Ira Tucker, 83; Flashy Performer, Singer for Dixie Hummingbirds

Ira Tucker Sr. joined the Dixie Hummingbirds in 1938 and led the group since its founder retired in 1984. The group backed up Paul Simon on his 1973 hit "Loves Me Like a Rock" and won a Grammy for its own recording of that song.
Ira Tucker Sr. joined the Dixie Hummingbirds in 1938 and led the group since its founder retired in 1984. The group backed up Paul Simon on his 1973 hit "Loves Me Like a Rock" and won a Grammy for its own recording of that song. (2006 Photo By Alex C. Hicks Jr. -- Associated Press)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 27, 2008

Ira Tucker Sr., 83, the lead singer and irrepressible showman of the Dixie Hummingbirds, an electrifying gospel group credited with inspiring such entertainers as James Brown, Jackie Wilson and the Temptations, died June 24 at an extended-care center in Philadelphia. He had congestive heart failure.

Mr. Tucker joined the Hummingbirds in 1938, a decade after the group's founding, and helped cement its reputation for dazzling harmonies and elaborate dance moves borrowed from spirited church services. He led the group since the 1984 retirement of its founder, James B. Davis, and never quit.

For the Hummingbirds, 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.

The Dixie Hummingbirds -- a sextet that included an electric guitar for much of its life -- were regarded as one of the most venerable of the pop-gospel entertainment partnerships of the past century.

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.

Mr. Tucker sang tenor-baritone but could extend into bass. His most distinctive flourishes included a full-throated shout and a dynamic physicality that influenced the stage movements of later rock and rhythm-and-blues performers.

"Shoot, what James Brown does, I've been doing," he told gospel scholar Anthony Heilbut.

Ira B. Tucker, whose middle initial stood for nothing, was born May 17, 1925, in Spartanburg, S.C.

After his father's early death, he developed a talent for earning pennies by knocking on doors and whistling. By age 7 or 8, according to his son, he realized he could make serious money and began "really listening to birds" to master their style.

He sang in a local gospel group that performed on street corners before ingratiating himself with 'Birds founder Davis by promising to walk 29 miles each way to audition. He was 13 at the time.

The Dixie Hummingbirds made their early reputation on the rural church circuit, and Mr. Tucker developed a showman's flair at friendly competitions with other gospel groups.

"I was putting my flavor to it, you know," he told the Durham, N.C., Independent Weekly this year. At one meet, he said, "something told me to jump down off of the stage while I was singing. Nobody had ever done that before. And when I hit the floor, I took my coat off and slung it up through the audience. Man, the people went wild!"

The group performed on the radio in Philadelphia and 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.

Within the next few years, the group went back to religious music and settled on a core of performers that consisted of Mr. Tucker, Davis, William Bobo, 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.

The group recorded for a series of independent music companies and was largely affiliated with the black-owned Peacock label in Houston. Mr. Tucker composed several of its songs, including " Christian's Automobile" (under his pseudonym Jessie Archie), "Who Are We?" (which he co-wrote with his son) and "This Evening."

The 'Birds 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 Jerry 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 the group's 70th anniversary and featuring such entertainers as Simon and Stevie Wonder.

Survivors include his wife of 66 years, Louise Archie Tucker of Philadelphia; three children, Ira Tucker Jr. of Deptford Township, N.J., Sundray Tucker of Philadelphia and Lynda Laurence of Sherman Oaks, Calif.; five grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

The children went into the music business. Tucker Jr. spent many years as Stevie Wonder's publicist; Sundray Tucker composes and sings R&B numbers under the name Cindy Scott; and Laurence was a post-Diana Ross singer with the Supremes.

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