A Sampling of Southern Gospel Quartet Music
It’s hard to imagine these days, but in the mid-20th century, hymns in four- and sometimes five-part harmony were a very big deal. A big deal that made big money for big record companies.
The two most iconic figures in this musical movement, for me, were the Rev. Hovie Lister and the Rev. Claude Jeter. Their performances drew thousands. Lister and his Statesmen recorded for RCA and Capitol. Jeter and his Swan Silvertones made records for King, Specialty and even Veejay, the label that first snagged the Beatles. I saw the Statesmen countless times with my mom and dad. When I was living in New York in the late 1980s, I finally got to see the Swan Silvertones when Jeter, who had moved to Harlem from his native South, reunited them for a few shows. It was a jaw-dropping performance.
When Jeter died in 2009, The New York Times obituary said that a line from his “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep” — “I’ll be a bridge over deep water if you trust in my name” — had inspired Paul Simon to write … well … you know the song.
Enjoy this little sampler of some highlights from the quartet tradition.
“Get Away Jordan”
Hovie Lister and the Statesmen
This was their showstopper. The Springsteen-show equivalent would be “Born to Run.” Check Hovie Lister on the piano, and you’ll see where Jerry Lee Lewis got some of his moves. But even Jerry Lee could never pull off a mid-song piano swap without missing a beat. And just for the record, whenever Elvis Presley was asked about his influences, he invariably named Jake Hess, the man singing lead in this video. Watch and learn.
“Get Away Jordan”
Dorothy Love Coates and the Original Gospel Harmonettes
Same song, other side of the Jim Crow line. Coates’ fiery voice turns the song into a completely different thing from the showbiz smooth of the Statesmen. Mavis Staples often cites Coates as an inspiration.
The Swan Silvertones
Video of the early Swan Silvertones is hard to find, but this rough recording from the 1950s makes very clear why the Rev. Claude Jeter and his peerless falsetto became so influential in later years. Watch this, then go put on your Al Green records — or your Prince records, for that matter. You’ll hear it.
“Oh Mary Don’t You Weep”
The Swan Silvertones
Since the first time I ever heard this recording, this song has been in an unbreakable tie with “Get Away Jordan” for the title of My Favorite Gospel Song Ever. The song moves every part of you, even the ones Rev. Jeter probably didn’t want you to move.
“Swing Down Chariot”
The Blackwood Brothers Quartet
The Blackwoods never grabbed me in my childhood the way the Statesmen did. James Blackwood seemed too calm. If Hovie Lister was the brash, dashing Clark Gable of gospel music, then Blackwood was its reserved and debonair Fred Astaire. But every now and then, like on this stage in 1951, they could rip one loose.
“If You See My Savior”
The Dixie Hummingbirds
South Carolina’s Dixie Hummingbirds formed in the late 1920s and signed with Decca Records in the 1930s. They were one of the first black quartets to hit the big time. When Ira Tucker joined as lead singer in 1938, he was just 13 years old, and he stayed with the group until his death 70 years later.
The Speer Family
Quite literally, if I had a dollar for every time I heard or sang this song as a child, I’d be long since retired on an island. The Speer Family, from Double Springs, Ala., were staples at all-night singings across the South. In 1921, gospel songwriter Dad Speer (George Thomas Speer, but everybody called him Dad) formed the group with his wife, Lena (that’s right, just Mom). In the 1930s, they began rounding out the group with their kids. Ben (upper left in this video) is now in his 80s, and he runs Ben Speer’s Stamps-Baxter School of Music in Nashville, which is dedicated to keeping the Southern quartet tradition alive. Eloise Phillips, who taught me piano for a year or so, is on its faculty.
The Golden Gate Quartet
President Franklin D. Roosevelt inflicted a small wound on Jim Crow when he invited Virginia’s Golden Gate Quartet to perform at his 1941 inauguration. They had formed in 1934. Like so many Southern gospel quartets, the name persists long after the original members are gone. The latest version of the Golden Gate still performs today.
“Dig a Little Deeper in God’s Love”
The Fairfield Four
The Fairfield Four had a quiet, decades-long career in Nashville until the early 1990s, when Warner Bros. Records signed them and they put out “Standing in the Safety Zone.” That album exposed a whole new generation to the black gospel quartet music tradition. Ten years later, the Fairfield Four even landed parts in the Coen Brothers’ magnificent film, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Although the Fairfield Four weren’t icons of the mid-20th century gospel scene that captivated my parents, I find this video absolutely irresistible. It was recorded for one of the “Homecoming” TV specials produced by gospel songwriter Bill Gaither. Gaither’s TV specials in the 1990s reunited many surviving figures of mid-century gospel. Watching those specials, for me, was like walking into a time machine, but I remember being a bit irritated that Gaither’s specials focused mostly on the white quartets.
Then this happened. In this clip, the audience includes many of the famous (white) faces I saw perform as a child. Hovie Lister and Jake Hess from the Statesmen. Vestal Goodman of the Happy Goodman Family. Brock Speer of the Speer Family. George Younce, the great bass singer of the Cathedral Quartet (the nattily dressed gentleman with the red tie and pocket square who just can't control himself). As the Fairfields keep digging a little deeper, you can see the power of the music take over the faces in the crowd. You can see the barrier that Jim Crow had put between their two traditions crumble into dust.
For my money, this is the single greatest gospel quartet performance ever captured on video. And yes, I know there are five people in the Fairfield Four. I got to see these gentlemen once. Their leader, the late Rev. Sam McCrary, explained the anomaly this way: "I know you're thinking it's funny that we're called the Fairfield Four, but we five. Well ... God don't mind." He probably didn't, not one little bit.
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