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The Emergence of Gospel Quartets: Praising God in the Twentieth Century



A "Quartet" Doesn't Always Mean Four Singers

Gospel posterThe emergence of gospel quartets in rural North Carolina during the first half of the twentieth century can be traced to a number of earlier influences such as congregational and church choir singing of spirituals and hymns, the singing of traditional African-American songs while at work in the fields or with family members in the home, and the appearance of new kinds of performing groups that ranged from the Fisk Jubilee Singers and the Hampton Institute Quartette to local groups of male singers who sang in their churches and at prayer meetings. Called "quartets," the first of these Church-based groups often consisted of more (and sometimes even one person less) than four members. "Quartets," observes folklorist Glenn Hinson, "incorporated the close harmonies of workers singing in the fields, the falsetto of the hollers, the bass phrasings of the rhythmic worksongs, and the syncopated beat of congregational handclapping into a unique musical sound that is still the basis of modern gospel music."

The first local quartet remembered by the Landis family was the Rock Springs Baptist Church Usher Boy Quartet, organized in the late 1930s or early '40s by the son of the head usher of the community's oldest black congregation. The introduction of musical instruments into the church sanctuary, what Bertha Landis calls "bringing music into the church," was resisted for years by many churches as inappropriate to Sunday worship services, so the earliest quartets sang a cappella.

Bertha's Father on Music in the Church

The Rising Stars of Creedmoor
The Rising Stars of Creedmoor
"I remember," says Bertha Landis, "when a quartet couldn't go in and sing like they do now. My father (John Mangum) was a deacon of the church, a superintendent of Sunday School, and he was master of the singing. And they didn't have no type of music in the church, especially guitar music. He was so bitterly against it because when he was in the world as a sinner, that's what he played—the guitar, banjo, cornet, and everything he could get his hands on. He would play all night and dance. And that's why he didn't want it in the church. He didn't realize that when a person changes and becomes a Christian, then they dedicate whatever they play to God. You couldn't make him understand."

The liveliest of unaccompanied vocal styles developed and popularized among black
John Landis
John Landis
singers and audiences in the era between the two world wars was known as "jubilee" singing. The young Landis brothers—John, Fleming, Robert—along with a friend, Roy Braswell, began to sing regularly in one of these jubilee quartets the Rising Stars of Creedmoor (the town nearest the family's farm). "World War II and the Army," John says, "broke up the group".
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World War II and Migration to the North Affect the Southern Gospel Scene

The Dixie Hummingbirds
The Dixie Hummingbirds

Not only military service during the war, but migration out of the South by kin and friends leaving farm work for jobs in the urban North regularly depleted and rearranged the quartets of Granville County. Fleming Landis left for industrial Akron, Ohio, in 1946. Also searching for a wage-paying job, Robert Landis first joined his brother in Ohio, then his sister, Jessie Mae, who had moved to Newark, New Jersey. When formed in the late 1950s, the Golden Echoes group merged two gospel quartets that had lost several members in preceding years: the Rising Stars of Creedmoor and a group formerly known as the Nightingales of Kittrell (a community twenty milesnortheast of Creedmoor). The Nightingales had been renamed the "Golden Echoes" by one of gospel music's most widely respected groups, the Dixie Hummingbirds; when the two quartets merged, they decided to keep the new name.
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John Landis Turns Down a Place in Chicago's Soul Stirrers to Stay Home

Into the Golden Echoes from the Rising Stars came two Landis brothers, the lead singer and manager, John (b. l925), and baritone singer Claude (b. l933). Later, their nephew Kenneth Daniel (b. 1954) was added as a lead guitar player. In joining the Echoes, John Landis made a clear choice against a career of performing on the road. While still singing with the Rising Stars, Mr. Landis was offered a job with Chicago's Soul Stirrers, a nationally popular quartet who had just lost their best-known singer, Sam Cooke, to a career in rhythm and blues. "We had appeared several times with the Soul Stirrers," John Landis recalls, "and our styles were very similar. In September or October of 1957, the Soul Stirrers came to look for me in Raleigh and offered me $150 plus royalties to go on the road with them. I talked it over with my wife—we had been married two weeks—and was almost ready to go when she asked them how often I'd be home. They said two to three times a year. She told me to drop it. I gave up on going on the road right then."
John Landis
John Landis

Into the Golden Echoes from the Kittrell contingent of former Nightingales came Wilburt "Johnny" Malone (b. 1939), who plays bass guitar. The Nightingales also contributed a lead singer, Ronald Perry (b. 1941), and another singer, Luther Foster (b. 1936), who specializes in falsetto, but who is adept at singing several vocal parts. From the Kittrell community also came a later member of the Golden Echoes, Andrew Green (b. 1941), a "new man" who had been with the group only five years when we began the film. "Give him five or six more years," we were told, "and he may become a pretty good singer." In A Singing Stream, Mr. Green is seen singing "back-up." He has since begun taking his turn at singing lead.
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How the Golden Echoes Work Together

The Golden Echoes
The Golden Echoes
We wanted the film to illustrate the way in which the Golden Echoes worked on the preparation and public performance of a song. We included a rehearsal scene in John Landis's garage in which viewers glimpse the group and observe some of the cues that are used by members of the Echoes during public performances. "When we put a song together," says John Landis, "we each try the different parts, until we get the best three background voices together for it. That's why you see us moving around on stage: the baritone is always on the right, the tenor in the center, the fifth man on the left facing the stage. The lead man doesn't have a microphone stand. He holds his mike because he needs to be able to look around and communicate with the other singers and musicians. I can communicate with my hands. Each group has its own habits and ways of communicating. That's why it's complicated for a man new to the group."

The Golden Echoes
The Golden Echoes
The Golden Echoes have a marvelous sense for singing together, of anticipation, which has come from years of familiarity with one another. They give their on-stage signals in nuances that do not distract the audience from the spell of the song being sung. John may turn his head this way and that way to indicate, "My voice is getting tired. Will you take over the lead? I'll take over your baritone part." At the end of a phrase, group members will switch voices so seamlessly that a listener may not realize it. If the drummer or lead guitarist lags, John gives a modest circular hand signal. When he wants to finish a song after repetitions of a line or a refrain, he may raise fingers or simply nod. He can also signal for lead or background singers to stop while the musicians continue.
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Grandson Kenneth Daniel Brings His Guitar into Church

With the wider acceptance of drums and electric instruments (especially bass and lead guitars) in the performance of sacred music, the quartets of the post-World War II gospel era felt the influence of contemporary rhythm and blues styles as heard on radio and record and in nightclubs, as well as the lively musicianship of Holiness and Pentecostal performers. Although the youngest members of the Golden Echoes—guitar players Kenneth Daniel and Sydney Brodie, and drummer Stanley Brodie—enjoy listening to and a wide variety of secular music, the older members continue to sing and perform only religious material.

"At one time," says Bertha Landis's grandson Kenneth Daniel, "if you were in a spiritual group and you went out and played rock and roll, you were more or less condemned. People didn't want you to bring that same guitar you played with on a Saturday night into the church on Sunday. But that's changed a lot. Music is music to me. An E is an E, an F is an F whether you play it in a church or outside with a band. I've been playing in the church since I was a child, but I don't limit my music to just church music."
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Acknowledgements to: Contextual materials prepared by Allen Tullos, Daniel W. Patterson, and Tom Davenport and originally published in the North Carolina Folklore Journal, Vol.36, No. 1, Winter-Spring 1989.

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