"We've been singing gospel music ever since we were in our teens, riding down the highway with all of our pockets clean. Who are we? The Dixie Hummingbirds ... say it again ... The Dixie Hummingbirds."
That's Ira Tucker in 1972 singing with and about the group he joined when he was 13-years old. Now 82, Tucker is still singing lead with the group, his baritone as strong and clear as ever. And that part about clean pockets? "Man, it was really tough," Tucker said recently by phone from a tour stop in California. "It was worse than that. Our admission was 10 and 15 cents."
They delve deeper into lean times a bit further along in the song when they talk about running into Slim. Slim is not a promoter, but the turnout -- "Slim is when you look for 200 people/and you don't see but 21."
The group made it through those lean years singing in black churches across the country. Their big break came in '72 when Paul Simon recorded Loves Me Like A Rock with the group. The million-selling, Grammy-winning record crossed them over into a rock market, to the dismay of some in the church.
But Tucker never felt he had anything to be ashamed of or to apologize for. Like Mavis Staples said when the Staples were accused of singing the devil's music, it's not the devil's music because the devil doesn't have any music: all music is God's music.
When he was criticized for working in the secular market, Tucker offered his own response from the 'Birds' "Who Do You Think You're Foolin'?" "When I was a little boy, the devil would call my name, and I said, Who do you think you're foolin? I'm a consecrated boy."
"You know," he chuckles, "I put those lyrics on the blackboard for 'em and they cooled down on it then."
But what Tucker and the 'Birds did at live shows didn't cool down audiences. Their in-your-face style fired up crowds and got the attention of other performers working in the secular realm. It's long been rumored that James Brown and Jackie Wilson got some of their flash from Tucker's habit of jumping offstage and getting down on his knees in the aisle or going into the crowd to sing to members of their audience.
"We didn't influence them" Tucker says. "They got some material from me. You know how groups do. If you're pretty well in demand, and they're in another field, they come to hear you and they get some of the stuff that you got and switch it to another thing."
Tucker says he did the same thing with "Jukebox Saturday Night," a novelty song recorded by '40s band leader Glenn Miller. The premise was an impersonation of two popular entertainers of the time, Harry James and The Ink Spots. Tucker wrote a song called "Lets Go Out To The Programs," based on the same formula. "I started mimicking and mocking all the other groups, Sam Cook, The Blind Boys, making the rounds of everybody, you know."
He contends that everybody in show business was doing some borrowing. "Hank Ballard told it on everybody. Said, "Don't tell no lies that you weren't getting some of the Hummingbirds' stuff -- we all were."
But whatever that stuff looked like from the outside, in Tucker's case it was real. He bristles at the label "trickeration" that some applied to his performing habits. "Well, see it was partly feeling," he explains. "When you go to sing, sometimes you feel better than you do others. Or if you feel like you wanna jump, it's not all the time-sometimes it's a little better for you than others. So it wasn't trickeration. Somebody named it that, but I didn't tell 'em that. It was something like realistic, you know?"
Anybody who has ever seen the 'Birds perform can attest to the realness of the feeling, on stage and in the audience. The spirit and the power is still present, as their latest, Still Keeping It Real, demonstrates.
The group was a decade old when Tucker joined. There've been some personnel changes over the years since James B. Davis founded the group in 1928. He's still around. "But he's not able to do anything," Tucker says. "I just took him some food." The only other old-timer left is Howard Carroll, their guitar player of 50 years, who comes to the occasional gig, but just as a spectator. "I'm the only one now," Tucker says. "Yessir. The only man standing."
But the replacements; Torrey Nettles, Lyndon Baines Jones, William Bright, Abraham Rice, Edwin Cornell McKnight and Willie Coleman still keep the smooth harmonies the 'Birds have known for over seven decades. And Tucker still has the punch to lead, soaring over the heavenly chorus behind him.
"We've been singing for 46 years." Tucker proclaimed on "Who Are We," in '73, "and may sing for 56 more." Don't doubt him. With the spirit and power this 'Bird possesses, there's no limit to the duration of this flight.
The Sunday, April 22 event Gospel Explosion 2007, featuring The Dixie Hummingbirds and the Swanee Quintet, has been canceled.