THE BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA
The Five Blind Boys of Alabama began singing together in the late 1930s as students at the Talladega Institute for the Negro Deaf and Blind near Birmingham, Alabama. Living conditions at the school were challenging, and education centered on learning to read Braille and vocational skills such as making brooms and chairs. The saving grace for students was musical instruction, the best selected to take part in the school’s showcase Glee Club Chorus. The Blind Boys emerged in that setting, first performing within the confines of the school, but later venturing out, including busking for spare change on nearby army bases. Those outings led to professional aspirations and with school behind them they toured, initially as the Happy Land Jubilee Singers and then later as the Five Blind Boys of Alabama. Their star rose over the post-war decades through tours, radio broadcasts, and recordings, their first efforts released in 1948 on the Newark, New Jersey-based Coleman label.
Their recording career took off with a long run of seminal hits on Specialty Records based in Los Angeles. One of their classics, "This May Be the Last Time" recorded in 1957, became the basis for the Rolling Stones first rock 'n' roll hit of the same name. The Alabama Blind Boys went on to record prolifically on a number of the leading independent labels of the day including Gospel, Savoy, and Vee Jay.
In the late 1980s, the Blind Boys gained international fame in a career move that landed them on world stages. With brilliant lead singer Clarence Fountain up front, the group starred in The Gospel at Colonus, a musical with a gospel spin on the ancient Sophocles tragedy, Oedipus at Colonus. The show played to critical acclaim on Broadway and subsequently on screen and stages internationally.
The Blind Boys of Alabama parlayed their success into an extraordinarily extended career that continues to this day with albums and tours featuring longtime member Jimmy Carter in the lead. The Blind Boys of Alabama have received numerous honors and distinctions over a career crowned by multiple Grammy Awards.
THE BLIND BOYS OF MISSISSIPPI
The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi originated in the late 1930s at the Piney Woods School for "the poor and disadvantaged" just south of Jackson, Mississippi. The school’s mission was to provide a quality education for young people of any background, and at a time of rampant institutionalized segregation, included African American. The public face of the institution was an African American chorale group, the Cotton Blossom Singers, who toured countrywide to bring attention to and raise money for the school. From that group emerged the earliest configurations of the Mississippi Blind Boys.
As the Jackson Harmoneers, they ventured out to pursue a professional career, headquartering initially in Cleveland, Ohio, then Los Angeles and later in Oakland, California. Their first recordings were released in the mid-1940s on the Los Angeles-based Excelsior label and in 1948 as the Five Blind Boys on the Newark-based Coleman label. In 1950, the group relocated to Houston, Texas where, as the Original Five Blind Boys, to distinguish themselves from the competing Alabama Blind Boys, they recorded a string of hits for Don Robey's Peacock label.
What really put the Mississippi Blind Boys untouchably on top was their exceptional firebrand lead singer Archie Brownlee, a gospel icon and unbeatable master of “hard” gospel screaming and shouting. Brownlee unfortunately died at the height of his popularity in 1960.
The Blind Boys were forced to regroup and managed to press on with two new alternating leads, Roscoe Robinson and Wilmer "Little Axe" Broadnax, both iconic in their own right in the history of post-war gospel. Today, the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi continue under the stewardship of Sandy Foster of Cincinnati.
REV. JULIUS CHEEKS
Rev. Julius "June" Cheeks famed for his shouting gritty baritone voice, is right up there with Archie Brownlee regarded as one of the definitive "hard" gospel singers. Among those he influenced, in gospel, Joe Ligon of the Mighty Clouds of Joy and Clarence Fountain of the Alabama Blind Boys, and in the secular realm, most notably Little Richard, Wilson Pickett, and James Brown.
Cheeks was born in 1929 into a family of twelve children, sharecroppers making a dirt-poor living working a farm in rural Spartanburg, South Carolina.
