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Revival meetings
The Dixie Hummingbirds and the Blind Boys of Alabama

Ira Tucker had a little gospel group in his home town of Spartanburg, South Carolina. And they were catching on, singing at churches and tent meetings. Of course, there were many teenagers singing gospel in Spartanburg. That’s how Tucker met Jimmy Davis, a friend of a friend who’d already been singing professionally and had run down on his luck after the group he was working with broke up.

Tucker and his family took Davis in until Davis was invited to join the Dixie Hummingbirds, a group based about 29 miles away in Greenville. "He had been singing with me, but I told him to go ahead, because I wouldn’t want to hold him back," says Tucker. "Jimmy said, ‘I’ll come back for you.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, right.’ But he did about three months later."

The Hummingbirds were performing in Greenville on that night, and they needed a tenor voice. "I’d never sung tenor before, but I said, ‘If I can’t do it, I’ll walk back from Greenville.’ " Tucker also demanded 50 cents for his services. He sang so well that the Dixie Hummingbirds invited him to tour with them on the spot. "They drove me by my house to get my things, and when I told my mother, she started crying. I went back out and said, ‘Hey, y’all, I can’t go with you.’ But my mother rushed out and said, ‘Oh yes, he’s going! This might be his break!’ "

That was an astonishing 65 years ago, when Tucker was 14. He’s been a member of the Dixie Hummingbirds, who are now celebrating their 75th year as a group with the just-released Diamond Jubilation (Rounder), ever since. Along with the Blind Boys of Alabama, who just released the Christmas album Go Tell It on the Mountain (Real World) and will be bringing their Blind Boys’ Family Christmas to the Berklee Performance Center this Tuesday, they’re the best-known torch bearers of jubilee singing, a style of gospel performance with its roots in the late 1800s.

Tucker is also the man who reinvented the way jubilee music, which typically tells Bible stories through a combination of harmony singing and preaching, was presented on stage, pioneering a style that blazed the trail for doo-wop and soul groups. "We took that old straight group harmony, where everybody sang together like a choir, and broke out a lead voice that used the harmony singing for back-up, and people just went wild about it. I was able to do all that stuff — the tenor lead, the falsetto to sweeten things." Then he upped the ante by becoming the style’s first popular "action singer." "I was singing one time and thought, ‘Maybe if I jump off the stage and go in the crowd, it’ll get more attention.’ It worked the first time I did it, so I kept doing it, and soon other singers were too."

Although the Dixie Hummingbirds, whose current line-up also includes Lyndon Baines Jones, William Bright, Frank Frierson, James Williams, and Enoch Webster, have remained in the high ground of gospel since the 1940s, Tucker has noted the recent secular successes of the Blind Boys of Alabama. That group’s last two CDs, Spirit of the Century and Higher Ground (also on Real World), incorporate songs by pop tunesmiths, blues arrangements, guests stars like Ben Harper and Solomon Burke, and other flourishes that have made them the darlings of a new audience. Diamond Jubilation aims for that audience too with its zydeco number "God’s Radar," the blues-fired "Nobody’s Fault," and the Grateful Dead set closer "I Bid You Goodnight." Musicians on the disc include the Band’s Levon Helm and Garth Hudson, pianist Dr. John, and Dylan sidemen Tony Garnier and George Recile. But at its heart, Diamond Jubilation is, as Tucker says, "80 percent traditional." And its time-tested testifying and soothing vocal performances are 100 percent enjoyable and affecting.

Nonetheless, it’s hard to beat the élan of the Blind Boys, whose voices — after 60 years of touring — soar with uncommon majesty even on such over-roasted chestnuts as "Joy to the World" and "White Christmas." The magic is in the contrast of leader Clarence Fountain’s gravel and Jimmy Scott’s soaring, flexible tenor — with the rest of the group filling in a rich spectrum of harmony. Go Tell It on the Mountain also has some stellar guests from the pop and R&B worlds, among them Solomon Burke, Tom Waits, Aaron Neville, Shelby Lynne, Mavis Staples, George Clinton, Robert Randolph, Les McCann, and Me’shell Ndegéocello. The only disappointing turn is Spearhead leader Michael Franti’s spoken narration of "Little Drummer Boy," which drags against the Blind Boys’ graceful backing. In truth, neither the Blind Boys of Alabama nor the Dixie Hummingbirds need anything more than themselves to deliver great performances, as the Blind Boys proved in an exciting Somerville Theatre concert in February and will doubtless prove again at Berklee.

The Blind Boys’ Family Christmas comes to the Berklee Performance Center, 136 Massachusetts Avenue in Boston, this Tuesday, December 2, at 7:30 p.m.; call (617) 876-4275.

Issue Date: November 28 - December 4, 2003
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