Black Vocal Groups

Some of the groups we carry got their start in Gospel music, a form that has its origins in African-American musical traditions, but others started out in what was then a new musical style – rhythm & blues. Many of these groups bridge the gap between the old-style Gospel work of late 1900s/early 20th century and the R&B of the late 20th century. If you’re interested in knowing the origins of the soulful music so popular today, experiencing a page out of musical history, or just listening to wonderful, smooth music that is a pleasure to hear.

Basin Street Boys

Ormonde Wilson and The Basin Street Boys were a vocal / instrumental group from Philadelphia. Like such contemporary 1940's (pre doo wop) vocal groups as The Cats and Fiddle and Four Vagabonds they based their style, in part, on the hugely popular Ink Spots. Working swanky nightclubs they sung a mixture of pop tunes, jazz-flavored jive novelties, ballads and occasionally injecting some blues flavor. The burbling bass sounds and floating tenor style that was to mark early 50's doo wop had not yet emerged and their contemporaries specialized in tight, clean harmony singing, sometimes baked up by fine jazz musicians. The group began recording for Exclusive Records in 1946 and enjoyed their biggest hit that year with the ballad I Sold My Heart To The Junkman which enjoyed chart success. They broke up in 1951. Recordings


The Charioteers

The Charioteers were a black vocal group formed in Ohio in 1930 by Billy Williams (1911-72). By 1937 the group consisted of Williams (lead tenor), Eddie Jackson (second tenor), Ira Williams (baritone), Howard Daniel (bass) and James Sherman (piano). They recorded mostly negro spirituals for the Vocalion label until they signed with Columbia in 1940. Columbia wanted to remake the group into a pop rival to Decca's Ink Spots. Soon the Charioteers were in the pop music charts with their recording of Russ Morgan's 1940 song "So Long." Although they never achieved the phenomenal success of the Ink Spots, the Charioteers' gospel-pop sound did produce a total of 7 hits of their own in the 1940s and two more in support of other artists.

The Charioteers became regulars on Bing Crosby's Kraft Music Hall during the fall 1942 season. They stayed with Bing on the radio throughout most of the next 5 years, including the first season of the Philco show. Although the Charioteers did not commercially record with Bing (they were under contract to different record companies), they did record with other top vocalists, and produced two top 30 hits with Sinatra and Buddy Clark. Recordings


Delta Ryhthm Boys

Formed in 1934 at Langston University, Oklahoma the original line-up of the group was bass Lee Gaines, baritone Kelsey Pharr, first tenor lead Carl Jones, second tenor Traverse Crawford, and pianist/arranger Rene DeKnight. The Delta Rhythm Boys exuded a classy elegance and sophistication that made them the most renowned and respected of the 40s groups who sang a blend of jubilee, pop and swing. In 1936 the group transferred to Dillard University in New Orleans, Louisiana, and began singing under the name Frederick Hall Quintet, after their mentor, the school's musical director. By 1938 the group had made it to New York and were appearing in Broadway shows such as Sing Out The News and The Hot Mikado as the Delta Rhythm Boys During 1941 they had success with two of their most memorable recordings, "Dry Bones" and "Take The 'A' Train", and also with recordings backing Mildred Bailey. The Delta Rhythm Boys also appeared in films for Universal during 1943-45. In 1945 the group were established on radio in programmes including Amos And Andy and The Joan Davis Show. In 1945 Decca teamed the Deltas with Ella Fitzgerald for some notable recordings. Recordings


Dixie Hummingbirds

They had a regular show over WCAU radio and a long term engagement at Cafe Society, a New York City night club, where they were billed as the Jericho Quartet. The Hummingbirds' popularity began to grow -- Tucker, in particular, wowed audiences with his flamboyant theatrics, rejecting the long tradition of "flat-footed" singers rooted in place on stage in favor of running up the aisles and rocking prayerfully on his knees. By 1944, he was even regularly jumping off stages -- indeed, the frenetic showmanship of soul music may have had its origins in Tucker's manic intensity, itself an emulation of country preaching. At the same time, the Hummingbirds' harmonies continued to grow more sophisticated; the addition of Paul Owens completed the quartet's development, and together he and Tucker honed a style they dubbed "trickeration," a kind of note-bending distinguished by sensual lyrical finesse and staggering vocal intricacy. Their virtuosity did not go unnoticed by audiences, and throughout the mid-1940s -- an acknowledged golden age of a cappella quartet singing -- the group regularly played to packed houses throughout the south.

