Most musical groups would consider themselves fortunate to last 10 years. This year, the Dixie Hummingbirds are celebrating 75 years of singing traditional gospel music together.
No, that is not a typo. This group formed before the stock market crash of 1929. In conjunction with the anniversary, they are releasing a new recording, "Diamond Jubilation," and embarking on a national tour.
Longevity alone doesn't account for the recent buzz surrounding the group. The Hummingbirds are widely considered one of the most influential and innovative singing groups not only in gospel music, but in the broader context of popular music. Admirers of the band include Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, and soul superstar Isaac Hayes.
In a new biography, "Great God A'Mighty! The Dixie Hummingbirds" by Jerry Zolten, Hayes declares, "In the beginning, after the word, and before there was rap, hip-hop, disco, punk, funk, metal, soul, Motown, rock-a-billy, before bebop, doo-wop, and the big band swing, there was the Dixie Hummingbirds."
The current frontman for the group is baritone Ira Tucker Sr., the only member who remains from the early pre-WWII days. He joined the Greenville, Miss., group in 1938 at age 13.
Tucker was indeed young, but he was not a rarity in the Southern gospel circuit. Young kids could be found singing in dozens of gospel groups all over the South. "During that time, blacks didn't have nothing else to do," says Tucker, "You had to find ways to amuse yourself."
Standing out from the glut of youthful singers, Tucker developed a highly energized performance style dubbed "activity singing," where he would leap off stages and rush through the audience, all the while keeping in harmony with his group.
"The people, they all just went for it," remembers Tucker.
In fact, people went for it so much that singers from across the musical divide began to mimic his ebullient style.
Soul legend Jackie Wilson, blues shouter Bobby "Blue" Bland, and The Temptations have all admitted their debt to the singer. Of his secular followers, Tucker explains, "They were all like, 'Hey, this guy could make a heck of a rock 'n' roll singer, but he only loves gospel, so we'll just steal what he's doing.' "