For years, Thompson, Jo Jo Wallace and Larry Moore have shared space in the 1998 Fleetwood Cadillac that was parked outside the Lanham church. Normally, either Thompson will drive down to North Carolina or Wallace and Moore will drive to Maryland to pick them up for various gigs from Boston to Miami.
Wallace, 85, lead guitarist and oldest member of the Sensational Nightingales, lives in Durham, N.C. If a trip is more than 1,000 miles, they will fly. But while traveling and singing can be grueling, Wallace said it’s nothing like it was in the 1960s.
“It was rough in those days,” Wallace said. “We was coming out of Mississippi and Alabama, and because of Jim Crow [laws], of course, we had to go in the back door. In Mississippi, they cussed us out. . . . They put the guns on us. The manager asked, ‘What y’all doing down here?’ and I told him, ‘Singing the gospel.’ ”
Said Spencer Taylor, 84, the lead singer for the District’s Highway QCs : “You have to be born again to get through that.”
While most of the original members of the quartets have died, groups such as the Swanee Quintet from Augusta, Ga., are doing well because younger members are carrying on the tradition.
“It’s an honor to be with a group that I grew up listening to,” said Eddie McCoy, 39, who joined the 73-year-old “Swanees” as drummer and business manager two years ago.
Locally, Jessica Bethea, a member of the Anointed Miracles, is following behind her mother, Rose Thomas, who for decades sang with the Queens of Faith.
“The new quartets are younger and more energetic,” said Bethea, who lives in Charles County. “There is a little more praise and worship. Gospel music is something that you grew up on. It may change a little, but it pretty much stays the same.”
For many in the original generation of quartet singers, retirement is a foreign word.
“This is what I will be doing until the day I leave this world,” said Ligon, who is celebrating his 52nd year of singing.