The Dixie Hummingbirds were formed in Greenville, South Carolina in 1928 by James B. Davis, who had a vision of a group of talented men who would commit to praising the Lord in song. They sang in unique, highly defined harmonies, in a style of music, which was termed "jubilee." They became the pioneers of the Gospel quartet sound that later would cross over into many genres of music, and are regarded as the greatest Southern quartet of their time. Recordings


Five Red Caps

The group began in 1940 Los Angeles, moving to New York in search of fame and fortune and were one of the most prolific and influential groups of the 1940s and 1950s. They had releases on many labels, using many names and featuring diverse personnel. In mid-1943 the 4 Toppers changed their name to the 5 Red Caps and signed with the legendary producer Joe Davis. Romaine Brown said that the name had a catchy sound and it "sounded black," like the "Ink Spots." Red caps (the traditional headgear of baggage handlers on trains and planes) were rarely worn by the group (possibly only for some photo sessions, during a show at Loew's State Theater, and in a 1949 movie). Springs said that another reason for the name change was to get around the recording ban imposed at that time by the American Federation Of Musicians (the first Petrillo Ban). No union musician was permitted to make records between August 1, 1942 and November of 1943. The Red Caps name was intended as a coverup, since all the members belonged to the union and shouldn't have been recording. But it was soon discovered by the union, which fined the group. Recordings


The Flamingos

Cousins Jacob Carey (Jake) and Ezikial Carey (Zeke) formed the group in Chicago, Illinois, after meeting Paul David Wilson and Johnny Carter at a black Jewish church. Earl Lewis soon joined, and after a series of name changes (The Swallows, El Flamingos, The Five Flamingos) wound up being known as The Flamingos. Sollie McElroy soon replaced Lewis (who joined The Five Echoes). Their first single (for Chance Records), "If I Can't Have You", was a moderate success, and the follow-ups "That's My Desire" and "Golden Teardrops" cemented their reputation. They left Chance Records sometime after their December 1953 session and signed with DJ Al Benson's Parrot Records. Sollie McElroy was on their first Parrot session, but left the group in December 1954, to be replaced by first tenor Nate Nelson (who was on their second Parrot session; he's lead on "I'm Yours," released in January 1955). In early 1955, the Flamingos transferred over to Chess Records, to record for their Checker subsidiary. They started to have national R&B hits in 1956 ("I'll Be Home," "A Kiss From Your Lips," "The Vow," "Would I Be Crying"), but both Zeke Carey and Johnny Carter were drafted (Johnny in September). They were also part of the 1956 Alan Freed movie Rock, Rock, Rock. Zeke Carey passed away in 2001, and Tommy Hunt returned to sing lead. James Faison entered shortly thereafter, making the group a sextet. Terry Johnson leads his own group of Flamingos. The Flamingos were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2000 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001. Recordings


Four Blazes

Born in the hot string jam sessions that filled Chicago night-life in the waning years of the Depression, the Four Blazes brought vitality and showmanship to the early years of rhythm &blues.  In 1937 Jelly Holt and guitarist James Bennett were playing the street corners with a quintet called the Five Rhythm Rocketeers.  One of the admiring passers-by was impresario Joe Glaser, who had just opened his new Grand Terrace Ballroom on East 35th and Calumet.  Glaser brought the Rocketeers into the Ballroom for a long-term engagement, during which they played with and around Earl Hines, Valaida Snow, and dancer-composer Shelton Brooks. When Glaser moved into the booking field, he set up a European tour for Earl Heins, and the Five Rhythm Rocketeers went along.  Upon their return in 1938, the group decided to break up.  Jelly holt stayed in the mainstream of Chicago night-life, working with small combos and associating with the cream of the musical crop.  As a result, by 1940, the Four Blazes were born.  With their firm foundation in the Chicago night-life of the 1930s, their part in the development of R&B in the 1940s, and their distinctive "Chicago style," the Four Blazes made an indispensable contribution to American music. Recordings


Four Knights

Most black gospel groups that sang in the ‘40s or ‘50s and then changed their musical direction, changed it to rhythm and blues.  The Four Knights, however, were a refined gospel group that became a refined pop blues group. Actually they started out in 1943 as the Southland Jubilee Singers in Charlotte, North Carolina.  The membership included Gene Alford (lead), John Wallace (second tenor and guitar), and Oscar Broadway (bass). By 1944 Oscar had brought in a baritone he knew, Clarence Dixon, and the lineup was set.  Their soft and breezy harmonies drew immediate attention and the group made its debut on NBC’s affiliate WSOC-Charlotte radio. In six months they moved up to CBS’s mega power station, the 50,000-watt WBT-Charlotte.  The quartet replaced the Southern Sons on the station’s “Carolina Hay Ride” show, a popular program that attracted one listener in particular, Cy Langois of Long-Worth Transcriptions.  He signed the group to management.

