GREAT GOD A’MIGHTY! by Jerry Zolten


The Dixie Hummingbirds and the Rise of Soul Gospel Music
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The story of the Dixie Hummingbirds, seen as a case study of post-WWII changes in the record business and in gospel music.

They got together in 1928 as a youthful church quartet in segregated Greenville, South Carolina. Their 12-year-old leader, James Davis, was “drawn to the idea that music . . . was a way to connect to people and possibly even earn a decent and respectable living.” In 1934, just before Davis was to graduate from high school, the group decided to pursue a career in the burgeoning field of professional spiritual music and dubbed themselves the Dixie Hummingbirds. Defining gospel music as “nothing less than communication about culture . . . intrinsically linked to life experience and the struggle of African-Americans to persevere,” Zolten (Communication Arts and Sciences, American Studies/Penn State Univ., Altoona) charts the rise of the group from a regional attraction to a nationally acclaimed band of singers who regularly performed in the ’40s at New York’s integrated Café Society nightclub; by 1955 they were being described in the media as pioneers who combined musical ecstasy with superb salesmanship to give gospel singing economic value and stature. Zolten also describes the evolution of their musical technique from unaccompanied a cappella harmonizing to the ’70s addition of a backup band as he evaluates their recordings for the famous Decca label and such later efforts as their Grammy-winning 1974 collaboration with Paul Simon, “Loves Me Like a Rock.” The group’s commercial fortunes were boosted by the growth of radio, which gave them a national audience, and the popularity of singers like Mahalia Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and Ray Charles, who brought gospel sound to a mass audience. Although the author conscientiously offers numerous quotes from the singers themselves, other musicians, and the critics who hailed them, he fails to bring the Birds fully to life. Trapped by facts, they seldom step out from behind the music to tell their own stories.

Detailed, but disappointingly dry.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-19-515272-7
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 2002