After 50 Years, the Dixie Hummingbirds Are Still Music's Sweet Birds of Youth
Their disciples range from Aretha to Paul Simon
In the battering world of professional music, it’s no small feat if a touring group survives for 10 years, if one lasts 15 years, it’s a landmark. By any standard, then, the Dixie Hummingbirds are a miracle. Gospel music’s top group has lasted not 10 or 15 years but, incredibly, 50. Founded in 1928, the Hummingbirds are still on the road eight to 10 months a year, making them one of the longest-running musical acts in showbiz and a living museum as remarkable in its tradition as if Fats Waller were still alive and playing jazz today.
Their longevity, explains James Walker, 52, the quartet’s newcomer (he joined in 1954), arises from their lifestyle. “As a Hummingbird,” he says, “you are considered a religious man and expected to behave like one.” That means no drinking, no swearing, no unattached women backstage and no slovenly dress. When kids are carried out of Hummingbird concerts on stretchers (as happened last year at Jacksonville University), they’ve o.d.’ed not on drugs but on soaring gospel harmonies.
The Bible doesn’t expressly condemn rock’n’roll, but the Birds (as they’re commonly called) would never be mistaken for the late rock group of the same name. They’ve steadfastly refused to take the secular route followed by such gospel graduates as Aretha Franklin, the Staple Singers and the Oak Ridge Boys. “Any number of our fellows could have made it in rock,” says James Davis, 62, the founder and sole surviving member of the original Hummingbirds. “People say, ‘Hey, what you could do with your voices,’ ” agrees lead singer Ira Tucker Sr., 53. “And I know people who’ve gone over and made a lot of money. But I also know a lot who’ve become drug addicts.”
Tucker’s shouting gospel vocals have indelibly influenced pop stars like Brook Benton and Jackie Wilson. And when no less than Paul Simon sought out the Hummingbirds in 1973 to “sweeten” his Loves Me Like a Rock, they first checked to see if the song was sufficiently wholesome. It was and, after it went gold, the Birds cut their own version, which won a 1974 gospel Grammy. The Hummingbirds have also backed Billie Holiday and Lou Rawls, in addition to cutting 13 LPs of their own.
Davis formed his first quartet while still in grade school in Greenville, S.C. “We would go out on the highway to practice and holler as loud as we could and still stay in tune,” Davis remembers. They began touring as teenagers and eventually migrated north to Philadelphia, where they settled on an ensemble that’s remained unchanged for 25 years: Davis, Tucker, Walker, tenor Beachey Thompson, 63, and guitarist Howard Carroll, 55. (A sixth Hummingbird, William Bobo, died in 1976 and is now silently memorialized at concerts by an empty microphone stand.)
After five decades on tour (they estimate they’ve gone through six Chrysler Imperials after 150,000 miles each), all but one of the Hummingbird marriages are still intact. “The road’s been a real hassle, but we’ve had a bunch of women in our corner who didn’t disagree with us,” says Tucker. “Sometimes I didn’t have enough money to send home, so my wife would take a job—even if it didn’t pay much. I owe a lot to her.”
Their nightly fees, once $1.50 apiece, have lately inched up to the $5,000 bracket, but the Hummingbirds are not letting up. They still perform four shows a week, mostly on the gospel-church circuit. “When we sing the old Negro spirituals, we still harmonize as nicely as ever,” Davis asserts, “and we still have our volume. If we ever stopped, we’d probably lose it.” They don’t plan to. “We’d like to sing for another 50 years,” allows Davis, “and then hang it up.”