In 1951 they brought their soft harmony to Capitol Records and began with “I Love the Sunshine of Your Smile” (#23).  They also began covering R&B and pop artists on songs like “The Glory of Love” (THE 5 KEYS), “Sin” (THE FOUR ACES), which they took to number 14, and their biggest pop cover record at number eight in 1953, “Oh Happy Day” (Don Howard). The group’s biggest hit came in 1954 when “I Get So Lonely When I Think About You (Oh Baby Mine)” reached number two and ran for 24 weeks, even becoming a smash in England at number five, a tough thing for a black American group to do in 1954.  The Pat Ballard-penned original was so popular in England that when it fell off the charts it resurfaced the following month (July), reaching number 10. Recordings


Four Vagabonds

The Four Vagabonds were radio stars of the early and mid 1940s. As 50's vocal harmony lovers will tell you, the Four Vagabonds are grandfathers of R&B harmony. Their 1946 Apollo recording sessions links them to R&B recording history. Surprisingly, many educated black music fans are completely unaware of the Vagabonds. They sang popular songs, which some blues-oriented listeners may find challenging. Regardless of the repertoire, the Four Vagabonds were expert practitioners of improvisational harmony singing. The balance of their harmony is an extraordinary thing, the evenness of the four voices. The singers' pitch is exceptionally accurate, especially lead vocalist John Jordan. The Four Vagabonds' mastery of "barbershop chord" construction is evident in many stunning touches, most particularly the "instrumental choruses," which add another dimension to the Four Vagabonds' art. Objectively, their horn imitations is impressive not because it sounds so much like a brass band, but because the Vagabonds manage to make it gorgeous beyond description.

In more ways than one, the Four Vagabonds bridge the gap between 1930s vocal quartet jive and R&B vocal groups of the Post-WWII era. Their commercially recorded repertoire makes it clear their real stock-in-trade was the haunting romantic harmony ballads such as "I Had The Craziest Dream," "If I Were You" and "Taking My Chance With You." The best of these can truly be described as classics of American folk and popular music. Even seemingly sappy songs take on spirituals proportions when submitted to the Vagabonds' quartet harmony arrangements. Recordings


Golden Gate Quartet

Pioneer Virginia gospel/pop quartet of the '30s and '40s. Calling their innovative approach to sacred hymns "jubilee" singing, The Golden Gate Quartet, propelled by Willie Johnson and William Langford, enjoyed massive acceptance far outside the church. Their smooth Mills Brothers-influenced harmonies made The Gates naturals for pop crossover success, and they began recording for Victor in 1937. National radio broadcasts and an appearance on John Hammond's 1938 "Spirituals to Swing" concert at Carnegie Hall made them coast-to-coast favorites. By 1941 The Gates were recording for Columbia minus Langford, and movie appearances were frequent: Star Spangled Rhythm, Hollywood Canteen, and Hit Parade of 1943, to name a few. Some experiments with R&B material didn't pan out during the late '40s, and Johnson defected to The Jubilaires in 1948. The group emigrated to France in 1959; led by veteran bass singer Orlando Wilson. Recordings


Ink Spots

The Ink Spots played a large role in pioneering the Black vocal group-harmony genre, helping to pave the way for the doo-wop explosion of the '50s. The quavering high tenor of Bill Kenny presaged hundreds of street-corner leads to come, and the sweet harmonies of Carlie Fuqua, Deek Watson, and bass Hoppy Jones (who died in 1944) backed him flawlessly.

