Jefferson County, Alabama, a true crossroads of steel and song, is recognized as the birthplace and capital of a cappella gospel singing. This style of music emerged in the early 20th Century when a boom in the coal and steel industries led to a massive migration of African-American workers to Jefferson County. The workers were housed in segregated company towns and worked for meager wages. With little available recreation, they soon formed singing groups, and Jefferson County established its preeminence in the gospel world.
Although Jefferson County’s reign as a gospel center came to an end long ago, two of the oldest gospel quartets still remain in Bessemer, Alabama: The Sterling Jubilees (started in 1929 at the Bessemer Pipe Plant) and The Four Eagle Gospel Singers (started in 1938 at the U.S. Steel Plant in Fairfield, Alabama). Narrator Joe Watson has been the lead singer of The Four Eagle Gospel Singers since 1946.
Recorded in Jefferson County, Alabama. Premiered February 22, 1992, on All Things Considered.
“BIRMINGHAM SOUND” HAD PROFOUND INFLUENCE ON AMERICAN POPULAR MUSIC
by Henry Willett
In Jefferson County, Alabama, beginning in the first quarter of the twentieth century, there developed a tradition of African-American a cappella quartet singing that was to have such widespread influence on the recorded gospel music industry that numerous record companies applied “Birmingham” to recording artists who were not even from Alabama, hoping to take advantage of that city’s reputation as the heartland of gospel quartet music.
With a rich, fluid and mellow intertwining of voices, the Birmingham Sound” is a direct-line ancestor to the most popular versions of African-American harmony singing, from the Ink Spots and the Platters to the Temptations, Take Six and Boyz 2 Men.
In 1926, the Birmingham Jubilee Singers traveled from Jefferson County to record in Atlanta, after being discovered by a Columbia Records talent scout. They achieved popularity nation wide and back home through their live radio broadcasts over stations WAPI, WVRC and WJLD.
In the following two decades, a number of other Jefferson County Quartets–the Famous Blue Jay Singers, the Dunham Jubilee Singers, and the Four Great Wonders–followed in the footsteps of the Birmingham Jubilees as immensely popular recording artists. The “Birmingham Sound” was nurtured by the historical migration of African-Americans from the farm to the industrial mill and mine settlements of Jefferson County in the early twentieth century.
Quartet “trainers,” such as Charles Bridges, R. C. Foster, Son Dunham, and Gilbert Porterfield, products of music teachers from Tuskegee and Fisk, in turn taught legions of quartet singers, combining those traditional harmony lesson stressing timing and articulation with many of the more modern influences of jazz. The result was a dynamic new sound which emerged from Jefferson County’s mining camps and mills towns and became immensely popular in urban areas across the country, from New York to Los Angeles.
The “Birmingham Sound,” characterized by close harmony, a stressing of vocal attack and release, exchanging lead vocals from singer to singers, and a “pumping” rhythmic bass vocal, set the standard for gospel quartet music.
While a handful of Jefferson County quartets vigorously pursued recording and touring careers, dozens of other quartets were content to remain at home performing only on weekends. According to gospel music historian Doug Seroff, “During the 1930s and 1940s practically every block in the black neighborhoods from Dolomite to Leeds boasted at least one quartet.”
Those quartets who chose not to remain at home carried the “Birmingham Sound” far and wide. The Kings of Harmony, originally from Winona, are credited with introducing the New York area to gospel quartet. The Famous Blue Jay Singers of Birmingham, led by Silas Steele, moved to Dallas in the 1930s and Chicago in the 1940s. The Heavenly Gospel Singers of Birmingham relocated first to Cleveland and finally to Los Angeles. Legendary quartet trainer Gilbert Porterfield, who had, in the 1920s, performed with the Red Rose Quartet of Bessemer, took the “Birmingham Sound” to New Orleans where he was a gifted lead singer and arranger with the Four Great Wonders of New Orleans and the New Orleans Chosen Five.
With the emergence of popular music and rhythm-and-blues in the 1950s, and its influence on contemporary gospel, the more traditional quartet music suffered several decades of decline. However, beginning in the early 1980s, there developed a new interest in and enthusiasm for the “Birmingham Sound.”
Sparked by a 1980 Jefferson County Quartet Reunion concert organized by Doug Seroff and the Alabama State Council on the Arts, older active quartets, including the Sterling Jubilees and the Four Eagles (who, in 1994 will be celebrating their 65th and 55th anniversaries respectively) have found new audiences while inspiring younger groups, like the Birmingham Sunlights, who are bringing fresh innovations to the music.
Jefferson County’s sturdy a cappella gospel quartet heritage will be showcased at Birmingham’s City Stages Festival on June 17-19, with performances by the Sterling Jubilees, the Birmingham Sunlights, the Shelby County Big Four, the Delta-Aires and the Four Eagles.
Alabama Folkways welcomes readers’ comments and contributions. Write: Folkways, Alabama Center for Traditional Culture, 410 North Hull Street, Montgomery, AL 36104.
This documentary comes from Sound Portraits Productions, a mission-driven independent production company that was created by Dave Isay in 1994. Sound Portraits was the predecessor to StoryCorps and was dedicated to telling stories that brought neglected American voices to a national audience.