What do the last entry (Rod Stewart), The Rolling Stones and the Beatles have in common? They were influenced by varying degrees by American Gospel. I’m talking about the real gospel music made by former black slaves and forward thinking white people in the South. They took the structures of European religious music and the sum of the Black American experience to it to create one of the first original musical forms to come from America.
Gospel music is the well from which nearly every popular modern American music sprang. In the heavily churched years of my childhood during the ’70s and ’80s, it would be the basis from which I would derive the discipline and restraint as an adult. It would also help me to appreciate multiple genres of music.
Today Southern black negro youth seem pretty far removed from the church traditions that were not unique to the South, but black American culture in general. You could hear it in the music of those who grew up in the church. Everyone from Little Richard to Jill Scott have been heavily influenced by growing up in some hot noisy church – even eclectic artist like Prince could not escape the black church tradition.
Even as far back in the 1980s alt rockers like Micheal Stipe would acknowledge the influence of Southern gospel groups like The Dixie Hummingbirds (TDH). That’s not as unusual as it might seem on the surface as many rock bands found inspiration in some aspects of gospel. If it was good enough for the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, why not the Replacements and REM?
The awful state of most popular forms of music suggest that long cherished tradition has broken down. Still there are a few artist today (usually British) who do their homework and discover that one of the most influential gospel groups of all time, The Dixie Hummingbirds are a timeless source of inspiration.
I had heard of TDH for as long as I could remember sleeping, day dreaming and being fascinated by the machinations of the black church. Despite the casual familiarity with their music, I’d never owned any of it until I stumbled upon Music in the Air at a used campus record store years ago.
Music in the Air was a kind of greatest hits album that celebrated the groups 70th anniversary in 1999. By that time the group, often nicknamed the iron men of gospel, had been together since the 1920s in various lineups. They were joined in the studio by a host of luminaries including Shirley Caesar, Howard Hewitt, Wynonna Judd, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon and others. The album’s intro was spoken by no less than Issac Hayes.
The sheer range of musical talent who appeared on this album attests to the range of secular artist influenced by TDH. In many cases they sang with the Hummingbirds doing backing vocals. The five member group led mostly by Ira Tucker, Sr. is still performing today and attracting new audiences eager to hear the real deal in a world of sampling and fake digitally enhanced vocals.
Music in the Air benefits from a fresh modern production that bridges the gaps between the guest artist who perform on it and the traditional style that TDH are known for. On “Have a Talk with God”, Stevie Wonder naturally adds his brand of funk to a composition he pinned. Likely written for this album as it sounds as it were made with the Hummingbirds in mind. Other songs like Paul Simon’s “He Loves Me like a Rock” seem almost tailor made for The Dixie Hummingbirds, with Simon himself appearing with Stevie Wonder.
All the guest blend perfectly into the Hummingbird’s style. The timeless “How Great Thou Are” combines the restrained country inflections of Wyonna Judd with black gospel. It’s a blend many Southern Appalachian hill people are accustomed to hearing, but might have struck many suburban country fans as a pleasant surprise.
With so many stellar voices on this album, it’s difficult to pin down a highlight, yet one singer stands out due to the energy and devotion she brings to gospel music. As if to save the best for the end, “Praise Him” features Shirley Caesar in what amounts to a moment of church captured in the studio.
The song starts out very much as a traditional Dixie Hummingbirds tune, not unlike the songs black churches used to sing. By the time Caesar comes in she’s stole the show, even subduing the magical croon of Howard Hewett who was at the time at the beginning of his gospel career after his stint with Shalamar.
As much as I like my current church, its music comes no where near the intensity of Music in the Air. The Christian modern rock of the modern integrated mega church is a far cry from what I grew up with in those little churches in Stoneville and Greensboro NC. Fortunately, I have my copy of Music in the Air when I feel the need for that old time religion.