Silas Steele

Born: 1913 Brighton, AL

Vocals Blue Jay Singers

Source: Alabama Music Hall of Fame


...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."...




Tony Cummings looks at the music and history of the groundbreaking group SPIRIT OF MEMPHIS QUARTET

Spirit Of Memphis

In the long history of gospel music, the Spirit Of Memphis Quartet are considered one of the finest and most influential groups ever to travel the Gospel Highway. They began as sedately cool harmonisers in the 'jubilee' style of the '20s and '30s, reached their apex in the early '50s when their 'church wrecking' style would literally leave dozens in the congregations 'falling out' through the power of the Spirit, and in the '60s featured in their personnel singers like Joe Hinton who was to find fleeting fame as a secular soul singer.

The humble beginnings of the group date back to 1927-28. in an interview James Darling told author/researcher Kip Lornell that the original group consisted of Darling, Burt Perkins, Arthur Wright and Arthur Wight who got together to sing at a house at Looney and Second Streets in Memphis, Tennessee. They chose the name the TM&S Quartet by taking the initials of the three churches the group members attended - The Tree Of Life, Mount Olive and St Matthew's Baptist. In his liner notes of the Spirit Of Memphis album 'Traveling On' blues and gospel expert David Evans states that the original group members included Arthur Wright, A C Harris, Forrest Terrell and James Darling and were soon joined by James Peoples, Luther McGill and Robert White. As the sleevenote of Spirit Of Memphis' 'Happy In The Service Of The Lord' states, "With various singers passing in and out of a group at its formative stage, remembering who was present at the start is a matter of undocumented memory."

Not surprisingly, the dull TM&S Quartet name proved unsatisfactory and in 1930 a group meeting was called to decide on a new moniker. As it turned out it was Charles Lindbergh's 1927 flight across the Atlantic in the plane Spirit Of St Louis which was to be the inspiration for the new name. In the book Happy In The Service Of The Lord: Afro-American Gospel Quartets In Memphis by Kip Lornell, group member James Darling remembered: "The night we had to bring in some names, I hadn't thought up a name until we got almost to [the house at] Looney and Second Street. That's where we were meeting, at Burt Perkins's house. I had a pocket handkerchief, had the Spirit Of St Louis in the corner. That's where the name really originated. I put down the Spirit Of Memphis from this Spirit Of St Louis pocket handkerchief, you know, the design in the corner."

By the late '30s professional gospel groups such as the Soul Stirrers and the Famous Blue Jay Singers were coming to play the city of Memphis and these had a huge influence on the local gospel aggregations. The Spirit Of Memphis Quartet became one of the most respected quartets in and around Memphis. During the Second World War its members continued to travel to the surrounding States for weekend gospel programmes. When travel restrictions eased around 1945 they were eager to increase their out-of-town engagements and James Darling rejoined the group to facilitate this. He told Kip Lornell, "I am the man that started them travelling. I [could] book them all over the country and that's one of the reasons that the Spirit Of Memphis wanted me to take them over. . . the connections that I had across the country from booking my wife's group [the Songbirds Of The South]. I finally agreed after Elizabeth talked me into it. I booked 'em with the Fairfield Four. . .[and] quite often with Mr Harris in Detroit, the Shields Brothers in Cleveland, all those different groups."

Darling added another significant facet to the group when alternating lead singers Silas Steele and Willmer 'Little Axe' Broadnax were brought into the fold. Darling recalled that Steele and Little Axe were fully blended into the group by early 1948. "Silas Steele had talked with me long distance and told me that his fellows was getting old and not well. They couldn't go on the road anymore and he didn't know nothing but singing, had never did nothing else. He asked me if I thought I could get him with the Spirit Of Memphis. . . So I talked with the boys and they said yes. It was 'bout six months after that I got Little Axe, when we were in Pittsburgh. Bledsoe had done all the leading and I wanted to get him some help."

