Great God A'Mighty! The Dixie Hummingbirds: Celebrating the Rise of Soul Gospel Music

Overview


From the Jim Crow world of 1920s Greenville, South Carolina, to Greenwich Village's Café Society in the '40s, to their 1974 Grammy-winning collaboration on "Loves Me Like a Rock," the Dixie Hummingbirds have been one of gospel's most durable and inspiring groups.
Now, Jerry Zolten tells the Hummingbirds' fascinating story and with it the story of a changing music industry and a changing nation. When James Davis and his high-school friends starting singing together in a rural ...
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Overview


From the Jim Crow world of 1920s Greenville, South Carolina, to Greenwich Village's Café Society in the '40s, to their 1974 Grammy-winning collaboration on "Loves Me Like a Rock," the Dixie Hummingbirds have been one of gospel's most durable and inspiring groups.
Now, Jerry Zolten tells the Hummingbirds' fascinating story and with it the story of a changing music industry and a changing nation. When James Davis and his high-school friends starting singing together in a rural South Carolina church they could not have foreseen the road that was about to unfold before them. They began a ten-year jaunt of "wildcatting," traveling from town to town, working local radio stations, schools, and churches, struggling to make a name for themselves. By 1939 the a cappella singers were recording their four-part harmony spirituals on the prestigious Decca label. By 1942 they had moved north to Philadelphia and then New York where, backed by Lester Young's band, they regularly brought the house down at the city's first integrated nightclub, Café Society. From there the group rode a wave of popularity that would propel them to nation-wide tours, major record contracts, collaborations with Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon, and a career still vibrant today as they approach their seventy-fifth anniversary.
Drawing generously on interviews with Hank Ballard, Otis Williams, and other artists who worked with the Hummingbirds, as well as with members James Davis, Ira Tucker, Howard Carroll, and many others, The Dixie Hummingbirds brings vividly to life the growth of a gospel group and of gospel music itself.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Zolten fluently unfolds this story, with its sundry subplots and themes. His descriptions of music are evocative, and he neither minimizes nor exaggerates the gospel world's fierce moral and showbiz competitiveness. He shows how, like all the top-flight gospel quartets, the Birds drilled on staging and presentation as well as music.... He makes a case that The Dixie Hummingbirds were exemplars and conveyors of cultural and musical change."--New York Times Book Review

"This intriguing, fast-moving history is highly recommended for anyone interested in music, social history, gospel, or the American experience."--Library Journal

"In this excellent history, Zolten carefully and lovingly details the almost 75-year history of the Hummingbirds, from their start in the Depression to their induction into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2000. This is a fine exploration of an important style and era in the history of American popular music and culture."--Publishers Weekly

"A fabulously entertaining story of the Birds--and it's all here: the 1928 organization, 1938 addition of Ira Tucker, name changes in the early 1940s, Café Society in 1942, collaboration with Angelic Gospel Singers in 1950, Go Out of the Program in 1953, the Apollo Theatre in 1956, Newport Festivals in 1966 and 1972, Loves Me Like a Rock in 1973, and full-fledged concerts into the 1990s. This is an extraordinary and welcomed addition to African American gospel music history."--Horace Clarence Boyer, author of The Golden Age of Gospel

