Friday 27 June 2008

Ira Tucker (1925 - 2008)

By a trivial coincidence I bought a CD of “The Best of the Dixie Hummingbirds” on Tuesday, the very day on which Ira Tucker, lead singer since 1938, died after an astonishing 70 year career with the same gospel group. To read his obituary in the New York Times, please click here. The Dixie Hummingbirds caught my attention in the early Seventies when their voices were heard on a Paul Simon album. The vocal work was impassioned and the harmonies were as gorgeous as the name was exotic to English ears. This powerful music was instantly accessible to someone with a music sensibility conditioned by exposure to Sixties Soul and I have caught up with their back catalogue over the years. There is a quality of wit and humour present in their work of a kind not often found in the gospel genre. The song entitled ‘Let’s Go Out To The Programs’ (1953) written by Ira Tucker is a sequence of subtle parodies of their competitors on the gospel circuit, part of a tradition of songs about other performers and inspired by ‘Juke Box Saturday Night’ by the Modernaires. A later fine example of which is Sam Cooke’s ‘We’re Having A Party’. To complete the circle, the first group to be name-checked in ‘Let’s Go Out To The Programs’ is the Soul Stirrers (lead vocalist, Sam Cooke).

Ira Tucker will be remembered for three great contributions to the Dixie Hummingbirds. Many of the wittiest and cleverest compositions were his and his innovative vocal style created the essential sound of the group. But above all, his electrifying on-stage theatricals, hurling himself to his knees in prayer, leaping from the stage and running at speed through the aisles blazed a trail for others (James Brown, Solomon Burke) to follow. My admiration for gospel music has led some of my acquaintances to suspect that I may be on the point of a twilight conversion to born-again Christianity. To which I have to say that, as far as I know, it is not essential to be a Christian to appreciate the majesty of the Ghent Altarpiece, or the mystery of Mantegna’s ‘Agony in the Garden’, or the dark tragedy of Rubens’ ‘Descent From the Cross’. Jerry Zolten’s book, ‘Great God A'Mighty!’ is a detailed and fascinating account in which the career of the Dixie Hummingbirds is viewed in the wider context of African-American music and culture. At the opposite end of the spectrum from Ira Tucker’s frenzied stage-craft stands the substantial and imposing figure of Big Joe Turner, about whom there will be a future posting.

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