Stevie Wonder couldn't make it to the African American Museum in Philadelphia on Monday to wish the Dixie Hummingbirds a happy 90th birthday. But he did call to say how much he loved them.
The occasion was the launch of a series of events tagged "The Magnificent Flight of the Dixie Hummingbirds," meant to celebrate the past, present and future of the great gospel group that was formed in Greenville, S.C., in 1928 and that have been a Philadelphia fixture since founder James B. Davis bought a house at 22nd and Girard in 1942.
Wonder — who said he grew up listening to the Hummingbirds, as well as Aretha Franklin and the Staple Singers on Detroit gospel radio stations — had hoped to attend the news conference held in the gallery that houses the AAMP's "Audacious Freedom: African Americas in Philadelphia, 1776-1876" exhibit after playing the second of two concerts at the Borgata in Atlantic City the night before.
"I'm sorry that I can't be there physically," Wonder said, "especially in these times we're living in when the spirituality has taken a dive for the worse. But the music that the Dixie Hummingbirds gave us 50 years ago has always been significant. And that they have been able to carry on the legacy of the group is a great thing to acknowledge. The gift of music is the gift of praise."
The Hummingbirds' current membership consists of Ira Tucker Jr., 74, the son of Ira Tucker Sr., who led the band though most of his tenure, from when he joined at 13 in 1938 until his death in 2008, as well as next-generation singers Carlton Lewis III, who sings lead, as well as Torrey Nettles, Troy Smith, Roy Smith and Lyndon Baines Jones.
The group has three Philadelphia concerts coming this month. On Wednesday, they will play a sold-out show at the World Café Live that's part of the WXPN-FM (88.5) Gospel Roots of Rock and Soul Project. (It can be streamed live on VuHaus.com.)
On Sept. 16 at 3 p.m., the Hummingbirds will play what is being billed as "an old time, stomp-down concert" at the Oak Grove Baptist Church at 2853 N. 21st St. in North Philadelphia. And on Sept. 30, there will be a gospel brunch at Girard College hosted by Mighty Writers, as the closing event of MightyFest, a four day student literacy fest. Also this fall, the Hummingbirds will reissue their 2011 CD, Gospel Praise Songs — Powered By Quartets.
Roger LaMay, WXPN station manager, said that the Hummingbirds' legacy "is one of the reasons we took on this project and we are committed to spreading the word of their impact." He quoted Jerry Zolten, the Penn State professor and author of Great God A'Mighty! The Dixie Hummingbirds, in talking about how the Hummingbirds' highly entertaining stage show influenced such acts as the Temptations, and shaped secular as well as spiritual musical styles.
A mural of the Hummingbirds faces north at 15th and Poplar on a stretch of street also known as Dixie Hummingbirds Way. At the news conference, Cathy Harris, Mural Arts Philadelphia's director of community murals, said on Monday that the MAP aims to put more music murals in the neighborhood, near the soon to be revived Metropolitan Opera House of Philadelphia, including one of the Hummingbirds' musical contemporary and recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
Hummingbirds singer Lewis said that when current members perform, they carry the Hummingbirds long legacy "every day, every night, every show." Their style of gritty, rough-edged church singing is distinguished from slicker, contemporary R&B influenced gospel, Nettles says, by their performance style, where they aim "to pour it all out, to leave everything on the stage."
"I just wish my dad could be here so we could tell him that we did it," Tucker Jr, who manages the band as well as singing., said on Monday. "He would love this… I'd say, 'Pop, we only got 10 to go'."
Tucker recalled fearing for his father's safety when he went on the road with the group in the 1940s and 1950s, attracting attention as black men driving through the Deep South in their black Cadillacs.
But Tucker, who bent over a cell phone to talk with Wonder as part of the news conference, spoke with love and admiration of his father's musical performances. Before rock and roll and R&B blew up, the Hummingbirds were innovators with their energetic stage act. "When all the other groups would stand on stage and just sing, my father jumped down in the audience." He pointed out that gospel paved the way for modern R&B, citing such gospel-reared soul stars as Franklin.
Decades after the Hummingbirds' first years, fewer eyes are on the group. "We're losing a lot of people because they don't get to hear us, they think we're all gone, they think we're dead. But we're very much alive and we're going to be tearing it up this year," he enthused.
He stressed the Dixie Hummingbirds' historic importance as innovators, but also emphasized what's to come — in particular, what he described as, "almost a one-act play," called From Street Light to Spotlight, which will begin auditions in Philadelphia in September.
"It's a one-act play recounting the history of the Hummingbirds through the decades, what went on in those decades, and matching up the Hummingbird songs that were hit songs for themselves and that were covered by others. They talk about other songs done by others sung in the same manner, but they only sing Hummingbirds songs."
As their name indicates, the Hummingbirds' musical roots are in the tradition of Southern gospel, but Philadelphia has been home for more than three-quarters of a century now. "We've been nested here since 1942," Tucker said. "And we're going to continue to nest here."
And the singer also made it clear that the group is already looking forward to their 100th anniversary in 2028. "As far as the Hummingbirds are concerned, our future is in the air," he said.