Ira B. Tucker Sr., the lead lead singer of the influential Dixie Hummingbirds died of heart failure June 24 in Philadelphia. He was 83.
"As a member of GRAMMY-winning gospel group Dixie Hummingbirds, Ira B. Tucker had a fiery vocal style and energetic stage presence that revolutionized gospel music, infusing more soul and rhythm into the already spirited genre," said Neil Portnow, President/CEO of The Recording Academy. "In 2000 — after nearly 60 years of influential musical contributions — the Dixie Hummingbirds’ 1946 single "Amazing Grace" was inducted into the GRAMMY Hall of Fame. Tucker’s artistry has left an indelible imprint on gospel as well as R&B and soul, and our deepest sympathies go out to his family, friends, and all who were moved by his music."
Ira B. Tucker was born on May 17, 1925, in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He was with the Dixie Hummingbirds since 1938, when he was 13. Musicologist Horace Boyer writes that "not only did he put his voice and vocal technique to use, he also became the model for the ‘activity’ singer. He ran up and down aisles, jumped from the stage, and spun around without sacrificing one iota of the pure musical sound that he first brought to the quartet. Indeed, he served as the model for many of the rhythm and blues and soul singers from Jackie Wilson and Clyde McPhatter to Bobby Blue Bland, Stevie Wonder and the Temptations."
While The Dixie Hummingbirds have always remained deeply rooted in the gospel tradition, their influence has made itself known far and wide in American popular music. Isaac Hayes put it most eloquently: "In the beginning, after the word, and before there was rap, hip-hop, disco, punk, funk, metal, soul, Motown, rock-a-billy, before bebop, doo-wop, and the big band swing there was the Dixie Hummingbirds."
The group began their remarkable journey in 1920s Greenville, South Carolina, organized by gospel great James B. Davis, then 12 years old. After singing together in church through their high school years, Davis and his friends embarked on a ten-year stint of "wildcatting" – taking their act on the road to build up a reputation. In 1939, they began recording on the prestigious Decca label, and in the early 1940s they moved to Philadelphia, where easy access to a range of venues allowed them to make a name for themselves on an even larger scale.
By 1942, the Dixie Hummingbirds were wowing audiences at Cafe Society, New York’s first integrated nightclub, backed by legendary jazz saxophonist Lester Young. In the 1950s, they routinely brought down the house at the Apollo Theater. The group broke into the popular consciousness in 1966, when they prompted a standing ovation at the Newport Folk Festival, and still greater fame was in store in 1973, when they backed Paul Simon on his smash hit "Loves Me Like a Rock." The Birds’ own rendition of the tune won them a Grammy in 1974.
Retired patriarch James B. Davis is fond of noting that the Dixie Hummingbirds have typically been about a decade ahead of the curve. In the 1940s, for example, they were singing the kind of a cappella harmonies that caught on as doo-wop in the 1950s, and in the 1950s, they added electric guitar to their sound with the addition of Howard Carroll who is heralded as the most progressive guitarist of his time and possibly this century, pre-figuring the soul music of the 1960s.
In 2000 the Dixie Hummingbirds was awardd a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship In the words of gospel historian Tony Heilbut, "So many great quartets — yet among black Southerners, the Dixie Hummingbirds have always been the leaders."
At the turn of the century, time took its toll on the Dixie Hummingbirds. After their 70th Anniversary, many of the members retired, all but one, Ira Tucker. He was "The Last Man Standing." After singing 69 years with the Birds’ Tucker chose an elite group of young men to help carry the Legacy of the Dixie Hummingbirds into uncharted waters. This legacy was fulfilled with the album Still Keeping it Real.
Ira B. Tucker is survived by his wife of 65 years, Louise; his son Ira Tucker Jr.; daughters Sundray Tucker and Lynda Laurence; five grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.