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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.

Within the next few years, the group went back to religious music and settled on a core of performers that consisted of Mr. Davis, William Bobo, Ira Tucker, Beachey Thompson and James Walker, with Howard Carroll on electric guitar.

The Dixie Hummingbirds appeared with Sister Rosetta Tharpe on gospel caravan shows and at major venues such as the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Their main work came from church events.

The group recorded for a series of independent music companies and was largely affiliated with the black-owned Peacock label in Houston. Mr. Davis composed several of its songs, including "The Inner Man" and "I'll Keep on Living After I Die."

The group had a well-received appearance at the Newport, R.I., Folk Festival in 1966 and the Newport Jazz Festival in 1972. The next year, the 'Birds accompanied Simon on "Loves Me Like a Rock."

Biographer Zolten once told a jazz journalism Web site that the Dixie Hummingbirds "could have made a lot of money touring with Simon but turned him down because they had commitments to perform at a string of little churches.

"They weren't going to make nearly as much money, but they had commitments and they didn't want to abandon their core audience," he said. "That is one of the things that made the Dixie Hummingbirds so highly regarded within the gospel community."

In 1999, the House of Blues music label released a Dixie Hummingbirds album, "Music in the Air," commemorating their 70th anniversary and featuring such entertainers as Simon and Stevie Wonder.

Mr. Davis's wife, the former Hortense Eddings, whom he married in 1937, died in 1993.

Survivors include five children, James B. Davis Jr. of Jacksonville, Fla., Harold Davis of Willingboro, N.J., and Arthur Davis, Betty Chambers and Janice Watlington, all of Philadelphia; and 17 grandchildren.

Mr. Davis was known by many Dixie Hummingbirds aficionados as the chief authority figure. After some early stumbles with band personnel matters, he set down strict rules regarding the prohibition of alcohol and women while the band was touring. He instituted hefty fines for tardiness, looking less than elegantly groomed and playing secular music.

He once told The Washington Post that he was equally hard on himself, noting the time he accidentally played a Muddy Waters blues tune on a jukebox in Texarkana, Ark., instead of a religious song. "I got fined $20 -- and $20 was like $500 to us then," he said.

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