Spartanburg was home to a rich and supportive gospel-singing community, and the young Cheeks was influenced by professional groups passing through along with local singers he heard and sang with around town. Most notably, this included Ira Tucker, at age 13 already a member of the Dixie Hummingbirds. Cheeks was also influenced by groups such as R. H. Harris and the Soul Stirrers that he heard on records and radio. He began performing locally with the Baronets, and then moved on to hone his vocal skills with other regional groups. In 1951 Cheeks would make his name as lead singer of the Sensational Nightingales, a group that would soar to distinction on the strength of his powerfully emotive lead vocals.
Cheeks went out on his own in the 1960s with his own group, the Four Gospel Knights, wife Margie on pumping piano. Though his voice was not what it once was, he pressed on through stagecraft and the sheer force of personal charisma. June Cheeks soldiered on until his passing in Miami, Florida in 1981.
The Consolers were a married couple, Sullivan and Iola Pugh. Sullivan was born in 1925 in Moore Haven, Florida on the southwest coast of Lake Okeechobee. Iola Lewis was born a year later in Cottonton, Alabama, a farming community near the Chattahoochee River not far from Columbus, Georgia.
Sullivan moved to Miami in 1949 to find work, and there he met Iola at a gospel tent meeting where Iola was performing as a member of the Miami Gospel Singers. Sullivan joined as a singer/guitarist, and the group changed their name to the Miami Soul Stirrers to reflect their admiration for the famous Texas-based Soul Stirrers quartet.
Sullivan Pugh was a songwriter, but also a distinctive guitarist who tuned his electrically amplified instrument to an open chord and fretted the strings using his thumb to barre the chords. His approach, while akin to Hawaiian slide steel guitar technique, came about only because he learned to play on a tabletop and found comfortable that position and method of chording.
Sullivan and Iola eventually split from the larger group and began performing as a duo billing themselves as the Spiritual Consolers, later shortened to the Consolers, as they saw their mission as bringing consolation through music to those in spiritual need. The Consolers released their first recordings in 1952 on the Miami-based Glory label. Some of those Consolers Glory sides were also released on the King label affiliate DeLuxe when in 1953 that company acquired the Glory catalogue. The Consolers made their name, however, starting in 1955 on Nashville's Nashboro label with a long run of popular hit records. Their legacy assured, the Consolers remained in play up to the time of Iola's death in 1994. Sullivan died in retirement at home in northwest Dade County, Florida in 2010.
THE DAVIS SISTERS
The Davis Sisters from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania were one of post-war gospel's defining and most popular female groups. Their exceptional contralto lead singer Ruth Davis, “Baby Sis” as she was affectionately called, was idolized by later artists such as Aretha Franklin and Mavis Staples. Her singing sisters were Thelma, Audrey, and Alfreda with backing by the lone male in the group, pianist Curtis Dublin, who also occasionally contributed a bottom voice to the vocal mix.
The Davis Sisters were teenagers when they organized as a professional group in the mid-1940s. They were affiliated with an offshoot Pentecostal Holiness sect whose very name, the "Fire Baptized," suggested the fervor and intensity of their singing style. Curtis Dublin's piano playing, a cross between sanctified church and nightclub, helped rock the house in live performances. Fellow Philadelphian Gertrude Ward, matriarch of the Famous Clara Ward Singers, took them under her wing and was likely their connection to the Ballen Record Company and its family of labels that included Apex, Twentieth Century, and Gotham. The Davis Sisters released their first Ballen-produced recordings in the spring of 1949.
The Sisters enjoyed a long and illustrious career. They released more than 25 sides for Ballen before moving over to Newark, New Jersey's Savoy label where, except for a brief stint with Chicago's Chess/Checker label, they toured and recorded well into the 1970s.
THE DIXIE HUMMINGBIRDS
The Dixie Hummingbirds were organized by James Davis in Greenville, South Carolina in 1928. Davis and friends, all students at segregated Sterling High School, sang in local churches before traveling to Atlanta to sing at the annual Church of God Holiness national convention. The young group’s success there motivated them to pursue a professional career as “spiritual entertainers.” Over the ensuing decade, the group, now dubbed the Dixie Hummingbirds and with a fluid lineup, embarked on a grass roots campaign traveling to small town venues and singing over the radio to build a loyal regional following.
