James B. Davis, Sr., founder of the Dixie Hummingbirds, has joined the heavenly choir. He passed April 17 at Hahnemann University Hospital in Philadelphia of heart troubles at age 90.
Davis was born June 6, 1916 in Greenville, South Carolina. He started his group just before the Great Depression at age 12 in 1928, billed early on as the Sterling High School Quartet. An early visit to the National Baptist Convention in Atlanta got a strong reception, motivating them to tour. They got their first record contract with the Decca label in 1939, and re-located to Philadelphia in 1942.
Sometimes billed as the Jericho Boys, in 1942 John Hammond booked them under that name to the Greenwich Village club Cafe Society Downtown, prestigious and long-run along with secular acts where they were advertised as “Swinging the Spirituals." Somewhere around this time, they began appearing regularly on Philadelphia radio station WCAU, billed as the Jericho Boys and the Swanee Quintet.
The Dixie Hummingbirds and other black gospel vocal groups of the era were the main obvious source for the doo wop style, and for groups like the Temptations. With their main lead singer Ira Tucker, the Dixie Hummingbirds in particular were at the forefront of moving from an earlier "jubilee" style into the range of "hard gospel" shouting and showmanship. Their work in the 1950s is considered by some as their artistic peak.
That harder style and Tucker's dramatic moves, dropping down on his knees and running down the aisles and such, became part of the basis for modern soul music. It's widely believed that Jackie Wilson and James Brown in particular learned a lot of their performing style from watching Tucker.
Along with being the founder, baritone, and sometimes songwriter (including “The Inner Man” and “I'll Keep on Living After I Die”) of the group, Davis was also known as a disciplinarian. After some early personnel issues, he began enforcing strict rules for the group on tour, including dress codes, and a prohibition on alcohol and women. Heck, he apparently once fined himself $20 for accidentally playing Muddy Waters instead of religious music on a jukebox in Arkansas.
The Dixie Hummingbirds are best known to younger and whiter audiences for their backing vocal's on Paul Simon's 1973 hit "Loves Me Like a Rock." They sometimes played secular venues and sang secular songs like this. They won a Grammy for their own recording of the song.
But they're a gospel group, and having always been about the church, they head right back to it. They apparently turned down quite a bit of money to tour with Simon in order to keep their scheduled commitments playing small churches.
Brother Davis retired in 1984, but the group continues. They celebrated their silver jubilee several years ago, and a modern lineup of the group is still performing.
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