Black Gospel Quartets

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Cleveland Colored Quartet

Quartet singing dates back to before the turn of the century, and some of the earliest recorded music features quartets. Early quartet music was most often performed "a capella" or without instruments. As quartet singing  developed and grew in popularity in the late 1940's-50's, groups began adding light instrumentation, often a single guitar. The emphasis  however, was always on the voices. The earlier "Jubilee" style, typified by The Golden Gate Quartet, usually featured ensemble harmony singing or a single lead singer over a group backing, often in a call and response pattern. In the late 40's and early 50's a "harder" type of quartet style emerged, utilizing multiple lead singers within a song and with a generally more emotionally charged background. And if you've already skipped ahead to the pictures, you will realize that the term quartet, as used here, does not always strictly refer to a group of four. While many quartets were literal quartets, the term became used to describe the style of small group singing, rather than the actual number of singers.

Golden Gate Quartet

The "Gates" in 1994 at UGHA award ceremony.

(L-R Paul Brembley, Orlandus Wilson, Clyde Wright, Clyde Riddick)

The Golden Gate Quartet

The Golden Gate Quartet, probably the most famous of all gospel groups, got their start in Norfolk, VA in 1934.While attending Booker T. Washington High School, Henry Owens and Willie Johnson joined with A.C. Griffin and bass singer Robert "Peg" Ford ( so named because of a missing leg) to form the Gates.  Originally the group was known as The Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet, which was indicative of their style. The "Golden Gate" referred to would no doubt be a heavenly one and not a reference to the San Francisco bridge. Griffin left the group in 1935, and was replaced by William Langford. Orlandus Wilson took Ford's spot in 1936. After establishing themselves regionally by touring and doing some radio work, the group was signed to Bluebird Records, a division of RCA . Their first two hour recording session in August, 1937 yielded an incredible 14 sides. In 1938, the group appeared on John Hammond's "Spirituals to Swing" concert at Carnegie Hall. By 1939 Clyde Riddick had replaced Bill Langford , which was about the same time the group shifted their residence to NYC. Conrad Frederick joined the quartet as a pianist and became a mainstay of the group. As their popularity grew, they attracted the attention of Franklin D. Roosevelt and wife Eleanor, which led to them singing for his 1941 inauguration, as well as subsequent White House appearances. Mid 1941 saw a shift to the Okeh label, where they stayed for the remainder of the war years. During this period they recorded some war related songs including the 1943 releases of "Coming In On A Wing And A Prayer" and "Stalin wasn't Stallin' ". Toward the late 50's, the group was finding a better reception to their music in europe and thus shifted home base again, this time to Paris. The group also made it onto the silver screen, appearing in several films including A Song Is Born, Star Spangled Rhythm , and Hollywood Canteen . The Gates are  still performing and remain extremely popular in Europe. Some of the great singers who have been with the Gates include Alton Bradley, Paul Brembly, Orville Brooks, Robert Ford, Caleb Ginyard, Cliff Givens, A.C. Griffin, Willie Johnson, Bill Langford, Gene Mumford , Henry Owens, Clyde Riddick, Calvin Williams, Orlandus Wilson and Clyde Wright.

Famous Blue Jay Singers

The Famous Blue Jay Singers

The Famous Bluejay Singers of Birmingham, who recorded ten titles for Paramount in 1932, were a jubilee quartet whose members were Silas Steele, Charles Beale, James Hollingsworth and Clarence Parnell. Birmingham and Jefferson County, Alabama area enjoyed one of the richest of all vocal quartet traditions. The original Famous Blue Jays of Birmingham cut only ten titles but several of these became highly popular and were re-released on the Crown, Decca, Champion, Varsity and Joe Davis labels after the demise of Paramount in 1934. By 1940 Bridges had left Birmingham for Chicago and had joined with three of the original Blue Jays, Beale, Hollingsworth. and Steele, to form The Blue Jay Gospel Singers. By 1950, Steele had departed to join the Spirit Of Memphis and the three senior members all around 50 years of age at this point, added two relative youngsters, David Davney (34) and the blind Leandrew Wafford (31) to fill out the group. W.D. Andrews, baritone and manager for the St. Andrews Gospelaires, first met Bridges and the Blue Jays in Jackson, MS in the early 40’s. For years, whenever they were touring through the area, the Blue Jays stayed at Andrews’ home. Andrews recollected:

“Charles Bridges used to make my place headquarters whenever he’d come south here, and they ate many a meal and stayed many a night with me. Several songs that they sang, we admired them, so whenever he’d be fooling around in the daytime and not going to a program anywhere, we would get into them, you know, and they helped us a whole lot. And Beale, he was the baritone singer; he was a lot of help to us, too. Bridges admired my group. He gave us credit for what we do.Of course, I couldn’t touch him you know, but the thing about it, I wasn’t expected to do that. But he wasn’t ashamed of us.”

Andrews frequently booked the Blue Jays onto programs with the Gospelaires. Bridges’ stature and influence in the local quartet scene was legendary. The Blue Jays were signed to an exclusive Trumpet recording contract on September 1, 1951. However, only two sides eventually saw release: Bridges’ own Shall I Meet You Over Yonder along with the traditional Pilgrim Of Sorrow.

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