Kenny's impeccable diction and Jones's deep drawl were both prominent on the Ink Spots' first smash on Decca in 1939, the sentimental "If I Didn't Care." From then through 1951, the group was seldom absent from the pop charts, topping the lists with "We Three (My Echo, My Shadow, and Me)" (1940), "I'm Making Believe" and "Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall" (both in 1944), and "The Gypsy" and "To Each His Own" (both in 1946). Watson eventually split to form his own group, the Brown Dots, and appeared in numerous low-budget film musicals, while Kenny attempted a solo career, notching a solo hit in 1951 with the uplifting "It Is No Secret." Countless groups masquerading as the Ink Spots have thrived across the nation since the '50s. Recordings


Mills Brothers

An astonishing vocal group that grew into one of the longest-lasting oldies acts in American popular music, the Mills Brothers quickly moved from novelty wonders to pop successes and continued amazing audiences for decades. Originally billed as "Four Boys and a Guitar," the group's early records came complete with a note assuring listeners that the only musical instrument they were hearing was a guitar. The caution was understandable, since the Mills Brothers were so proficient at recreating trumpets, trombones, and saxophones with only their voices that early singles like "Tiger Rag" and "St. Louis Blues" sounded closer to a hot Dixieland combo than a vocal group. And even after the novelty wore off, the group's intricate harmonies continued charming audiences for decades.

The four brothers were all born in Piqua, Ohio -- John, Jr. in 1910, Herbert in 1912, Harry in 1913, and Donald in 1915. Their father owned a barber shop and founded a barbershop quartet as well, called the Four Kings of Harmony. His sons obviously learned their close harmonies first-hand, and began performing around the area. At one show, Harry Mills forgot his kazoo -- the group's usual accompaniment -- and ended up trying to emulate the instrument by cupping his hand over his mouth. The brothers were surprised to hear the sound of a trumpet proceeding from Harry's mouth, so they began to work the novelty into their act -- with John taking tuba, Donald trombone, and Herbert a second trumpet. The act was perfect for vaudeville, and the Mills Brothers also began broadcasting over a Cincinnatti radio station during the late '20s. Recordings


The Orioles

This highly influential vocal group was formed in 1948 in Baltimore, Maryland, USA. Along with the Ravens, the Orioles were considered the pioneers of rhythm and blues vocal harmony. The group members were Sonny Til (b. Earlington Carl Tilghman, 18 August 1928, Baltimore, Maryland, USA, d. 9 December 1981, USA; lead), Alexander Sharp (b. 1919, Baltimore, Maryland, USA, d. 1970; tenor), George Nelson (b. Baltimore, Maryland, USA, d. 1959; baritone), Johnny Reed (b. 16 July 1923, Baltimore, Maryland, USA, d. 18 June 2005, Lakewood, New Jersey, USA; bass) and guitarist/second tenor Tommy Gaither (b. Baltimore, Maryland, USA, d. 5 November 1950, USA). Originally known as the Vibra-Naires, the group (with original bass vocalist Richard Williams) made their debut on the Manor label in March 1948 with the track "Tell Me So". The newly renamed Orioles (to honour the state bird of Maryland) launched their career with the quiet, languorous ballad "It's Too Soon To Know", which went to number 1 in the R&B charts (number 13 pop) in late 1948. The song was written by Deborah Chessler, the group's manager, and she wrote many of their subsequent hits. Recordings


Pilgrim Travelers

The Pilgrim Travelers were formed by Joe Johnson and the Davis brothers in Houston in the early 1930's. By 1942, the group had moved to Los Angeles and was joined by Kylo Turner and Keith Barber. In the early years they mimicked the style of the Golden Gates' jubilee and the Soul Stirrers' gospel. Eventually the excellence of their leads set them apart. In 1945, J. W. Alexander joined the group and became their manager. Under Alexander, the group became more flamboyant in their showmanship often wrecking the churches they sang in, while charming the women. In 1947 the group made some records for small L.A. labels. Later that year Art Rupe signed them to Specialty Records just after they got a new baritone, Jesse Whitaker. Rupe created one of the first companies to nurture African-American gospel music. Originally, the Pilgrim Travelers were recorded a cappella. Eventually, the floor was miked to pick up their percussive foot tapping which was marketed as walking rhythm spirituals. The group enjoyed immense popularity as a result. Between 1947 and 1956, the Pilgrim Travelers recorded over a hundred sides on Specialty. During their reign, they influenced such singers as Ray Charles, Lou Rawls and Sam Cooke. Though the members of the group have faded from memory, their musical legacy will live on. Recordings