Silas Steele was already a gospel legend, his appearances and recordings with the Famous Blue Jay Singers paving the way for all the "hard" quartets and soul singers that were to follow in the coming decades. In his book The Gospel Sound, Anthony Heilbut wrote, "The Blue Jays emphasized intense, low harmonies. Because they kept things in the basement, they come across roaring like lions, not whistling like birds or yowling like cats, the standard animal analogies for later quartet singers. Their hits 'Canaan Land' and 'Standing Out On The Highway' contained dialogues between the two leads, Charlie Bridges and Silas Steele, that would erupt in frenzied syncopations always swallowed up, as it were, by the bass harmonies. Bridges had the calibrated delivery of an ex-vaudevillian (he was), but Steele's preacher shouts may be the most impassioned of any quartet lead on records. His habit of rephrasing words ('over there, O-ver there, over THERE, way over there') duplicates a standard preacher tactic, but I haven't heard anybody do it on records before him. In his masterpiece, 'Sign Of The Judgment', an old Dr Watts hymn, Steel sings, 'Can't you hear God calling/Calling by the thunder/He formed the world on a wonder,' and the voice is thunder and wonder itself, the Burning Bush in song."

If Steele was an incredible addition to the Spirit Of Memphis Quartet lineup so too was Willmer 'Little Axe' Broadnax. Born in 1916 and raised in Houston the singer's name has at different times been credited Wilmer, Wilmur and Wilbur. With his brother William C Broadnax, known as Big Axe, Little Axe sang in the St Paul Gospel Singers in Houston before William relocated to Los Angeles and joined the Southern Gospel Singers. This group had been formed in the early '40s by A L Johnson who had been the manager with the Soul Stirrers. Little Axe soon joined the Southern Gospel Singers. Their lead singer, J W Alexander, was later to find fame with the Soul Stirrers. The Southern Gospel Singers recorded two records in 1939 and 1940 for the fledgling Bronze Record Company while Little Axe was with them. But all the group members with the exception of Little Axe had day jobs so chances of touring were restricted. Little Axe left to form The Golden Echoes, a group well remembered by other singers as one of the top touring groups of the time who recorded for several different labels and had in their personnel one of gospel's great bass singers, Jimmy Ricks. In 1949 Little Axe joined the Spirit Of Memphis Quartet who had turned professional in 1947. In 1948 another giant of gospel, the sanctified tenor Robert Crenshaw joined the group and who was to find even greater fame with the Five Blind Boys Of Alabama and the Swan Silvertones. Another new member of the group was Brother Theo "Bless My Bones" Wade who had sung in the Mount Olive Wonders in the late 1920s and had initially joined the Spirit Of Memphis as manager, booking agent and inspirational organiser for the group.

That same year, 1948, Theo cornered a staff job at WDIA where he started out with a 30-minute spot. An on-air joke has it that the Spirit Of Memphis only kept Theo on because he had a big enough car. In reality, Theo really put the Spirit Of Memphis on the map. His WDIA gospel programme, Hallelujah Jubilee, started in 1949. The show ran seven to nine on weekdays and Saturday nights and became increasingly popular during the 1950s. In early 1949 the group was noticed by T Wesley Puckett at a concert in Birmingham, Alabama. Puckett produced a record on the group, label copied as the Memphis Gospel Singers, for his newly founded Hallelujah Spirituals label based in Birmingham. The two songs, cut at radio station WJLD, were Faye Ernestine Brown's "Happy In The Service Of The Lord" and "How May Times". More tracks were cut at the sessions.

The recordings via De Luxe ended up in the hands of King Records mogul Syd Nathan who controlled the rights to the De Luxe label once owned by the Braun Bros, in New Jersey. During the spring of 1949 Nathan issued a second version on De Luxe of "(I'm) Happy In The Service Of The Lord" with the group still going by the name Memphis Gospel Singers. "My Life Is In His Hands" was chosen for the underside. Although the record sold well, Syd Nathan, who cared little for black quartet at the time, failed to issue a followup.

Meanwhile, Theo got the group into the WDIA Memphis studios and cut a series of transcriptions from live radio broadcasts. Why these recordings were not made commercially available until they turned up in 1990 on a Swedish Gospel Jubilee album, 'Happy In The Service Of The Lord", is a mystery.

With three great lead voices, Jethroe Bledsoe, Silas Steele and Little Axe, the group were now an unstoppable creative and spiritual force. Shortly before Christmas 1949 the Spirit Of Memphis, now signed exclusively to King Records, cut the first of six sessions in Cincinnati, the results of which included a bass-driven workout of "He Never Left Me Alone", a beautifully blended "Blessed Are The Dead" and an utterly riveting "The Day Is Passed And Gone". In the very first issue of Cross Rhythms magazine it was described thus: "This 78 from the Eisenhower era is one of the most spine-tingling otherworldly recordings ever put out for popular music consumption. Acappella, it consists of three awesome elements: lugubrious lead bluesily intoning a blunt declaration of faith with enough melisma and blue notes to make your average blues enthusiast go ga-ga; a rasped sermonette hoarsely exhorting Christians to keep going over "the rough side of the mountain"; and an eerie drone of precisely-harmonised 'oohs'." "The Day Is Passed And Gone" was later acknowledged as the first gospel recording to include a mini-sermon in its structure.

