The Dixie Hummingbirds, one of the most influential and enduring groups of all time, have reached an unprecedented milestone: 90 years of singing gospel music.
Making the announcement at a press conference at the African American Museum in Philadelphia, the city-based Grammy winners announced they will celebrate with a yearlong series of events throughout the city. The festivities kick off with a sold-out performance at World Cafe Live on Wednesday.
Ira Tucker Jr., leader of the legendary group, said he is looking forward to introducing the Hummingbirds to new fans.
“Traditional gospel music is not just something that people sit around for years and just clap their hands and enjoy,” he said. “This music has message, meaning it has spirit and we need you to tell it. “
Tucker’s late father, Ira Tucker Sr., became the Hummingbirds’ lead singer in 1938, when he was only 14 years old. He sang with the group until he died in 2008, at 83.
The current Hummingbirds lineup includes Lyndon Baines Jones, Torrey Nettles, Carlton Lewis, Troy Smith, Roy Smith, and Tucker.
The Dixie Hummingbirds formed in 1928 in Greenville, South Carolina. In 1942, the group relocated to Philadelphia. Founding member James B. Davis bought a house at 23rd and Girard, which the singers used as a rehearsal space. In 2017, Pennsylvania and the city commemorated the space with a historical marker.
Praised for their smooth harmonies and dazzling showmanship, the Hummingbirds are probably best known for backing up Paul Simon on his 1973 hit, “Love Me Like a Rock.” Their own version of the song earned them a Grammy for Best Soul Gospel Performance. In 2000, they were deemed a “national treasure” by the National Endowment for the Arts.
They have influenced dozens of R&B artists from Jackie Wilson to James Brown, from the Temptations to Stevie Wonder.
“Shoot, what James Brown does, I’ve been doing,” Tucker Sr. once said.
In fact, Wonder, who played the Borgata in Atlantic City over the weekend, was scheduled to join the group at Monday’s press conference. Instead, he called in to talk about their significance.
He said he listened to the Hummingbirds with his mother on the gospel AM station while growing up in Detroit.
“Along with hearing the Dixie Hummingbirds, I would hear the Staple Singers and hear Aretha Franklin at her father’s church, so it’s been a great thing to acknowledge,” Wonder said.
Philadelphia has honored its local treasure with a mural in North Philadelphia, just a few blocks away from “Dixie Hummingbirds Way” at 15th and Poplar streets. In 1988, the group received a plaque along the city’s Walk of Fame.
But Tucker Jr. said it is the spirit of the music that has sustained them.
“As different members of the group left, and others replaced them, members came in with the same feeling and drive,” he said. “And that’s what kept the group going for all of these years, that’s what keeps us going now.”
For more information about the Hummingbirds’ upcoming events go to xpngospelroots.org