The Ravens

Among the premiere "bird" groups, the Ravens ranked just behind the Orioles as a major R&B ensemble. They included a virtuoso bass vocalist in Jimmy Ricks, who has influenced many other singers, including the Temptations' Melvin Franklin. Ollie Jones, Leonard Puzey, and Warren Suttles were the other original members. They began on Hub in 1946. Maithe Marshall replaced Jones later that year. The group's tenor/bass contrast became very influential among vocal groups. Despite their brilliance, the Ravens didn't have a single number one R&B hit in their careers, although they had eight Top Ten singles from 1948 until 1952 for National, King, and Mercury. Their most successful were "Write Me a Letter" in 1948 and "Send for Me If You Need Me," although "Ol' Man River," with Ricks' magnificent bass vocal, might be their finest. The group began touring on what would become the legendary chitlin circuit, a series of theatre venues on the East Coast and in the Midwest in which thousands of rhythm and blues groups would perform. From the Uptown and Earl Theatres in Philadelphia, the Howard in Washington, the Royal in Baltimore, the Regal in Chicago, the Syria Mosque in Pittsburgh, and the State in Hartford to the crown jewel of theatres, the Apollo in New York, the Ravens blazed a trail for thousands of vocal groups. Recordings


Soul Stirrers

One of the most popular and influential gospel groups of the 20th century, The Soul Stirrers were pioneers in the development of the quartet style of gospel and, without intending it, in the creation of soul music, the secular music that owed much to gospel. The group was formed by Roy Crain, who had launched his first quartet, which sang in a jubilee style, in 1926 in Trinity, Texas. In the early 1930s, after Crain moved to Houston, he joined an existing group on the condition that it change its name to "The Soul Stirrers." Among the members of that group was R.H. Harris, who soon became its musical leader. Harris, also from Trinity, Texas, brought several changes to the Soul Stirrers that affected gospel quartet singing generally. He used a falsetto style that may have its antecedents in African music, but which was new to the popular jubilee singing style of the time. He pioneered the "swing lead", in which two singers would share the job of leading the song, allowing virtuoso singers to increase the emotional intensity of the song as the lead passed between them. That innovation led the Soul Stirrers, while still called a quartet, to acquire five members; later groups would have as many as seven but still consider themselves "quartets", which referred more to their style than their number. Recordings


Swan Silvertones

The Swan Sivertones were a gospel group that achieved great popularity in the 1940s and 1950s while led by Claude Jeter, who formed the group in 1938 as the "Four Harmony Kings" while working as a coal miner in West Virginia. The group changed its name to the "Silvertone Singers" after moving to Knoxville, Tennessee and obtaining their own radio show in order to avoid confusion with another group known as the "Four Kings of Harmony". They added the name Swan shortly thereafter since Swan Bakeries sponsored their show. Their wide exposure through radio brought them a contract with King Records

At that point the Silvertones represented an amalgam of two styles: the close barbershop harmonies that they had featured when starting out in West Virginia and virtuoso leads supplied by Jeter and Solomon Womack. The group later lost Womack, but added Paul Owens in 1952 and Louis Johnson in 1955. The three singers with their sharply contrasting styles — Jeter a tenor who could sing falsetto withut losing his lyric control, Owens a crooner and Johnson a hard shouter — played off each other to great effect in songs such as "Mary Don't You Weep". The group recorded for Specialty Records from 1951 to 1955, when it switched to Vee-Jay Records. The group recorded one album with Hob Records after Vee-Jay shut down in 1965, at which point Jeter left the group for the ministry. Recordings


Swallows

Collectors have made the Swallows one of the most beloved of R&B groups. Their haunting ballads and risqué up-tempo novelties are perennial favorites. The origin of The Swallows goes back to 1946, when a bunch of 13-year-olds from Baltimore formed a group called the “Oakaleers.” The members were: Lawrence Coxson (lead tenor), Irving Turner (tenor and baritone), Earl Hurley (first and second tenor and bongos), Norris “Bunky” Mack (bass, piano, guitar, and drums), and another tenor named Gavin. They were thus a self-contained unit in terms of vocals and instrumental accompaniment.

The Oakaleers practiced on street corners for a couple of years. Then, around 1948, they ran into a couple of guys who also sang on the corner: Eddie Rich (first tenor) and Frederick “Money Guitar” Johnson (baritone and guitar). (Rich and Johnson were childhood friends and eventual brothers-in-law.) Interestingly, Johnson, a lefty, taught himself to play a right-handed guitar held upside down. Eddie and Money became friendly with Earl, and ultimately ended up joining the Oakaleers in place of Gavin and Coxson (although Coxson was occasionally used as a fill-in at personal appearances over the years). Now the Oakaleers were Eddie Rich, Bunky Mack, Money Johnson, Earl Hurley, and Irving Turner.Then, one day, Eddie mentioned to Earl that he had a friend that sometimes sang with them and who also wrote songs: second tenor and baritone Herman “Junior” Denby. Earl asked Eddie to bring Junior around and that meeting led to Junior being hired the same day. Recordings


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