In 1938, the Birds traveled to New York City and cut sixteen a cappella spirituals for Decca Records. With “recording artist” status, the Hummingbirds expanded their reach, relocating to Philadelphia and working the gospel circuit throughout the East and down the coast to Florida. With the addition of iconic lead singer Ira Tucker, the Birds landed their own radio program in Philly and a featured spot at New York City's Café Society, where, with instrumental backing from Lester Young’s band, they perfected their stage craft and performance skills.
Following the war, the Birds toured nationally and released a string of successful recordings on labels including Regis/Manor, Apollo, Okeh, and Gotham. By 1952, with an exceptional lineup that now included Beachey Thompson, James Walker, deep down bass William Bobo, and electric guitarist Howard Carroll, the group launched a decades long recording career on the Peacock label that produced numerous classic hits and made them a top draw on the gospel circuit. The Birds pioneered appearances by gospel artists at the Apollo Theater and both the Newport Folk and Jazz Festivals. Their greatest fame came in 1973 when they collaborated with Paul Simon on “Loves Me Like a Rock.” They also recorded their own version without Simon, and for that won their first Grammy. Recipients of countless accolades, honors, awards, and halls of fame inductions, the Dixie Hummingbirds are one of the definitive groups of the gospel genre and continue to press on with new members selected and trained by those now passed and gone.
THE FAIRFIELD FOUR
The Fairfield Four were organized in 1921 by Rev. J. R. Carrethers at the Fairfield Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee. Originally a youth trio with John Battle and Carrethers' sons Harold and Rufus, the group evolved and by 1935 were a quartet fronted by brilliant lead tenor Rev. Samuel McCrary. B. B. King, among others, would cite Rev. Sam as one of his primary vocal influences.
The Fairfields sang throughout their long career strictly a cappella in the tradition of pioneering Alabama recording artists such as the Bessemer Sunset Four, the Birmingham Jubilee Singers, and the Famous Blue Jay Singers featuring lead vocalist Silas Steele. In 1942, the Fairfield Four won a contest, the top prize their own daily morning show over station WLAC in Nashville. The broadcasts led to regional and then national touring and, beginning in 1946, a recording career on a succession of labels that included Bullet, Dot, Delta, MGM, Champion, Old Town, and most famously, Nashboro. Tired of the road and insufficient earnings, the Fairfield Four called it quits in the early 1950s. Sam McCrary took on the responsibilities of pastoring a church and, with a fluid lineup, performed locally and cut a few records. Former Fairfields James Hill and star bass singer Isaac "Dickie" Freeman pressed on a little longer touring and recording with an offshoot group called the Skylarks. By the mid-1950s, however, no one from the "famous" iteration of the Fairfield Four were singing professionally. That would change in the early 1980s when the group relaunched, occasionally joined by Rev. McCrary, but with Hill and Freeman primarily at the helm.
The resurrected Fairfield Four had exceptional success well into the 2000s with a Warner Brothers contract, critically acclaimed albums, accolades and honors, Grammy wins, and collaborations with mainstream artists such as John Fogerty, Lyle Lovett, Charlie Daniels, Lucinda Williams, and Elvis Costello. The Fairfields most high profile achievement was their on-screen and soundtrack appearance in the Coen Brothers 2000 film, O Brother Where Art Thou. The group, albeit with new members, continues to carry on in the a cappella tradition, and in their own right, in 2016 won a Grammy for the album Still Rockin' My Soul.
THE GOSPEL HARMONETTES
The Gospel Harmonettes were organized following World War II in Birmingham, Alabama. With lead singer Dorothy Love Coates who joined in the summer of 1951 at the helm, the sextet rose to fame as one of the outstanding female ensembles of gospel’s golden age. Coates was an emotive and powerful vocalist whose delivery and stagecraft influenced artists both sacred and secular, most notably James Brown and Little Richard.
The Harmonettes had a major breakthrough in 1949 when they brought their fervent jubilee style to a national audience through an appearance on Arthur Godfrey's popular "Talent Scouts" TV program. The top prize was a recording contract with RCA Victor. The Harmonettes cut eight sides for Victor, though none made a significant splash in the gospel market. That changed in 1951 when the Harmonettes signed with Los Angeles-based Specialty Records. As part of Specialty’s impressive gospel roster, the Harmonettes had a five-year run of good selling records. They later recorded with Andex and then moved on to a number of important labels such as Savoy, Vee Jay, Hob, and Okeh. Coates and the Harmonettes even recorded a single for Motown. They closed out their recording career starting in 1968 when the group signed with Nashboro. Dorothy Love Coates emerged as a powerful activist in the Civil Rights Movement and against the war in Viet Nam. She also appeared in films such as The Long Walk Home and Beloved. Coates died in Birmingham in 2002.
THE HIGHWAY QCS
Formed on Chicago’s South Side in the mid-1940s, the Highway QCs began singing together as teenagers. No one recalls what the "QC" originally stood for, but the name stuck and continues to this day. In those early years, they were coached by R. B. Robinson of the Soul Stirrers and were thought of as the Soul Stirrers Juniors. The stylistic similarities were such that when the Stirrers were out of town, the QCs would fill in for them on radio broadcasts. The QCs would in short time make their own name and have their own Sunday morning radio program over Chicago’s WIND.
What really put the QCs over the top, though, was the relaxed sensual lead singing style and charismatic personality of Sam Cooke who in 1947 as a QC launched his professional singing career. Cooke would later join the Soul Stirrers and his replacement in the QCs was future R&B star Johnnie Taylor. The QCs launched their recording career in the mid-1950s on Chicago's Vee-Jay label.
When Johnnie Taylor left the group in 1956, his replacement was Spencer Taylor (no relation to Johnnie), who had been with Chicago’s Holy Wonders, assumed most of the lead roles. The QCs also regrouped, Taylor bringing in pioneering electric guitarist Arthur Crume. s regrouped, brought in pioneering gospel electric guitarist Arthur Crume. They recorded a string of hits for Vee-Jay that ran well into the early 1960s and firmly established their legacy. The QCs would later record for both Peacock and Savoy.
Spencer Taylor continues to lead the Highway QCs, now comprised of a new generation of singers, including his sons. QCs veterans Stanley Richardson and Joseph Britt occasionally sit in when they can. In March 2017, Spencer Taylor received a Stellar Awards Lifetime Achievement Award. The Highway QCs continue to record and tour.
THE MEDITATION SINGERS
The Meditation Singers were organized by Earnestine Rundless in 1947 and quickly became Detroit’s answer to Philadelphia’s Davis Sisters and Birmingham's Gospel Harmonettes. They were a direct influence on the development of the Motown Sound and particularly Diana Ross of the Supremes who had strong spiritual ties with them.
The original lineup was composed of lead soprano Rundless, Lillian Mitchell, Marie Waters, and Waters' sister Deloreese Early, who went on to a stellar career as famed jazz singer and actress Della Reese. When in 1953 Della Reese left the group, her replacement was Rundless' adopted daughter Laura Lee, who in turn also went on to secular success, in her case as a soul singer.
The Meditations with the addition of male baritone Herbert Carson released a single on the De Luxe label in 1953. A year later they signed to Specialty Records, and with changes in the lineup, most notably including future gospel superstar James Cleveland on piano and vocals, the Meditations cut a number of songs with only a few released and none catching on. That would change in the 1960s with popular releases on the HOB and Checker labels that established their place in the gospel pantheon.
THE MIGHTY CLOUDS OF JOY
The Mighty Clouds of Joy got their start in the late 1940s in South Central Los Angeles under the direction of Bedile Goldsmith, who was raised there in a gospel singing family. Goldsmith had organized a succession of "Joy" named quartets starting with the Flowers of Joy, and eventually he encountered a group of gospel singing high schoolers from LA's Watts neighborhood. Goldsmith guided their development, trained them vocally, and booked them around the Los Angeles area. Keeping with the "joy" theme, Goldsmith dubbed them the Mighty Clouds of Joy, rehearsing them in member Willie Joe Ligon's parent's home. Ligon, born in Alabama in 1942, would take the Mighty Clouds sky high in the post-war gospel era with his searing lead tenor vocals and flare for arranging and stagecraft,
In 1955, the Clouds, the lineup in flux as they worked to solidify their sound, signed with fledgling Proverb Records.
