Another post from “The Gospel Train’s” David April. TBGB appreciates you!
The Dixie Hummingbirds celebrated their 77th Anniversary on Saturday, August 20th and Sunday. August 21st at the World Café Live in Philadelphia, PA. The program was called “Still Keepin It Real: The Dixie Hummingbirds’ 77th Anniversary with Special Guests.” Keepin’ It Real is the title of The Birds’ forthcoming CD.
I attended the Sunday gospel brunch and thought I would share with you the highlights.
In selecting the venue, The Birds went back to their roots, not church roots, but rather the Café Society in New York where they headlined for six weeks in 1942. Café Society was an integrated night club that featured a variety of music and performers. The Café Society shows set a precedent for The Birds performing in non-church venues such as the Apollo Theater, Philadelphia’s Met, and at music festivals.
The World Café Live is a new state-of-the-art performance venue associated with the University of Pennsylvania’s radio station WXPN and a private entertainment company. The World Cafe. Unfortunately, both shows were poorly attended given the significance of the occasion. There were probably no more than 100 people in attendance at the Sunday program; even less, I’m told, came for the Saturday evening show.
The show started with a ten minute clip from a 1992 documentary on the Dixie Hummingbirds by Ashley James. The film chronicles the history of The Birds through concert footage, interviews, and historical photographs. The most moving part of the clip was James Walker, Ira Tucker, Paul Owens, and Howard Carroll sitting around a table in a church basement. Walker was remembering the words to “Take Care of Me” which he said was one of the first songs he sang with the group. As they are working through the song trying to remember the words, the camera slowly circles around them as they come together in a beautiful four part harmony rendition of the song. At one point Walker says, “That’s it! We can record it!” and the audience erupts into laughter. It was so moving. The scene is even more poignant knowing that Mr. Walker died shortly afterwards and that Paul Owens has since passed.
I saw the film when it debuted in Philadelphia in 1992 and it is a wonderful piece of work. To see The Birds in their prime is priceless. It is a real travesty that it remains unreleased.
After the film, Ira Tucker, Jr. introduced the Master of Ceremonies, LaDiva Davis of the High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. The Program included in order: Roberto Rodriquez dancer, The Huff Singers, Presentation of a Mayoral Proclamation, a dance performance, and the Dixie Hummingbirds.
Mr. Huff is a contemporary and close friend of Ira Tucker. Mr. Huff said Tucker and he came up together in the 1940s and remembers the hard times when they ate hamburgers and hot dogs thinking they were steak. The Huff Singers are a male quartet with guitar, bass and drums. They sang seven songs and had the audience clapping and shouting. I saw the Huff Singers in a small African-American church in Philadelphia and they sang the same program in pure hard-driven gospel fashion. The set list:
If It Wasn’t For the Lord
He’ll Answer Prayer
Walk Around Heaven All Day
Bless Your House
We Are Gonna Make It (Not sure of the correct title)
God Sees Everything You Do
He Keeps On Blessing Me
LaDiva Davis read a proclamation from Mayor John Street proclaiming August 20, 2005 Dixie Hummingbirds Day in Philadelphia. The proclamation was presented to Louise Tucker and Ira Tucker, Jr. Also of interest, The Mural Arts Society launched its tribute to the Dixie Hummingbirds with the start of a mural depicting the group’s history. Muralist Artist Cliff Eubanks will tell the Hummingbirds story in paint at 15th and Ogden Streets, a block and half from the old Met Concert Hall, located at Broad & Popular Streets where gospel music and groups like the Dixie Hummingbirds thrived in a heyday of great performers. The City is also considering changing the name of seven blocks of West Popular Street, from Broad to 21st Street and renaming it “Dixie Hummingbirds Way”.
The Dixie Hummingbirds
Before bringing out The Birds, LaDiva Davis read the names of some of the members that have passed including William Bobo, Beechy Thompson, James Walker, and Paul Owens. She also honored those in retirement including Mr. James Davis, Howard Carroll, and Reverend Joe Williams. William Bright is currently on medical leave.
The Birds took the stage; Mr. Tucker was introduced last and received a rousing applause. He thanked the audience and said that after 67 years of singing he thanks God for allowing him to still be out here. They performed six songs. Mr. Tucker just celebrated his 80th birthday in May, and although he moves just a little slower, he can still sing with power and grace. A poignant moment for me was when Tucker said that all his men were gone, but that his current men are also great singers. In fact, Mr. Tucker has a way of finding excellent talent. Most impressive was their new bass singer, Cornell McKnight. And what a bass singer! He sounded like Jimmy Jones with a deep bass that resonated to the point of shaking the rafters….okay, not quite, but you get the idea! Cornell is a student at Temple University. Mr. Tucker related the story that Cornell asked his professors if he could take a leave of absence from school to travel with the group. The professors said yes and told him he could take classes through the internet on his laptop. The set list:
He Watches Out For You and Me
Jesus Will Answer Prayer
Loves Me Like A Rock
Love Your Fellow Man
Except for “Loves Me Like A Rock”, the group did not delve into any of their classic material. Mr. Tucker did tell me that the new CD will include some of their early songs in an attempt to mix the old with the new. All in all it was a great afternoon of gospel singing. The Birds are finishing up their new CD, Keepin It Real, and will continue to tour. So, “Go out to the programs whenever they are in your town”.
Link to an interview with The Dixie Hummingbird’s biographer, Jerry Zolten: