Gospel Singer James B. Davis; Founded Dixie Hummingbirds

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 27, 2007

James B. Davis, 90, a singer and songwriter who at age 12 founded the Dixie Hummingbirds, an electrifying gospel group credited with inspiring such entertainers as James Brown, Jackie Wilson and the Temptations, died of a heart ailment April 17 at Hahnemann University Hospital in Philadelphia. He was a Philadelphia resident.

Mr. Davis, a tenor, organized the original Dixie Hummingbirds in 1928 from members of his church choir in Greenville, S.C. He helped cement its later reputation for dazzling harmonies and elaborate dance moves borrowed from spirited church services.

He remained leader, manager and chief disciplinarian of the group until retiring in 1984. By that time, the group was regarded as one of the most venerable of the pop-gospel entertainment partnerships of the past century.

The Dixie Hummingbirds -- a sextet that included an electric guitar for much of its life -- continue to perform. Long called simply the 'Birds, the group became the subject of a documentary and a biography and the recipient of many professional awards highlighting its influence on sacred and secular music.

Not the least of its fans was singer Hank Ballard, who led the group the Midnighters, known for its raunchy lyrics. He told 'Birds biographer Jerry Zolten that he so enjoyed the Dixie Hummingbirds' melodies that he would borrow heavily for his own songs and, "instead of saying 'God,' I said 'baby.' "

For the 'Birds, a career highlight that brought national attention was backing up singer-songwriter Paul Simon on his 1973 hit "Loves Me Like a Rock." This recording, among the group's rare secular offerings, was among the top pop and adult contemporary songs of the year.

The Dixie Hummingbirds won the 1973 Grammy Award for best soul gospel performance for its own recording of the song.

James Bodie Davis was born June 6, 1916, in Greenville, where he formed his earliest a cappella quartet at the nearby Church of God Holiness.

The next year he formalized the name to the Dixie Hummingbirds because "that was the only bird that could fly backwards and forwards, and that was how our career seemed to be going at the time," he later told a writer.

The Dixie Hummingbirds made their early reputation on the rural church circuit and had their earliest recording date with Decca in 1939.

The group performed on the radio in Philadelphia and then was hired in 1942 at the Manhattan nightclub Cafe Society Downtown as a crossover act in the mold of the Ink Spots and the Mills Brothers. It was temporarily renamed the Jericho Quintet.

Advertisements for Cafe Society Downtown said the group specialized in "Swinging the Spirituals" and featured it on a bill with boogie-woogie pianists Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson.

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