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."
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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.
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.
Dixie Hummingbirds, 2000 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Washington, D.C., courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Carl Davis answers talks about the early history of the Dixie Hummingbirds, Washington, D.C., 2000, interview by Alan Govenar