Sunlight pierced a line of trees shedding leaves across Horace and Rosetta Thompson's front yard, but there was no time for raking or much else around the couple's Mitchellville home on this recent Saturday.
By 9 a.m., Horace had packed his white Chevrolet Impala with four suits, a box filled with several hundred CDs and a bass guitar he calls Little Jawbone. It was time to begin his five-hour drive to Durham, N.C., to start another workweek.
"I have worked every weekend this year," said the 65-year-old lead singer and bass player for the Sensational Nightingales, one of the nation's oldest gospel quartets.
In North Carolina, Thompson, known as Sug, rendezvoused with the rest of his group: Larry Moore of Norfolk and Darrell Luster and Joseph "Jo Jo" Wallace, who live in Durham. Collectively, the men say, they log nearly 3,000 miles a month, performing across the Carolinas, in the mountains of southern Virginia and, sometimes, near Thompson's home in Prince George's County. That was the case Saturday night, when they were among the headliners of a gospel concert in Suitland that had more than 1,000 people swaying in the aisles of a high school auditorium.
"Sometimes we feel like that Energizer bunny," Thompson said. "God just keeps us going on and on."
They sing in churches, high schools, hotel ballrooms, any venue that has electricity. It can be grueling, said Wallace, 79, who has been with the " 'Gales" since 1946, four years after the group started. Thompson and Jawbone -- the guitar's name came from the Old Testament story of Samson using the jawbone of a donkey to kill thousands of Philistines -- have been by his side since 1961.
"Brother Thompson is a very dedicated member of the Sensational Nightingales," Wallace said. "He doesn't mind driving anywhere to join the group."
Gospel music is big business today. Kirk Franklin, Yolanda Adams and other artists have infused their gospel with the secular sounds of hip-hop and R&B, bringing them crossover appeal and brisk sales. But groups like the Nightingales were there to pave the way in the lean years, when audiences were filled with mostly low-wage earners and musicians' pay often came in the form of a place to sleep or a hot meal.
Sporting flashy suits, crooning street-corner harmonies and often leaving a trail of broken hearts, gospel quartet men became legendary figures in the African American community. In the 1950s, there were groups such as the Golden Gate Quartet, the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Harmonizing Four, the Soul Stirrers and the Swan Silverstones. In the '60s came the Mighty Clouds of Joy, the Gospel Keynotes, the Jackson Southernaires and others.
During concerts, quartet men would go from stirring up crowds and convening altar calls in front of the pulpit to selling records, autographing photos and charming ladies in the lobby.
Somehow, the Nightingales survived, and thrived, through all these years. In his book "Uncloudy Days," gospel music historian Bill Carpenter called the group "the Gentlemen of song for their dignified yet stirring traditional quartet harmonies."
"Gospel quartets focused on either hard singing or a smooth, silky sound. The Nightingales were somewhere in the middle," Carpenter said in an interview.
"I Want to Be at the Meeting," "Remind Me Dear Lord" and the Grammy-nominated "I'm Blessed" have become gospel standards. But despite hundreds of recordings on a variety of labels, world tours and a living room filled with awards, life as a Nightingale has not been easy, Thompson said.
"At times, we travel 1,000 miles in one week," he said. "One time, we drove from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to sing at one church. Then we kept on to Los Angeles, making stops to perform in Arizona, San Diego, working our way to L.A. in a 1960 Cadillac."
In the 1960s, the group consisted of six members: Thompson, Wallace, Willie Woodruff, Charles Johnson, Carl Coats and Herbert Robinson. The number fell to four in the 1970s after Robinson died and Coats retired. Calvert McNair joined the group in 1983 and remained until his death in 1996.
Thompson and Wallace are the oldest of the remaining members, and they have a lifetime of stories, not all of them good.
"In the '50s, we had to go to the back door of some restaurants, and sometimes we had to ride all night because we couldn't get a hotel, but it was the goodness of people who often took us into their homes," Wallace said.
The 1960s brought even more danger -- cross burnings, church bombings and worse. But the group's biggest fans were in the South, where people needed the balm the Nightingales could provide. "We used to go into Birmingham," Thompson recalled. "We would arrive late at night and the police would stop and say that there was a curfew and where were we going. The Lord blessed us, because we were never arrested."
Once the laws of Jim Crow ended in the 1950s, the Nightingales found themselves facing another obstacle: Sometimes their own people didn't want them.
Some choir directors began to move toward what was called "a high church experience" in the 1960s that focused on hymns, anthems and spirituals. Some thought groups like the Nightingales were not dignified enough in their presentations because of their "uninhibited worship styles that incorporated guitars, drums and going into the audience and touching people," Carpenter said.
Still, Thompson, Wallace and others like them kept hitting the road. There were few boarding passes and no five-star hotels or personal assistants along the way. There were lots of truck stops, scruffy motels, plastic menus and greasy food.
Since the 1960s, a Cadillac has been the Nightingales' chariot. Wallace said the group preferred a car over a bus because it was more cost-effective. On the road it was, and still is, about saving money.
"We were concerned about our families," Wallace said. "I remember times when we only had bread and bologna. I called it 'quartet chicken.' We used to make the sandwiches in the car."
Now, instead of performing nightly for two weeks and then being off for one, the group sings primarily on Friday and Saturday nights up and down the East Coast. The Nightingales are aging, and so are those in their audiences. But the group's local promoter -- Thompson's wife, Rosetta -- has been able to line up a few jobs closer to home.
In April, Bibleway Temple in the District was packed with people gathered for the 2005 All-Star Salute to the Pioneers of Gospel, which featured the Nightingales among the acts. For Saturday's show at Suitland High School, the Nightingales shared the bill with groups including the Canton Spirituals of Canton, Miss., Doc McKenzie and the Hi-Lites of Lake City, S.C., and the Rev. Howard "Slim" Hunt and his Supreme Angels from Milwaukee.
Thompson has spent most of his life traveling from one city to the next, week after week. So now he enjoys being at home Monday through Friday for "quality time" with his wife, two children and eight grandchildren. Come Saturday morning, though, he will be on the road again.
"You have to be born of the right spirit," he said, "or you can't make it out here on the road."