By 1950 the Spirit Of Memphis had become one of the highest paid quartets in the professional ranks, commanding as much as $200 each week. Breaking from tradition, Memphis-based quartets took on the gospel compositions of Memphis songwriters such as those of Rev W Herbert Brewster and Lucie E Campbell. To counter the gloom of the Cold War, quartets started going out in brightly coloured suits, developed fancy choreography and created programmes that highlighted quartet competition to fill seats. Tonality became the key to success.

On a programme fixed for Sunday afternoon, 4th December 1950 at Chicago's Du Sable high, a roster including the Spirit Of Memphis, Pilgrim Travelers and Soul Stirrers devastated the school gymnasium crowd. Taking the sale of advance tickets into their own hands, the Soul Stirrers alone sold 1,500 tickets for a dollar a pop.

Two King sessions were fulfilled in 1950. The first took place on 10th May and produced the triumphant harmonies of Brewster's "How Far Am I From Canaan", the soulfully conveyed "Calvary" and the incomparable "I'll Never Forget". The 9th December date rendered the picturesque "Automobile To Glory" (with James Keels sitting in for bass singer Earl Malone). A session in May 1951 yielded the beautifully harmonized "Every Day And Every Hour" with a spice of sermonizing added to heighten tension. "Sign Of The Judgment", also recorded at this date, fully demonstrated how close the quartet's vocal back grounding could gel. The 18th August date produced, among others, the disarming "Tell Heaven I'm Coming" and "Ease My Troubled Mind". This date finds Earl Malone returned to the group and in tip top form.


In June 1952 WDIA's daily radio format began to include live broadcasts during the morning hours sponsored by Gold Medal Flour. The Spirit Of Memphis regularly filled the 10:00 to 10:15am slot. Such live presentations continued well into the 1950s. The station also sponsored the Hallelujah Jubilee Caravan. Stellar groups like the Spirit Of Memphis were bussed down to Mississippi or up to Tennessee to perform at a hall or auditorium. Theo served as MC and WDIA would lease the bus and pay for barbecue box lunches.

The group's final King session was set for 10th July 1952. Six titles were conveyed to tape. These included the infectious "Jesus Brought Me" and the spirit-moving "Just To Behold His Face" which touches the soul with its sympathetic narrative. On 7th October 1952 the Spirit Of Memphis were recorded at the 7,000 seat Mason's Temple in Memphis. Shortly before Christmas that same year King Records issued the live "Lord Jesus" in two parts. King Records again took a gamble by issuing not a gospel song as such by a quartet known for its vocal dynamics but a live sermon supported by little except the old church moan. But Syd Nathan needed not to have worried as the release caught notice and sold well in gospel markets nationwide. Demand for the Spirit Of Memphis recordings brought additional work which interfered with their radio commitments. They often had to cancel conflicting radio programmes in favour of well-paying gigs.

Recording-wise though the Spirit Of Memphis were being woefully exploited. Syd Nathan paid the group a small up-front fee for each recording session but no royalties. In late 1952 Spirit Of Memphis signed with Duke/Peacock Records, the Houston-based label run by black entrepreneur Don Robey. The association with Pacock and Robey proved to be long and fruitful, lasting from 1953 until their final 1967 session. The first two years proved to be their brightest period as the group recorded such strong selections as "Surely, Surely, Amen, Come And Go With Me", "Doctor Jesus" and "Storm Of Life". The Spirit Of Memphis continued to revise older hymns and spirituals such as the rubato "When Mother's Gone" which echoes "Motherless Children Have A Hard Time".

