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August 8, 2005

Still singing lead after 67 years!

MaineToday (ME):

Ira Tucker joined the band when he was 13. That was 67 years ago. Now at age 80, Tucker is going strong as front man for the Dixie Hummingbirds, a gospel group that is an American institution and served as inspiration for such artists as Jackie Wilson, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations and Bob Dylan. With Tucker still singing lead vocals, the Hummingbirds perform twice today at the Festival of Cultural Exchange in Portland.

"The group is 77 years old, and I've been with them for 67 of those years," Tucker said by phone from his home in Philadelphia. He attributes the band's longevity to its desire to stay on the right side of the law. Back in the days before the Civil Rights movement in America, a black gospel band traveling the backroads of America often found itself on the wrong side of the law - not necessarily because of any illegal activity, but because that's the way it was in parts of America.

"If you weren't working, they put you in jail," Tucker said. "So we stayed busy, all the time. It was tough, but we had the courage enough to keep it going. It's been a long journey, but it always seems to keep getting better. When I started with the Hummingbirds, for the black man there was nothing in America. But we kept on keeping on, to the point that it became worth staying out there, worth singing."

In time, the band became an icon of gospel music, with influence in the larger musical world. They moved from South Carolina to Philadelphia in the 1940s, where wider performance opportunities and a kinder political climate enabled them to expand their influence. They played New York City's first integrated club, the Cafe Society, in 1942. In the 1950s, they began singing at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. In 1966, they got a standing ovation at the Newport Folk Festival, and in 1973 they backed Paul Simon on his hit "Loves Me Like Rock." A year later, they won a Grammy Award.

The Hummingbirds borrow from all genres of music, including blues, Cajun, R&B and soul. Their most recent CD, "Diamond Jubilation," marked their 75th anniversary. Among the musicians who backed the Hummingbirds on the disc were two members of The Band, Levon Helm and Garth Hudson. George Recile and Tony Garnier, who play in Dylan's touring band, also helped out, along with longtime Dylan collaborator Larry Campbell, who produced the CD and wrote several tracks. Also contributing was Mac Rebbenack, better known as Dr. John.

James B. Davis began the group in the 1920s, when he was 12 years old. Davis, who lives in Philadelphia, retired in 1984. Davis named the group after encountering hummingbirds on a walk, Tucker said. "James was en route to a candy store and saw three or four of those hummingbirds flying forward and backward, up and down. It amazed him, so he changed the name to the Dixie Hummingbirds," Tucker said. The group earned its distinction for anticipating musical trends.

Their a cappella harmonies in the 1940s influenced the doo-wop sound in the 1950s. In the '50s, the Hummingbirds added electric guitar to their sound, which helped pave the way for soul music in the 1960s. In the meantime, Tucker became known for his active performance style. He preferred singing with physical energy, bounding around the stage. In that regard, he served as a model for Clyde McPhatter, James Brown and Jackie Wilson. McMaken said people who attend the performances should prepare for a rich and unique cultural experience. "Their music goes beyond the naming of God. It's about family and acceptance and about celebration, and that's exactly what this festival is all about."

Ira must be the longest serving member of any singing group. If you know of another please let me know.

Posted by acapnews at August 8, 2005 9:59 PM