Ira B. Tucker Sr., 83, of North Philadelphia, one of gospel's most celebrated voices and lead singer of the venerable Dixie Hummingbirds, died of heart failure Tuesday at Kindred Hospital in the Northeast.

Mr. Tucker joined the Dixie Hummingbirds in 1938 in Greenville, S.C., when he was 13, 10 years after James B. Davis gathered a group of friends to sing a cappella. Mr. Tucker brought his style of gospel and blues to the group and the 'Birds soared in worldwide performances for the next 70 years.

The Hummingbirds spent their first decade together "wildcatting" and establishing their reputation in one small town after another. They recorded their debut record on the Decca label in 1939.

Davis, who died last year, ruled his gospel singers with an unforgiving, steady hand. No women could ride in their 1940 DeSoto while they toured and no drinking was allowed.

The Hummingbirds - named for the only bird that can fly forward and backward when that was an apt metaphor for the group's fortunes - had some tough times. They were stopped for a bad headlight, speeding, or simply because they were black and riding in a fancy car. One night after playing in Spartanburg, S.C., they were hauled into jail. An inmate who recognized them said, "Man, you got the Dixie Hummingbirds."

The officers let them sing behind bars. "We had some kind of program that night," Davis said in a 1998 Inquirer story. "You would have thought we were in church. We made the news the next day. They said if everyone were like the Dixie Hummingbirds, this would be a great world to live in."

The Hummingbirds had several heydays over their 70-year span. In the '40s and '50s, they toured the circuit of black churches and gospel extravaganzas and packed arenas - 11,500 fans in Raleigh, 5,500 at North Philadelphia's Met. In the '60s, they played Carnegie Hall and Madison Square Garden and brought audiences at the Newport Folk Festival and Harlem's Apollo Theater to their feet.

Mr. Tucker brought showiness to the Hummingbirds with a preaching style and a high-pitched scream. With his signature baritone and flashy presentations he ran up and down the aisle, jumped from the stage, spun around, tore off his coat and landed on his knees - all without sacrificing his sensational sound.

Mr. Tucker was inspired and inspiring when he lifted his voice into a holy high holler and dug down deep in his soul, returning to a perfect-pitch baritone. "Pure joy music," Mr. Tucker often called it.

Stevie Wonder said in 1998, "No other group has been more important in the history of African American music." The 'Birds were credited with inspiring singers as disparate as B.B. King, James Brown, the Temptations, Jackie Wilson, Aretha Franklin and Bobby Bland.

In 1973, Paul Simon picked the Hummingbirds to sing "Loves Me Like a Rock" with him on his second solo album. The 'Birds then cut their own version of the song and won a Grammy for Best Soul Gospel Performance.

Mr. Tucker and the Hummingbirds were deemed a national treasure by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2000, the same year they were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame. The 'Birds joined B.B. King and Indian percussionist Zakir Hussain as winners of the prestigious National Heritage Fellowship.

In 2002, a compilation of gospel music by Thomas A. Dorsey, which included several songs by the Hummingbirds, was the first gospel album to be put on the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress.

In 2005, a mural of the Hummingbirds was painted on Poplar Street at 15th Street, and a stretch of Poplar was dubbed Dixie Hummingbirds Way. In 2008, a documentary, The Dixie Hummingbirds: Eighty Years Young, had its premiere at the Oxford Film Festival.

"My father raised his family on the strength of his voice," said son Ira Tucker Jr. "In the end, he had just one regret - he wanted to go fishing one more time."

A familiar figure in Kent Narrows, Md., Mr. Tucker loved to fish when he was not on tour. "He puffed on a 15-inch cigar and fished all day," his son said.

In addition to his son, Mr. Tucker is survived by his wife of 65 years, Louise; daughters Sundray Tucker and Lynda Laurence; five grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

Friends may visit at 9 a.m. Wednesday at the Met, Broad Street and Dixie Hummingbirds Way (Poplar Street). A funeral will follow at 11. Burial will be in Ivy Hill Cemetery.

Go to Philly.com to watch videos and hear recordings by the Dixie Hummingbirds.EndText

Contact staff writer Gayle Ronan Sims at 215-854-4185 or gsims@phillynews.com.