It didn’t matter that the Sensational Nightingales, the Swanee Quintet, Canton Spirituals and other legendary gospel quartets had already stirred up souls in the pews at the Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Lanham.
Joe Ligon was cool and ready to go.
The 75-year-old lead singer and last original member of the Mighty Clouds of Joy jumped right into a medley of some of the group’s Grammy award-winning hits, including “Pray for Me” and “I’ve Been in the Storm Too Long.”
Long before African Americans worshiped in multimillion-dollar sanctuaries or owned recording studios, Ligon and other quartet men barnstormed across Dixie singing about the Lord and serving hope to a generation of blacks oppressed by segregation. At the same time, they suffered the sting of racism.
“There were times, even if you wanted to stay in the Holiday Inn and had the money, they would tell you they didn’t have any rooms, and we could walk around and see the empty rooms,” said Ligon in an interview before his performance this month. “There were other times when we wanted to eat, you couldn’t go to the front door of a restaurant, you had to go around the back to get your dinner.”
Ligon and Johnny Martin, a fellow classmate at a Los Angeles high school, formed the Mighty Clouds of Joy in the mid-1950s. Performing in tailor-made suits and tight, four-part harmony, the group would grow to include Leon Polk and Richard Wallace.
According to musical historians such as Bil Carpenter, author of “Uncloudy Days: The Gospel Music Encyclopedia,” gospel quartets, with their emphasis on vocals and later vocals with light instrumentation, served as a training ground for many secular musical groups, including the Temptations and the Four Tops. Famed singer Sam Cooke started out as the lead singer of the Soul Stirrers, a gospel quartet out of Chicago.
In 1960, the Mighty Clouds recorded their first album, and over the next 50 years they won three Grammys and became the No. 1 selling gospel quartet of all time. But to really appreciate the contribution that the Mighty Clouds and other gospel quartets have had on black America, one has to look well beyond entertainment.
The rich and sonorous history of gospel quartets could be glimpsed at Mount Calvary, where quartet men exchanged hugs and life stories from the road in the church basement and Rosetta Thompson, the undisputed impresario of gospel quartet, collected ticket money in the lobby.
“Quartet music has a sound of its own. It has that driving beat. It is a sound that was generated from the South,” said Winston Chaney, the morning host on WYCB (1340 AM) and the concert emcee.
Chaney said the music is also popular in northern cities because many African Americans from the South who left for better jobs during the Great Migration brought their ways of worship with them.
Ligon said his group performs from Thursday to Sunday with only a two-week break for Christmas, mostly in cities and towns in Southern states such as Mississippi, which is home to two groups that were on the program, the Canton Spirituals and the Jackson Southernaires.
In addition to singing, Horace Thompson, 72, lead singer and bass player for the Sensational Nightingales, used the concert to present an award to Ligon for still being on the road.
“These guys have been out here struggling and singing for the Lord for so long, and they paved the way for the younger groups,” Thompson said. “We had plenty of rough days. Sometimes we had to ride all night without eating, and sometimes we would pull up to a truck stop and not be able to buy food or use the restroom.”
For years, Thompson, Jo Jo Wallace and Larry Moore have shared space in the 1998 Fleetwood Cadillac that was parked outside the Lanham church. Normally, either Thompson will drive down to North Carolina or Wallace and Moore will drive to Maryland to pick them up for various gigs from Boston to Miami.
Wallace, 85, lead guitarist and oldest member of the Sensational Nightingales, lives in Durham, N.C. If a trip is more than 1,000 miles, they will fly. But while traveling and singing can be grueling, Wallace said it’s nothing like it was in the 1960s.
“It was rough in those days,” Wallace said. “We was coming out of Mississippi and Alabama, and because of Jim Crow [laws], of course, we had to go in the back door. In Mississippi, they cussed us out. . . . They put the guns on us. The manager asked, ‘What y’all doing down here?’ and I told him, ‘Singing the gospel.’ ”
Said Spencer Taylor, 84, the lead singer for the District’s Highway QCs : “You have to be born again to get through that.”
While most of the original members of the quartets have died, groups such as the Swanee Quintet from Augusta, Ga., are doing well because younger members are carrying on the tradition.
“It’s an honor to be with a group that I grew up listening to,” said Eddie McCoy, 39, who joined the 73-year-old “Swanees” as drummer and business manager two years ago.
Locally, Jessica Bethea, a member of the Anointed Miracles, is following behind her mother, Rose Thomas, who for decades sang with the Queens of Faith.
“The new quartets are younger and more energetic,” said Bethea, who lives in Charles County. “There is a little more praise and worship. Gospel music is something that you grew up on. It may change a little, but it pretty much stays the same.”
For many in the original generation of quartet singers, retirement is a foreign word.
“This is what I will be doing until the day I leave this world,” said Ligon, who is celebrating his 52nd year of singing.