New Book Chronicles 75 Years of the Dixie Hummingbirds

They’re called the Dixie Hummingbirds. And they’re one of gospel music’s most durable and inspiring groups.

In his new book, Jerry Zolten, assistant professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State Altoona, details the impact of their music on American cultural history and American music.

Great God A’Mighty! The Dixie Hummingbirds, published by Oxford University Press and scheduled for release in January, chronicles the evolution of the Hummingbirds over 75 years and their influence on a changing music industry.

“The Dixie Hummingbirds perform in a genre that is most important to American cultural history,” Zolten said. “No group better than they embody the evolution of gospel music in the 20th century. They saw it all and were in the forefront of all the great groups in that genre.

“Through their work with Paul Simon, the Dixie Hummingbirds became one of the few black gospel groups to break through to the American pop mainstream. I see their story as a bridge to connect the whole story of gospel music to the American public. There is no question that in gospel music they always were ahead of the curve and that what they did carried over to American popular music.”

The Dixie Hummingbirds trace their roots back to 1928 in Greenville, SC, where 11-year-old baritone James Davis started a quartet called the Church of God Juniors. After high school, the group decided to tour, becoming the Dixie Hummingbirds. By 1939, the a cappella singers were recording their four-part harmony spirituals on the Decca label.

By 1942, they had move north to Philadelphia and then New York, where they regularly bought 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 nationwide tours, major record contracts, collaborations with popular artists, and their 1974 Grammy-winning version of Paul Simon’s “Loves Me Like a Rock.” They are still active today as they approach their 75 anniversary.

“Many pop groups were inspired and learned from the Hummingbirds,” Zolten said. “A number of major pop musicians, including the Temptations and Stevie Wonder, drew from them. In the 1940s, the Birds sang a cappella and in 1950 a cappella and Doo Wop became the rage. In the 1950s, the Hummingbirds introduced the electric guitar and soul rhythms that 10 years later exploded on the music scene as Motown and soul music.

“They always seemed to be 10 years ahead of everyone else. They pioneered vocal group arranging and stage showmanship. They also pioneered the rhythmic field that became known as soul and were among the pioneers who introduced soul to the American mainstream.”

In the book, Zolten, who believes that black gospel music is the bedrock of rock ‘n’ roll and other forms of popular American music, provides interviews with Hank Ballard, Otis Williams and other artists who worked with the Hummingbirds, as well as with members James Davis, Ira Tucker and Howard Carroll.

In describing how they are perceived in the African American community, Solomon Burke, a 2001 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and soul singer, said of the Dixie Hummingbirds: “They are true American heroes. They are what singers, show people and entertainers wish they could be. They are not just legends; they are heavenly stars.”

Zolten said Great God A’Mighty! The Dixie Hummingbirds is for anyone interested in music as social history, musical impact, and American cultural history.

“It is an American story that transcends the genre. It is a book about the record industry and the African American experience, and about one of the richest periods in the evolution of the American music industry.”

Last Updated November 12, 2013