Great God A’mighty: The Dixie Hummingbirds: Celebrating The Rise Of Soul Gosepl Music
Along with the Soul Stirrers and the Swan Silvertones, the Dixie Hummingbirds brought the quartet style to the masses during “Gospel’s Golden Age” in the 1940s and ’50s. But while the other two groups made their name on the southern gospel circuit, the Hummingbirds found their success in the north; they moved from Greenville, South Carolina, to Philadelphia in 1942, and became darlings of the Greenwich Village folk revival scene in the decades that followed (not to mention getting a late-career boost by backing Paul Simon on his hit “Loves Me Like A Rock” in 1973).
Not that their sound was any less “southern”; in fact, with leader James B. Davis and baritone Ira Tucker’s love of shape note singing — a note-bending style they’d later call “trickeration” — the Hummingbirds were, in some ways, more distinctively southern-sounding than many of their peers.
That’s the Cliff’s Notes version. In Great God A’Mighty, Jerry Zolten provides a richly detailed, painstakingly researched telling of the Dixie Hummingbirds story, with Davis — the group’s musical leader and spiritual conscience even after he retired in 1984 — at its center. (Though Davis is long since retired, Tucker, Paul Owens and other longtime members and newer recruits are still performing.)
Extensive interviews with Davis and Tucker, along with peers such as Claude Jeter and Isaac Freeman and inheritors including Solomon Burke and the Temptations’ Otis Williams, give the book the feeling of an oral history, with lengthy quotes throughout.
That’s both the book’s strength and its weakness. Zolten gets out of the way and lets Davis and Tucker tell the stories of Hummingbirds classics such as “Let’s Go Out To The Programs”, “Christian Automobile” and “Bedside Of A Neighbor” in first-person detail. But sometimes he lets his subjects speak even when they’ve nothing enlightening to say. Thankfully, that’s the exception rather than the rule.
Even thought Zolten’s thesis — that racial segregation had the unintended result of producing distinctly African-American forms of cultural expression that would later influence the mainstream — is nothing new, the Hummgbirds’ story is one that deserved to be told in their lifetime. And as the first lengthy biography on any of the major gospel quartets, Zolten’s passionately written volume is more than welcome.