Interviews » Biographers

Jerry Zolten, author of Great God A’Mighty – The Dixie Hummingbirds: Celebrating the Rise of Soul Gospel Music


Jerry Zolten,

author of

Great God A’Mighty – The Dixie Hummingbirds:

Celebrating the Rise of Soul Gospel Music


From the Jim Crow world of 1920s Greenville, South Carolina, to Greenwich Village’s Café Society in the ’40s, to their 1974 Grammy-winning collaboration on “Loves Me Like a Rock,” the Dixie Hummingbirds have been one of gospel’s most durable and inspiring groups.

When James Davis and his high-school friends starting singing together in a rural South Carolina church they could not have foreseen the road that was about to unfold before them. They began a ten-year jaunt of “wildcatting,” traveling from town to town, working local radio stations, schools, and churches, struggling to make a name for themselves.

By 1939 the a cappella singers were recording their four-part harmony spirituals on the prestigious Decca label. By 1942 they had moved north to Philadelphia and then New York where, backed by Lester Young’s band, they regularly brought the house down at the city’s first integrated nightclub, Café Society. From there the group rode a wave of popularity that would propel them to nation-wide tours, major record contracts, collaborations with Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon, and a career still vibrant today as they approach their seventy-fifth anniversary.

In Great God A’Mighty – The Dixie Hummingbirds: Celebrating the Rise of Soul Gospel Music, author Jerry Zolten brings vividly to life the growth of a gospel group and of gospel music itself.*  He joins Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita in a conversation about the Hummingbirds, and on gospel music’s golden age.




Dixie Hummingbirds, mid 1970’s

From left: Beachey Thompson, Ira Tucker, Howard Carroll, James Davis, James Walker

“(The Hummingbirds’ singing) gave us inspiration.  Whenever they came around, it was a tremendous uplift that helped us cope and deal with all of the negative things that was going on at the time.  Racism, social injustice, economic injustice.  The ‘Birds would sing and it would just seem that heaven came open and God had come down.  We just felt like we could deal more with what we had to deal with, after hearing them.”

-Pastor Gadson Graham, Canaan Baptist Church, Paterson, New Jersey


Nobody Knows The Trouble I See, by the Dixie Hummingbirds


JJM Why did you choose to profile the Dixie Hummingbirds and not the Golden Gate Quartet or other gospel groups of that era?

JZ  I guess one way to answer that is to say that ultimately the Hummingbirds chose me. I had been working with another gospel group, the Fairfield Four, who had a lengthy career dating back to even before the Hummingbirds began. The Fairfields were from Nashville and were influenced by Birmingham, Alabama gospel, and had been major players within the African American community up until the time of their retirement in 1950. They were retired for over thirty years when I ran into them in the early eighties. I fell in love with how they sounded and tried to get them back into touring and recording, which they did, ultimately recording for Warner Brothers.

During this same time I had been trying to track down the Dixie Hummingbirds because I wanted to present them at various festivals and venues I was involved in. Eventually, our paths crossed and they became aware of my work with the Fairfield Four and wanted some of that to happen for themselves, and it was in this context that Ira Tucker of the Hummingbirds asked me if I would consider writing a book about them. I had actually been contemplating writing a book about the Fairfield Four, but the thing that made the Dixie Hummingbirds appeal to me was that they came with ready-built name recognition which was what I needed in order to interest a publisher. Also, I knew that their career encompassed much of the history of twentieth century gospel, and that they were one of the top groups in the genre. They touched more bases in and out of the gospel genre than any other group I could think of. Since I wanted to tell a deep gospel story and at the same time throw a spotlight on some of the under-appreciated heroes of the genre, centering the book on the Dixie Hummingbirds seemed like the right thing to do.

JJM James Davis was the founder of the Hummingbirds. What was his musical foundation?

JZ  He grew up in the Meadow Bottoms area of Greenville, South Carolina, during the time of Jim Crow, and in a family that was totally involved in the church — in his case the Church of God Holiness. The area was called Meadow Bottoms — which was actually Meadow Street — because it was flooded out and the houses were built up on stilts to keep them from getting flooded. The church was right there in the neighborhood.

His father was an itinerant who would leave for long periods of time, but when he was around he steeped himself in music.. Music was the one thing that James Davis’ father took seriously. He began training young James in the art of singing as soon as he was old enough to make sense of it. The method he taught was shape note singing. If you look at a shape on a piece of paper, a triangle might be “doe”, a square might be “mi”, a circle might be “ray,” and you learn to associate a note with a shape, and that is how James learned to sing.

He was aware of other kinds of music in Greenville. While it wasn’t a huge town, they did have a venue where some out of town bands with a reputation would come through. For example, Davis distinctly remembers when Cab Calloway came to town. . He would be aware of performers like Calloway, and he would know their music through the radio, but he wouldn’t necessarily go to see a show. He saw many street performers — gospel singers, blues singers — and, of course, he constantly heard choirs and quartets in church, and you could say that those experiences were his musical roots. By the time he was ten or eleven years old, he was singing in a gospel group.

