Great God A’Mighty!

The Dixie Hummingbirds: Celebrating the Rise of Soul Gospel Music

Oxford University Press | 2003 (First Edition), 2022 (Second Edition)

From the Jim Crow world of 1920s Greenville, South Carolina, to Greenwich Village’s Café Society in the ’40s, to their 1974 Grammy-winning collaboration on “Loves Me Like a Rock,” the Dixie Hummingbirds have been one of gospel’s most durable and inspiring groups.

Now, Jerry Zolten tells the Hummingbirds’ fascinating story and with it the story of a changing music industry and a changing nation. When James Davis and his high-school friends starting singing together in a rural South Carolina church they could not have foreseen the road that was about to unfold before them. They began a ten-year jaunt of “wildcatting,” traveling from town to town, working local radio stations, schools, and churches, struggling to make a name for themselves. By 1939 the a cappella singers were recording their four-part harmony spirituals on the prestigious Decca label. By 1942 they had moved north to Philadelphia and then New York where, backed by Lester Young’s band, they regularly brought 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 nation-wide tours, major record contracts, collaborations with Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon, and a career still vibrant today as they approach their seventy-fifth anniversary.

Drawing generously on interviews with Hank Ballard, Otis Williams, and other artists who worked with the Hummingbirds, as well as with members James Davis, Ira Tucker, Howard Carroll, and many others, The Dixie Hummingbirds brings vividly to life the growth of a gospel group and of gospel music itself.

Praise

Zolten fluently unfolds this story, with its sundry subplots and themes. His descriptions of music are evocative, and he neither minimizes nor exaggerates the gospel world’s fierce moral and showbiz competitiveness. He shows how, like all the top-flight gospel quartets, the Birds drilled on staging and presentation as well as music…. He makes a case that The Dixie Hummingbirds were exemplars and conveyors of cultural and musical change.

New York Times Book Review

This intriguing, fast-moving history is highly recommended for anyone interested in music, social history, gospel, or the American experience.

Library Journal

In this excellent history, Zolten carefully and lovingly details the almost 75-year history of the Hummingbirds, from their start in the Depression to their induction into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2000. This is a fine exploration of an important style and era in the history of American popular music and culture.

Publishers Weekly

A fabulously entertaining story of the Birds–and it’s all here: the 1928 organization, 1938 addition of Ira Tucker, name changes in the early 1940s, Café Society in 1942, collaboration with Angelic Gospel Singers in 1950, Go Out of the Program in 1953, the Apollo Theatre in 1956, Newport Festivals in 1966 and 1972, Loves Me Like a Rock in 1973, and full-fledged concerts into the 1990s. This is an extraordinary and welcomed addition to African American gospel music history.

Horace Clarence Boyer, author of The Golden Age of Gospel