On Tuesday, a new state historic marker was unveiled in Philadelphia, at 23rd and Girard Avenue, outside the former home of James B. Davis. He founded the Dixie Hummingbirds, one of the most influential gospel groups of all time.
Davis was just 12 years old in 1918 when he formed the group in Greenville, South Carolina. In 1942 the gospel group relocated to Philadelphia where Davis bought a house at 23rd and Girard Avenue — and used it as a rehearsal space.
“He was the greatest manager that ever lived,” said the Rev. Joe Williams, 78, who used to sing in a gospel group called the Sons of the Birds before graduating, at age 45, to the Dixie Hummingbirds
“Three months I was in that same house in the front room, for three months, every night, trying to get my part. It was a hard group to be in,” he recalled.
For 10 years, Williams pushed the state to erect a marker at the site, ever since Davis died in 2007 at age 90. (The sign misstates the year of his death as 2001.)
State historic markers are issued by the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission whose board chair, Nancy Moses, said the Dixie Hummingbirds transcended their Baptist roots.
“They are the soul of music,” she said. “Their music reaches across time, cultures, and enters the human heart.”
On hand at the marker unveiling was Mayor Jim Kenney, who held up the Dixie Hummingbirds as universal role models.
“I love being Catholic,” said Kenney. “But, every now and then, a Baptist service will lift you off your feet a little bit, you know?”
(Video below features the Dixie Hummingbirds singing back up for Paul Simon’s hit “Loves Me Like a Rock.“)