JJM  The church shaped him in so many ways, and it certainly shaped his values as a performer. What were the “Davis Rules”?

JZ  James Davis was famous for his rules, not just within the Dixie Hummingbirds, but celebrated amongst all their fellow travelers on the gospel highway. Everybody knew that Davis ruled the group with a legendary iron hand. By and large the rules were pretty practical, and were based in experiences he had early on. His number one rule was “absolutely no drinking of any kind at any time or any place,” which was rooted in one of his earliest experiences. When he was still a kid, he and some of his friends got a little gig singing at a church some distance from home, and one of the boys found some liquor and got tipsy on it. Word got back to his mother and she made him break up that group and James never forgot that. Even later, as he was trying to get the Hummingbirds into professional shape, he had singers who turned out to be drinkers who he couldn’t rely on. So, because he wanted to be professional, no drinking was his number one rule.

Another rule was that no women could be in the car at any time. There was an incident when Jimmy Bryant, the ‘Birds popular bass singer, had a lightly complected girlfriend, and the word spread that an angry mob was going to run the group out of town. People thought he was flirting with a white woman. The ‘Birds had to slip away before there was any trouble and Mr. Davis took firm cautions from then on. Another dimension to his rules was his fundamental belief that the ‘Birds had an obligation to live the life they sang about, and that if you weren’t an exemplar in the world of gospel, you wouldn’t be taken seriously. In time, the rules would cover everything from public image to sheer business acumen; for example, administering fines if you were late for rehearsal, no curse words could be used at any time in any place. No listening to blues music was allowed, and group members were not allowed to play anything other than gospel music in the juke box. These rules had to do with living the life they sang about and some had to do with maintaining a high standard of professionalism.

JJM  You claimed Jimmy Bryant of the ‘Birds to be a sort of Dennis Rodman of gospel.

JZ  Yes, there is an illusion that one has of gospel singers as being “holier than thou,” but, like anyone else, some of them were quite flamboyant. Bryant, their star bass singer, really couldn’t sing bass all that well, but he was good looking, knew how to work the crowd, and, as the guys would say, he knew how to “sell it.” He had a persona that communicated to others that he knew what he was doing and was right where he belonged. He would lean over backwards, jump, gesture, and do whatever it took to get the crowd’s attention. He was a colorful showman and that is what prompted Mr. Davis to compare him to Dennis Rodman.

JJM  Zora Neale Hurston wrote that spirituals were “variations on a theme, bent on expression of feelings. The congregation is bound by no rules. No two times singing is alike, so that we must consider the rendition of a song not as a final thing, but as a mood. It won’t be the same thing next Sunday.” What was the source material for spirituals?

JZ  That is an interesting question because those sources are part known, part unknown. The knowable sources are the Anglo hymns, the songs like those of Dr. Watts that the masters taught the slaves in their earliest days on American soil. The hope was to teach them English, provide a spiritual bond in a kind of twisted vision of Christianity where the “meek”– read “slaves”– shall inherit the earth. The unknown would be the African songs and styles and ideas that slaves brought here with them. Over time, the African would reshape the Anglo and out of it all arose the spirituals, the first tradition of black religious singing, and, as with any oral culture, it is impossible to know who wrote them. Songs like “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “Roll Jordan Roll” and “Go Down Moses.”

One element that I could not capture in my research is what those songs might have sounded like as they were sung in the southern congregations Zora Neale Hurston describes, where people are just making it up as they go. This was happening in little churches all throughout the South. The spirituals would get passed along from generation to generation. They were not written down — they were truly an oral tradition.

When the Hummingbirds first started performing, they simply picked songs that they had already learned. Of course, by the time they began singing, the tradition was no longer strictly oral and lyrics could be found written down. But the Birds did not learn that way. They didn’t go to books and read what musicologists may have notated about particular songs, they simply took songs they had heard and reworked them out loud. The ‘Birds would take songs such as those Hurston describes, that had no arrangements — only lyrics, a melody and perhaps a rag tag harmony — and they would create some order to them. They would work them out for four or five voices, and work them out in their heads, never singing them the same way twice.

JJM You quote Lionel Hampton as saying, “I started working on my musicians to play with that kind of inspiration. And I think I was the first to bring all that music from the Holiness church — the beat, the hand clapping, the shouting — out into the band business.” You wrote that gospel, unlike jazz and blues, remained “culturally confined.” What was borrowed from gospel by popular musicians of Hampton’s era?

JZ  For one, the importance of improvisation to performance. I believe that blues and jazz performers all draw from the well of religious music, which demands a certain improvisatory quality. It also exposes the artist emotionally, where he is not worrying so much about getting the note right as he is getting it emotionally ready to perform, so the audience feels something. From that a certain honesty is demanded and communicated.

A good piece of music is designed to transport you to some other place. I think the great jazz and blues musicians may have first felt this when listening to and in many cases actually performing religious music, and then took it into mainstream music — perhaps never quite with the vigor or totality of a religious performance, but with many of those earmarks. I don’t think Lionel Hampton was the first, but he certainly was one who drew on those traditions.