Permutations and mergers with other LA groups continued and in 1960 with Ligon firmly in place as lead singer, the Mighty Clouds signed with Don Robey's Peacock Records. On the strength of their Peacock releases boosted by a high profile appearance on the nationally syndicated television show TV Gospel Time, the Mighty Clouds had arrived and by the mid-1960s were constantly on the road filling engagements throughout the South and across the country.
In the early 1970s in a move to sustain their career, the Mighty Clouds of Joy turned to the pop mainstream and, signed to ABC Records, took a plunge into a disco influenced style of gospel. The move paid off and in the mid-1970s, the Clouds had secular chart success with albums produced by the architects of Philly Soul, Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff. The demands of touring, however, were exhausting and by the late 1970s, the Mighty Clouds returned to their earlier roots and the message songs their many loyal fans were eager to hear.
The Mighty Clouds of Joy had an illustrious career that included a Jimmy Carter White House performance and opening stints for major artists such as Ray Charles, the Rolling Stones, and Paul Simon, who also coproduced one of their albums. With a career crowned by three Grammy Awards, Joe Ligon continued to lead the group almost up to his passing in 2016.
THE SENSATIONAL NIGHTINGALES
The Sensational Nightingales got their start in the late 1940s as an a cappella jubilee quartet that in the post-war decades evolved a shouting "hard" gospel style that placed them in the ranks of quartet nobility. Their origins date back to Philadelphia and a group called the Lamplighters. Pioneering gospel guitarist Howard Carroll, a Philadelphian born in 1925, joined for a brief stint in 1946 and, with a name change to the Nightingale Quartet, had their own regular radio program and played concerts around the city.
Paul Owens, an outstanding lead singer from North Carolina, joined the lineup and in 1949 through the efforts of former Dixie Hummingbird Barney Parks, who now worked full time as a manager, signed a recording deal with Coleman Records based in Newark, New Jersey. At the time, the lineup of the Nightingales included Carroll and Owens alongside other former members of the Dixie Hummingbirds, Ben Joyner and William Henry. With Owens singing lead, the Nightingales had their first releases and expanded their reach by touring on programs headlined by Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
Later in 1949, the Nightingales recorded for another seminal independent label, King Records out of Cincinnati. Even though Howard Carroll made his mark as a guitarist, on these tracks the Nightingales were strictly a cappella with Paul Owens the lead voice.
The breakthrough for the Nightingales came late in 1950 with the addition of a new lead singer, Julius "June" Cheeks, born in Spartanburg, South Carolina in 1929, and a childhood friend and admirer of Ira Tucker of the Dixie Hummingbirds. Parks secured a recording deal with Decca Records that resulted in the release of two records. Perhaps there was friction between the now competing lead singers, Paul Owens and June Cheeks. Whatever the circumstances, Owens left the Nightingales and joined the Dixie Hummingbirds, and in a musical chairs move, the Birds alternate lead Ernest James joined Cheeks and the Nightingales. In that configuration and with a name change to the Sensational Nightingales, the group took off.
In 1952, both the Sensational Nightingales and the Dixie Hummingbirds were signed to Peacock Records. One last defection occurred as Harold Carroll, now primarily an electric guitarist, joined the Hummingbirds, his replacement in the Nightingales, guitarist/singer “JoJo” Wallace. The lineup had at last stabilized and with that unit the Sensational Nightingales went on to make gospel history.
June Cheeks became a singular voice in gospel, his histrionic gravelly voice influential in many arenas, most notably on Wilson Pickett of the Violinaires who went on to a stellar career in R&B. Cheeks put so much fire into his performances that at a peak in his career, his voice burned out. Nonetheless, he continued with his own groups, and with his ability to work an audience into a fervor, kept him going in spite of the loss of his voice. Cheeks was one of the earliest practitioners of “crowd-creeping,” cutting through audiences with a long mike cable, creeping and confronting ladies up close with a stern facial countenance and growling remonstration.