The Washington Post
One of the most fascinating aspects of books like Great God A'Mighty is the honor roll of notables with whom the heroes inevitably cross paths. Zolten doesn't disappoint, peppering the Hummingbirds' recollections with thumbnail portraits of Mahalia Jackson, the Soul Stirrers, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Clara Ward -- all of whom were headliners during the prime years of gospel "programs" and "caravans." — Jabari Asim
Publishers Weekly
The Dixie Hummingbirds, along with the Swan Silvertones and the Soul Stirrers, were the foremost popularizers of the a cappella style of gospel music that brought the spiritual music of traditional African-American communities to a wide-and primarily white-audience in the 1950s. In this excellent history, Zolten, an assistant professor of American Studies at Penn. State, Altoona, carefully and lovingly details the almost 75-year history of the Hummingbirds, from their start in the Depression to their induction into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2000. He deftly explores how the group's history itself embodies numerous American ironies: that an "unintended result" of segregation "was the flowering of a distinctly African American homegrown culture" that included gospel music; that the Depression and the mass migration of African Americans from the South "created a nationwide market for black entertainers of all kinds" that allowed the Hummingbirds their initial financial success. Zolten interestingly points out that the group, known for its hard-driving vocal sound, won its only Grammy award for their own version of "Loves Me Like a Rock" by Paul Simon, whose original version had featured the Hummingbirds and brought them to a new rock-oriented audience. Adding to the book's success are Zolten's numerous interviews with founding members James Davis and Ira Tucker, as well as their many collaborators, which add personal depth to the book's amazing wealth of detail and dates. This is a fine exploration of an important style and era in the history of American popular music and culture. (Feb.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Still going strong after 74 years, the Dixie Hummingbirds have been one of gospel's most inspiring groups. With help from artists Hank Ballard, Otis Williams, and founder James Davis, Zolten (communication arts & sciences, Pennsylvania State Univ.) presents the Hummingbirds' story, showing the direction they took, the music they performed, and the impact they had on the genre. (For a review, see p. 93.)
Kirkus Reviews
The story of the Dixie Hummingbirds, seen as a case study of post-WWII changes in the record business and in gospel music. They got together in 1928 as a youthful church quartet in segregated Greenville, South Carolina. Their 12-year-old leader, James Davis, was "drawn to the idea that music . . . was a way to connect to people and possibly even earn a decent and respectable living." In 1934, just before Davis was to graduate from high school, the group decided to pursue a career in the burgeoning field of professional spiritual music and dubbed themselves the Dixie Hummingbirds. Defining gospel music as "nothing less than communication about culture . . . intrinsically linked to life experience and the struggle of African-Americans to persevere," Zolten (Communication Arts and Sciences, American Studies/Penn State Univ., Altoona) charts the rise of the group from a regional attraction to a nationally acclaimed band of singers who regularly performed in the ’40s at New York’s integrated Café Society nightclub; by 1955 they were being described in the media as pioneers who combined musical ecstasy with superb salesmanship to give gospel singing economic value and stature. Zolten also describes the evolution of their musical technique from unaccompanied a cappella harmonizing to the ’70s addition of a backup band as he evaluates their recordings for the famous Decca label and such later efforts as their Grammy-winning 1974 collaboration with Paul Simon, "Loves Me Like a Rock." The group’s commercial fortunes were boosted by the growth of radio, which gave them a national audience, and the popularity of singers like Mahalia Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and Ray Charles, who brought gospel sound toa mass audience. Although the author conscientiously offers numerous quotes from the singers themselves, other musicians, and the critics who hailed them, he fails to bring the Birds fully to life. Trapped by facts, they seldom step out from behind the music to tell their own stories. Detailed, but disappointingly dry.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195152722
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 2/28/2003
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 1,504,919
  • Lexile: 1210L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 9.56 (w) x 6.25 (h) x 1.13 (d)

Meet the Author

Jerry Zolten is an Assistant Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences and American Studies at Penn State University Altoona. The co-author of Speaking to an Audience, he has written profiles of blues artists for Living Blues magazine and penned the liner notes to two of The Dixie Hummingbirds latest compilation CDs. A part-time record producer and promoter, he lives in Warriors Mark, Pennsylvania.

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Table of Contents

Preface
1 "A Wheel in a Wheel, 'Way Up in the Middle of the Air" (1916-1928) 1
2 "I Just Got On My Travelin' Shoes" (1929-1938) 17
3 "Ain't Gonna Study War No More" (1939-1942) 49
4 "Twelve Gates to the City" (1943-1944) 79
5 "Move On Up a Little Higher" (1945-1949) 117
6 "My Record Will Be There" (1950-1951) 155
7 "Let's Go Out to the Programs" (1952-1959) 203
8 "Loves Me Like a Rock" (1960-1976) 261
9 "Who Are We?" (1977 and Beyond) 301
Notes 322
Bibliography 338
The Dixie Hummingbirds on Record 347
Credits 357
General Index 359
Index of Groups 366
Gospel Song Titles 368
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