By 1956 the popularity of the classic quartets were beginning to wane. Silas Steele and Little Axe Broadnax had left the group and though they found in Joe Hinton a superlative new high tenor. Artistically though Spirit Of Memphis could still cut it. The high tenor of Joe Hinton (who'd previously sung with the Blair Gospel Singers and Chosen Gospel Quartet) was employed to exemplary effect on 45s like "In The Garden" and "Lost In Sin" (the latter a Christianised re-write of the old Spaniels doowop hit "Peace Of Mind"). But in 1958 Duke/Peacock's Don Robey had persuaded Hinton to chase the paydirt of R&B/pop. At first it seemed a bad mistake. Singles on the Backbeat label like "I Know" and "Pretty Little Mama" didn't sell and it wasn't until 1963 after touring with Junior Parker and Bobby Bland that he had his first local hit with "You Know It Ain't Right". A year later Hinton had a huge hit (number one in the US R&B charts, 13 on the Billboard Hot 100) with a stunning rendition of Willie Nelson's country ballad "Funny How Time Slips Away". Hinton's entry in Wikipedia comments how the million seller "culminates in one of the most remarkable falsetto notes ever captured on disc." Sadly, Hinton wasn't to enjoy the music big time for long. He died, of skin cancer, in August 1968.

The Spirit Of Memphis continued to record throughout the '60s but by the '70s had all but retired. They were poised for a major comeback when they were scheduled to record some tunes with Elvis Presley before he fell ill in 1977. They resurfaced in the 1980s as an eight- or nine-member ensemble and re-recorded for David Evans's High Water label.

James Darline, founder and originator of the Spirit Of Memphis, passed away on 12th April 1985 at his home in Riverside, California. Earl "the great pumper" D Malone died in Memphis during July 1987. The formidable Little Axe, who was in fact a man living as a woman, died on 1st June 1992 in Philadelphia. The two remaining, Jethro 'Jet' Bledsoe Snr and Robert J Reed, journeyed on until 1993. Jet dies in Memphis on 24th February and Robert departed this earth (also in Memphis) on 22nd November.

In 2005 a new version of Spirit Of Memphis led by Melvin Mosley cut a live vanity CD recording in Michigan. The independent album offers fine and exciting retreads of "You Better Run", "I John Saw" and "On The Battlefield" plus a number of other equally fired-up familiar gospels. The set is supported by a tough, solid rhythm section that does not once detract from the old, well known recreated harmonies.

Whatever the merits of the revived Spirit Of Memphis, it's their classic recordings made for King Records between 1949 and 1952 which will forever stand as some of the greatest African American religious music ever recorded. As author Anthony Heilbut enthused, "Among the most beautiful quartet records were those issued in the early '50s by the Spirit Of Memphis Quartet. Steele's thunderous baritone could shake a church, the subdued lead of Jet Bledsoe and the ringing tenor of Willie 'Little Axe' Broadnax blended gloriously with his roars. Often James Darling, the group's baritone, would improvise a melodic counterpoint to Steele's lead, while Earl D Malone's bass 'boom-de-boomed' in accustomed style." Classic gospel indeed.

About Tony Cummings: Tony Cummings is the music editor for Cross Rhythms website and attends Grace Church in Stoke-on-Trent.

Reader Comments:

Posted by VF Tate in Northern California @ 04:05 on May 13 2010

Thanks for the research and providing answers to umerous question I've asked for fifty years. In the 1950s I grew-up in Memphis listening to the Spirit of Memophis Quartet on radio station WDIA. As a kid I sang quartet songs with my father and two brothers--including some SOMQ songs. Until this article, no one could say what happened to my favorite artists, Silas Steele and Little Axe. My uncle Walter Tate sang with the Spirits in the early and mid sixties. My brother-in-law Lee Thompson played guitar with the group in the 90s. "Great job, great job!"

Posted by wolfgang in germany @ 15:23 on Apr 30 2010

In 2005 I bought the 'Happy in the service of the Lord' compilation after you put it in the albums top 20 of that year. After reading this article I did listen to it again. This music is amazing. I cannot imagine that there is any music on earth that is much more deeper than this old gospel music from the late 40s and early fifties by this group or the Blind Boys of Alabama or similar groups. Without the reviews and articles here in Cross Rhythms I would have never found this kind of music.

Thank you very much

Source: Spirit Of Memphis Quartet: Tracing the history of a classic gospel group - Spirit Of Memphis

How Sweet It Was

Listen: I Am Bound For Canaan Land: Silas Steele And The Famous Blue Jay Singers: MP3 Downloads

Listen: Kings Of The Gospel Highway: Various Artists: MP3 Downloads

Listen: Famous Blue Jay Singers of Birmingham: MP3 Downloads












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