The Dixie Hummingbirds

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The Dixie Hummingbirds
The Dixie Hummingbirds (239252818).jpg
Background information
OriginGreenville, South Carolina, U.S.
Years active1928–present
LabelsDecca, MCA, Peacock
MembersWilliam Bright, Lyndon Jones, Torrey Nettles, Carlton Lewis and Adebo Wali (Ira Tucker Jr.)
Past membersJames Davis (1916–2007) (founder), Ira Tucker (1925–2008) (lead singer), William Bobo, Jimmy Bryant, Barney Gipson, Claude Jeter (1914–2009), J.B. Matterson, Fred Owens, Paul Owens, Barney Parks, Beachy Thompson, James Walker, William Henry (bass) (1922–1997), Howard Carroll (1924–2017), Willie Coleman, bass guitarist and vocals, Joseph Williams Jr.
The Dixie Hummingbirds publicity photo

The Dixie Hummingbirds are an influential American gospel music group, spanning more than 80 years from the jubilee quartet style of the 1920s, through the "hard gospel" quartet style of gospel's golden age in the 1940s and 1950s, to the eclectic pop-tinged songs of today. The Hummingbirds inspired a number of imitators, such as Jackie Wilson and James Brown, who adapted the shouting style and enthusiastic showmanship of hard gospel to secular themes to help create soul music in the 1960s.



The group formed in 1928 in Greenville, South Carolina, by James B. Davis and his classmate Barney Parks under the name the Sterling High School Quartet. After seeing the success of other quartet groups and realizing that there was not much work for African Americans in the South outside of low-paying labor jobs, the quartet decided to leave school and pursue their dream of being professional spiritual entertainers. By making this move, they had to change the name of the group to cut ties with the school. Davis recalls how they changed their name to the Dixie Hummingbirds:

I figured that was the only bird could fly both backwards and forwards. Since that was how ours career seemed to be going [laughs], I figure that was a good name, and the guys went along with it[1]

The Hummingbirds traveled around the South singing spirituals. It was not until 1938 when James Bryant (formerly with the Heavenly Gospel Singers) joined the group that they start to sing Gospel. In September 1939 (Davis disputes the year as being 1938) the Hummingbirds drove to New York using contacts that Bryant had to record with Decca Records.[citation needed]


Bryant abruptly left the group after clashing with it following their return from recording in New York. With engagements picking up, they had to find a replacement and soon heard of Ira Tucker, a young singer from nearby Spartanburg, who became lead singer of the group at the age of 13.[citation needed]

Tucker introduced energetic showmanship – running through the aisles, jumping off stage, falling to his knees in prayer – copied by many quartets that followed. Tucker also took the lead in the stylistic innovations adopted by the group, combining gospel shouting and subtle melismas with the syncopated delivery made popular by the Golden Gate Quartet, as well as adventuresome harmonies, called "trickeration" by the group, in which another member of the group would pick up a note just as Tucker left it off.[citation needed]


As time progressed, the Hummingbirds decided to move up north as part of the Great Migration. The North provided better opportunities and was better in dealing with justice for African Americans. In 1941, the Hummingbirds moved to Washington, D.C., where Davis had an Aunt with whom they could stay. The group would eventually go to Philadelphia, where Barney Parks' father lived. Most importantly, they were promised work from Charlie Newsome, a booking agent they had met in Jacksonville, who had been managing a group called the Royal Harmony Singers.

In 1942, the Hummingbirds would make the move north with James Davis, Barney Parks, Ira Tucker, Wilson Baker and William Henry. Charlie Newsome arranged an audition for the Hummingbirds with John Hammond, an unofficial musical director for the Café Society in New York. Hammond was looking for a gospel act to work in the club. Impressed with the Hummingbirds, they were given the gig. Hammond did not like the "Dixie" in their name. They changed their name so that they would not convey a suggestion of slavery. At that time they were performing under three names: the Dixie Hummingbirds in churches, the Swanee Quintet in Philadelphia, and the Jericho Quintet at the Café Society. While performing at the Café Society, the Hummingbirds were often backed by Lester Young's sextet. William Henry was drafted into the military in 1943, when William Bobo replaced him. Hammond was fond of Henry and ended their contract with Café Society when he left the group.[1]


Ira Tucker was asked to leave the Hummingbirds and join the Golden Gate Quartet. He told Davis, who urged him to try them out, which he did for a day and a half before deciding he could stay no longer. Barney Parks had to leave the group due to being drafted. Before he left, he helped find a replacement. He found Beachy Thompson of the Willing Four out of Baltimore, who at the time recently opened for the Hummingbirds at their anniversary program. The Hummingbirds signed to Regis Records, which changed its name to Manor Records, owned by Irving Berman, in 1945.[1] In 1946, The Hummingbirds signed a record deal with Apollo Records, a growing New York Based label. Apollo Records also signed Mahalia Jackson.[1]


