GREAT GOD A'MIGHTY!

The Dixie Hummingbirds:

Celebrating the Rise of Soul Gospel Music

By Jerry Zolten

Oxford Univ., 370 pp., $30 You don't have to know the music of the Dixie Hummingbirds to be familiar with their sound. As Jerry Zolten makes clear in this affectionate biography, the gospel group's uncanny harmonies and endlessly inventive arrangements have an influence that far exceeds its members' limited renown. The long list of successful performers who studied the 'Birds (as they are often called), is impressive and includes such soul, doo-wop and blues luminaries as Ray Charles, the Spaniels, the Temptations, Little Anthony and the Imperials and Bobby "Blue" Bland. In his memoir, Charles praised Ira Tucker, lead singer of the Hummingbirds, along with his similarly gifted counterparts, Archie Brownlee of the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi and Claude Jeter of the Swan Silvertones. "These guys," Charles wrote, "have voices which could shake down your house and smash all the furniture in it."

Hank Ballard, whose Midnighters scored in the 1950s with then-risque chart-toppers such as "Work With Me Annie," went further than Charles's praise, offering what we may generously describe as the sincerest form of flattery. "I was hooked on the Hummingbirds. I would use their melodies," he told Zolten. "I wasn't trying to steal or anything. . . . I would take their songs and re-lyric it. Instead of saying 'God,' I said 'baby.' "

The group's show-stopping performances and polished stage presentations prompted frequent invitations to join the secular music world, where riches and widespread adulation were likely to follow. The 'Birds always resisted, steadfastly pursuing a career that made them legends in their field but relatively unknown outside it. Tucker explains it this way: "When you do a song, it signifies where you came from. We all have roles and Jesus said that before the end of time, the bottom will be on top and the top will be on the bottom. There is a right way and a wrong way." Zolten adds: "Gospel was simply the right way for the Hummingbirds."

They began on that path in 1928, when James Davis formed the first incarnation of the Dixie Hummingbirds in Greenville, S.C. He was 12. Zolten's gentle approach traces the group's long career all the way up to and beyond Davis's retirement in 1984 (they continue to perform under Tucker's leadership). Throughout those years, Davis served as chief recruiter, rehearsal director and disciplinarian, fining or firing anyone who threatened to damage the group's reputation for thorough professionalism. Zolten writes, "The first and foremost goal of any Dixie Hummingbirds performance was to sing for the Lord and guide listeners to spiritual epiphany. But . . . as professionals, they also had to think about putting on a show."

The Hummingbirds joined the gospel circuit in the 1930s, performing comparatively placid "jubilee" singing, then adusted rapidly to handle the demanding a cappella showdowns of the '40s, after Thomas Dorsey transformed the music by fusing "the elegant emotionality of spirituals with the lowdown beat of barrelhouse blues." One of the most fascinating aspects of books like "Great God A'Mighty" is the honor roll of notables with whom the heroes inevitably cross paths. Zolten doesn't disappoint, peppering the Hummingbirds' recollections with thumbnail portraits of Mahalia Jackson, the Soul Stirrers, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Clara Ward -- all of whom were headliners during the prime years of gospel "programs" and "caravans." Off the circuit, the 'Birds played an extended engagement at New York's famed Cafe Society, rubbing shoulders with Paul Robeson and Lester Young.

No strangers to the studio, the Hummingbirds first recorded for Decca in 1939 and enjoyed immediate popularity if not phenomenal sales. They sang mostly a cappella until signing with Peacock Records in 1952. At the label's studios in Houston, instruments became a regular part of the group's mix. The Hummingbirds were still with Peacock when they put together the roster known as "the quintessential lineup": James Davis, Ira Tucker, James Walker, Beachey Thompson, William Bobo and Howard Carroll. The group's constant touring, album releases and TV appearances helped them expand their fan base beyond gospel without having to change their style. Their lengthy history includes performances at the Newport Folk Festival in 1966 and the Newport Jazz Festival in 1972. A year later, they won a Grammy for best soul gospel performance.

Zolten occasionally weighs down his mostly breezy book with discussions of the difference between "hard" gospel and "soul" gospel, complete with references to "wandering couplets" and "stock interjections" -- and I suppose that's all to the good for the scholars.

The rest of us may find it more instructive to sample the Hummingbirds' music and challenge ourselves to select a favorite. I tried that while writing this review and decided on "Get Away Jordan." Then I changed my mind and went with "Ezekiel Saw the Wheel." Of course, that was before I listened again to "Nobody Knows the Trouble I See." Maybe I should just quit while I'm ahead.