The inimitable June Cheeks passed in 1981. Cheeks and the Sensational Nightingales recognized as one of the cornerstones of gospel quartet music, were in 1999 among the first quartets inducted into the Gospel Hall of Fame.
SISTER ROSETTA THARPE
One of the most influential gospel artists of all time, Sister Rosetta Tharpe turned the electric guitar into an instrument of praise. In the process, she became an international gospel artist, broke down barriers for women in instrumental music, and was among the first to alert major record companies to the power and popularity of gospel singing.
Born in 1915 in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, and raised in the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), Rosetta often accompanied her mother, an evangelist named Katie Bell Nubin, on guitar and mandolin. Early on, Rosetta wowed congregations with her ability to pluck individual notes on the guitar at a quick tempo.
Rosetta moved effortlessly between sacred and secular. She made her first records in 1938, and while she continued to sing and play guitar in COGIC churches, she also performed in venues such as the Cotton Club. She was a vocalist with orchestras led by Lucky Millender and Benny Goodman. For all this, she drew ire from churchgoers who believed a sacred singer should not appear in nightclubs. Nevertheless, music impresario John Hammond selected Rosetta to help represent sacred music at his 1938 From Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall. She was the subject of a Life magazine article in 1939, cementing her status as gospel music’s first major star.
One of her biggest gospel hits came in late 1944, with “Strange Things Happening Every Day.” Another single from that year, “Down by the Riverside,” has since been inducted into the Library of Congress National Recording Registry. From that point, Rosetta stuck strictly to Christian music. She was so popular that her 1951 public wedding to Russell Morrison, held in a Washington DC baseball field, was a sellout. Her electrifying guitar work inspired a generation of rock ‘n’ roll musicians who attended her concerts in Europe during a 1957 tour of the continent. She received a GRAMMY nomination, for Best Gospel Soul Performance, for her 1968 Savoy Records album Precious Memories.
Rosetta suffered a stroke during the early 1970s and lost a leg due to diabetes. A second stroke took her life. She died in Philadelphia in 1973. Her life has been feted on audio and video documentaries in the U.S. and England, in books, and a stage play. She is now celebrated as the Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
THE SOUL STIRRERS
The Soul Stirrers are one of the most significant postwar gospel quartets to put on uniforms, march down an aisle, and appear before an audience. In addition to their roster of legendary members, the Stirrers helped revolutionize quartet singing by popularizing the “switch lead” technique – where two singers take turns leading a song to heighten its emotional intensity.
S.R. Crain founded the Soul Stirrers in 1926 at Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church in Trinity, Texas. Economic upheaval during the Great Depression scattered members throughout the South and the original group disbanded. Nonetheless, when Crain moved to Houston in 1934, he joined a quartet and persuaded them to rename themselves the Soul Stirrers. In 1936, they had the distinction of being recorded for the Library of Congress. Lead singer Rebert H. Harris came along in 1937 and the quartet migrated en masse to Chicago soon afterward. Their 1939 recording of a Harris composition, “Walk Around,” became their calling card. By the 1940s, the Stirrers were so popular that it had its own weekly radio broadcast.
With hit records and the lineup of Crain and Harris with Paul Foster, J.J. Farley, T.L. Brewster, James Medlock, and R.B. Robinson secured for the group national gospel stardom. Harris left the group in 1950 and was replaced by a young man named Sam Cooke. While audiences didn't take to Cooke at first, he ultimately gave the Stirrers a fresh new sound that endeared them to audiences young and old. The now classic Stirrers recordings on Specialty Records with Cooke up front elevated the Stirrers to unprecedented heights.
When Sam Cooke left in 1957 to pursue pop stardom, his replacement, Johnnie Taylor, maintained the group’s supremacy in gospel music. The Stirrers remained at the top of the class even as the sound of gospel changed during the 1960s and the 1970s from a traditional church base to a blend of jazz, rock, and soul. A list of its lead singers over the years reads like a who’s who of gospel: Julius "June" Cheeks, Jimmy Outler, James Phelps, Willie Rogers, Martin Jacox, and Dillard Crume. The Soul Stirrers have the singular distinction of having been inducted into both the International Gospel Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.