By Rev. Billy C. Wirtz
Rev. Billy C. Wirtz has been away for awhile due to some surgery, which has greatly improved his land speed. We welcome him back to his weekly column where each week he shares with us recordings, artists, and music that we should know about. The Rev starts up where he left off on February 3 with his gospel primer, “Gospel 101 Part Two.”
One of America’s cradles of great music is the Greenville/Spartanburg region of South Carolina. From Nappy Brown to Marshall Tucker, from Marshall Chapman to the infamous Esquerita (The man that many credit with encouraging Little Richard to “express himself”), the “upstate” has never received the credit it deserves.
Of all the genres, gospel music perhaps owes the greatest debt to this region.
There were numerous quartets, soloists, and preachers, but none impacted gospel and ultimately American music, more than the Dixie Hummingbirds and Rev. Julius Cheeks.
The Dixie Hummingbirds began in singing as a quartet in 1928, and continued to tour and play concerts up until 2008. Although their biggest secular mark was made as the backup voices on Paul Simon‘s “Love Me Like A Rock,” their harmonies, presentations, show-stopping choreography, and virtual musical perfection on record still stand today as music, regardless of “style,” at its’ finest.
Not only did they make, in the words of Victor Wainwright, “High-octane, no-holds-barred, spirit-filled gospel that could raise the dead,” they were constantly polishing, and redefining themselves to remain the benchmark by which other quartets were judged for over four decades.
In the virtually ignored world (to the general public) of gospel, the Birds weren’t afraid to take chances musically. They took old standards like “Bedside of a Neighbor” and double-timed the last verse; they often changed from minor to major keys in the same song, changing a classic moan into a shout of celebration.
Beginning in Greenville, South Carolina, they originated and perfected a style heard ‘round the world. When you hear The Temptations, The Four Tops, Sam and Dave, or any of a hundred “soul” artists, somewhere along the way you’re hearing a phrase, a harmony, or a musical idea that can be traced directly to James Davis and The Dixie Hummingbirds.
Rev. Julius Cheeks
Twenty miles down the road from Greenville, is the town of Spartanburg, South Carolina. Spartanburg is the home of a voice so intense that, according to blues legend Drink Small “When he first sang, he just plain scared folks, he didn’t hold nothin’ back, and by God you DID NOT want to follow him.”
The voice belonged to a man named Julius “June” Cheeks.
Although, he ended up in Baltimore, Cheeks’ roots were in South Carolina.
Unable to read the bible, he memorized most of it, by listening to it on record.
He began with a group know as the Baronets, but it was with The Sensational Nightingales that he made his mark. With such classics as “Burying Ground” and “Sinner Man,” Cheeks left church after church in shambles with his flamboyant performances. Unlike the Hummingbirds and other groups who presented carefully polished and choreographed programs, Cheeks was the most volatile and unpredictable frontman of his day. Often leaving the stage to run up and down the aisles, unafraid to break into full-blown “spirit-dance,” he was the predecessor to countless gospel and secular acts the “borrowed” from him.
It’s fairly well known in gospel circles that Wilson Pickett acknowledged that his famous scream (listen to “Everybody Needs Somebody”) originated with Rev. Cheeks. Much to his credit, it is also known that following his own success; Pickett sent Cheeks some rather substantial “love offerings,” as a way of saying thanks.
Unfortunately, Cheeks fought a lifelong battle with some personal demons and he left the world far too early at the age of 52.
Now that (hopefully) I’ve raised your curiosity enough to want to hear this great music, let me guide you through the ocean of re-issues, some great, some not so great, and some, well, anyway, here’s the good news:
Continuing on with the series that brought you the best of The Mighty Clouds Of Joy [see Blues Bytes, February 3, 2012], Universal Music has a couple of worthy reissues available at extremely reasonable prices.
The Best of The Dixie Hummingbirds
MCA Special Products
Please note that I’m not sure that is the actuall catalog number, but it’s the one on Amazon. There are several other great ones available. If this one shets your appetite, pick up A Christian Testimonial, but for God’s sake, don’t pass up this “Best of” album. Most of the songs were originally recorded for Don Robey on Peacock Records. There is a hilarious novelty cut called “Let’s Go Out To The Programs,” featuring spot-on impressions of the The Soul Stirrers, Five Blind Boys, and other famous gospel groups, but meanwhile…
Check out Ira Tucker‘s double-back vocals on “In The Morning,” and the incendiary guitar playing of Howard Caroll, also known as “The T-Bone Walker of the Gospel.”
This is an album that grabs you. Listen to their “Prayer For Peace.” Play it for your musician friends and watch their expressions as they absorb the insanely tight harmonies and rhythmically complex figures through which the Birds effortlessly glide in out.
One of My Ten Favorite Albums of All Time
Rev. Julius Cheeks
Unfortunately, unless you want to shell out mega-bucks, the only way to listen to Julius Cheeks, is either as a single cut on numerous “Best of Gospel” collections, or you can get get:
Best of The Sensational Nightingales
MCA Special Products
Please Note: This is the catalog number listed on Amazon. It is priced at a ridiculous $5.99!!
There are numerous albums by the group. Most of them are really great, however, the ONLY one with Cheeks is this “Best Of.” Check and make sure that it has “Morning Train,” “Burying Ground,” and “Standing In the Judgment.”
Listen to Cheeks; he sings ahead of the line, behind the line, preaches mini-sermons inside the verses, and floats from an almost sensual whisper to a gut-wrenching growl within the same verse. What a voice, one of those that you listen to a hundred times, and it only sounds better the hundred and first time.
Rev. Billy C. Wirtz is a weekly columnist at BluesWax. Each week he finds artists, albums, and music that you should know about.
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