys, doesn’t simply compile a collection of gospel hits, but in some ways, helps to better document a tradition that is slowing disappearing from the general memory of the American public.