The Hummingbirds had signed and recorded with Gotham and Okeh Records. They recorded for both labels and did not have any hits from either label. They continued to tour heavily. The Hummingbirds decided that they needed a new label. They went out to Texas the sign and record with Peacock Records under Don Robey.[1]

These recordings proved successful and the Hummingbirds were back in the Billboard charts. Around this time, the Hummingbirds asked Howard Carroll (1924–2017) to be a part of the group, replacing Paul Owens.[1] Carroll did not do much singing; he preferred to play the guitar.[citation needed]


The group sang the backup vocals on Paul Simon's "Loves Me Like a Rock", and "Tenderness", from his album There Goes Rhymin' Simon. In 1973, Robey sold Peacock to ABC Records, which released a cover of "Loves Me Like a Rock," produced by Walter "Kandor" Kahn and the group's lead vocalist Ira Tucker, which reached #72 on Billboard Magazine's Top 100 R&B Singles chart. The single also won a Grammy for "Best Soul Gospel Performance." Kahn and Tucker produced an album for ABC entitled We Love You Like A Rock. The album contained Stevie Wonder's "Jesus Children", on which Wonder played keyboards.[citation needed]


In 2003, the Hummingbirds were the subject of an award-winning book about their 75-year career span, Great God A'Mighty! The Dixie Hummingbirds: Celebrating the Rise of Soul Gospel Music by Jerry Zolten.[1] The book was favorably reviewed in The New York Times on February 26, 2003. In February 2008, the first feature-length documentary/concert film featuring the life and history of the Dixie Hummingbirds was released in commemoration of their extraordinary eighty years as performers. The Dixie Hummingbirds: Eighty Years Young has been shown on the Gospel Music Channel and has played at numerous film festivals.

Produced and directed by award-winning filmmaker Jeff Scheftel, and executive produced by University of Hawaii musicologist Jay Junker, the film is now available on DVD, featuring extensive interviews with Ira Tucker Sr., Abraham Rice, Cornell McKnight, Lyndon Jones, Willie Coleman, Torrey Nettles, and William Bright with archival footage, and following the current group as they perform in numerous venues and rehearse under Mr. Tucker's spirited guidance, in their hometown of Philadelphia, and across the vast landscape of America.[2] Ira Tucker Sr. died due to complications from heart disease on the morning of June 24, 2008, at the age of 83. The group continues with the present lineup of William Bright, Lyndon Baines Jones, Carlton Lewis III, Torrey Nettles & Cornell McKnight, thereby preserving the rich legacy left by Tucker, James Davis, William Bobo, Beachey Thompson, James Walker, Howard Carroll, et al., with possible new additions to their personnel down the road.

Howard Carroll died on 17 October 2017 at age 92 at an assisted living center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.[3]

The Dixie Hummingbirds were among hundreds of artists whose material was destroyed in the 2008 Universal fire.[4]

Awards and honors[edit]

The Dixie Hummingbirds are recipients of a 2000 National Heritage Fellowship awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts, which is the United States' highest honor in the folk and traditional arts.[5]

Grammy history[edit]

The Dixie Hummingbirds Grammy Awards History[6]
Year Category Title Genre Label Result
2007 Best Traditional Gospel Album Still Keeping It Real Gospel MCG Nominated
2000 Best Traditional Gospel Album Music In The Air Gospel House Of Blues Nominated
1994 Best Traditional Gospel Album In Good Health Gospel Atlanta International Nominated
1973 Best Soul Gospel Performance "Loves Me Like a Rock" Gospel MCG Won

Grammy Hall of Fame[edit]

Recordings inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, which is a special Grammy award established in 1973 to honor recordings that are at least twenty-five years old, and that have "qualitative or historical significance".[7]

Grammy Hall of Fame
Year Recorded Title Artist Genre Label Year Inducted
1946 "Amazing Grace" The Dixie Hummingbirds Gospel (Single) Apollo 2000


Year Inducted Title
2007 Christian Music Hall of Fame and Museum
2000 Vocal Group Hall of Fame


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Zolten, Jerry (2003). Great God A'Mighty! The Dixie Hummingbirds (Celebrating the Rise of Soul Gospel Music). Oxford University Press. pp. 114, 126, 139, 207, 221.
  2. ^ Scheftel, Jeff (2008). The Dixie Hummingbirds: Eighty Years Young. Oliver Entertainment.
  3. ^ "Howard Carroll". Billboard. Associated Press. Retrieved October 20, 2017.
  4. ^ Rosen, Jody (June 25, 2019). "Here Are Hundreds More Artists Whose Tapes Were Destroyed in the UMG Fire". The New York Times. Retrieved June 28, 2019.
  5. ^ "NEA National Heritage Fellowships 2000". National Endowment for the Arts. Archived from the original on September 21, 2020. Retrieved December 30, 2020.
  6. ^ "Dixie Hummingbirds, artist". Recording Academy. 2017. Retrieved November 2, 2017.
  7. ^ "Grammy Hall of Fame, Alphabetical by Title". Recording Academy. 2017. Retrieved November 2, 2017.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]