From Spirituals to Swing: Unraveling the Timeless Legacy of The Golden Gate Quartet

The golden gate quartet group

The Golden Gate Quartet was more than any other vocal group in the late 1930s and early 1940s for bringing traditional spirituals together with secular musical forms in a way that appealed to record buyers on a commercial level.

Even though there were other bands at the time, the "Gates" sound spread throughout the popular music industry with their hit combination of hot jazz, barbershop harmonies, and spirituals. Their career has lasted for seven decades, despite wars, shifting trends in popular music, and the inevitable staff turnover that comes with a long-lasting band.

Genesis of Harmony: The Formation and Vision of The Golden Gate Quartet (1934).

First tenor A.C. "Eddie" Griffin, second tenor Henry Owens, baritone Willie Johnson, and bass Robert "Peg" Ford formed the original quartet, who started giving concerts together in the Norfolk, Virginia, Tidewater area in 1934. Griffin, who owned a barbershop in Norfolk, and Ford, who unfortunately lost one leg, became the group's nickname. Johnson and Owens, who had been singing with the Booker T. Washington High School glee club, were the other two members they brought in together. They intended to play spirituals in the early 1930s "jubilee" style that was popular in Virginia churches.

The first professional black vocal group in America, the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University, started a national tour in 1871 and sang spirituals to earn money for their college. This is when the term "jubilee" first appeared. The term "year of jubilee" was originally used in the Old Testament to denote the emancipation of slaves. The Fisk group's popularity eventually led to the name "jubilee" becoming a catch-all for both the ensembles and the material they performed. This phrase was broadened by the early 1900s to encompass gospel and even secular content in addition to spirituals and hymns performed by these groups. 

Pioneering Voices: Early Jubilee Ensembles (Late 1800s - Early 1900s)

The Norfolk Jubilee Quartet, the Utica Jubilee Singers, and the Tuskegee Institute Singers are a few early instances of this. There were many other configurations, from choirs to quartets. The latter were more common because of the jubilee format's coupling with the well-liked barbershop quartet style, which calls for two tenors, a baritone, and a bass.

The Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet got their name from another group that had been around since the 1890s in Baltimore. That group's name referred to the "golden gate" of heaven, not the well-known Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco Bay, whose construction had started in 1933 and been finished by the time the quartet held its first sessions in 1937.

At first, the GGJQ's repertoire was limited to African spirituals, but it quickly grew to include gospel compositions by authors like Charles Albert Tindley, Lucie Campbell, and Thomas A. Dorsey. Its unique style was a synthesis of several different inspirations, chief among them being the Mills Brothers' extremely rhythmic small band sound. The Gates went above and beyond the Mills Brothers by incorporating a self-propulsive rhythm based on the repetition of words and syllables lying underneath the lead vocal, which group member Willie Johnson dubbed "vocal percussion." The Mills Brothers used their individual voices to mimic the sounds of riff-driven horns (trumpet, trombone, saxophone).  

Percussive Prowess: Gates' Rhythmic Innovation (1930s)

The percussion in the Gates' songs was anything but basic, despite the tunes' simple chords. Their signatures were precision and syncopation, two aspects essential to the Swing Era that elevated the group's sound well above that of secular acts like the Three Keys and the Mills Brothers.

Soon after the quartet's founding, they started making personal appearances, and by 1935, they were playing in churches throughout Virginia and the Carolinas. William Langford, a tenor from Portsmouth, took over as Griffin's replacement after he decided to leave the ensemble to avoid risking his barbershop business during the Great Depression. Robert Ford departed the following summer as well, and Orlandus Wilson (often called Arlandus) took his place. 

Ford was not physically fit enough to follow the group's strict travel schedule and was older than the others. Conversely, Wilson was a driven sixteen-year-old bassist who frequently covered for Ford when the latter was unwell. Wilson's parents needed to be persuaded of the notion of making Wilson a permanent member by the other three members.

Wilson's arrival allowed the young group to start experimenting with songs outside of Griffin's established spiritual repertory. Their arranger, baritone Willie Johnson, added intricate and avant-garde rhythms to their music by drawing inspiration from the Mills Brothers' recordings, which had gained immense popularity. In addition to the Mills Brothers, Johnson also borrowed from the jazz hipster movement popularized by Cab Calloway. Johnson's voice is most frequently heard in narrative compositions like Noah, where his syncopated, jazzy chanting tells the Biblical story of the Great Flood.

Harmony Maestros: Individual Brilliance Shaping Gates' Sonic Tapestry (1930s)

The group's virtuoso, William Langford, could easily transition from baritone to falsetto soprano thanks to his broad range. While Wilson, who would go on to become the group's director, used a bouncing, rhythmic bass accompaniment that gave the quartet's sound its energy and sense of swing, Henry Owens' versatile vocal style allowed him to adjust to whoever was singing lead.

The ensemble gained popularity while singing on radio stations WIS in Columbia, South Carolina, and WBT in Charlotte, North Carolina. Tenor Clyde Riddick was an excellent substitute. They started doing The Magic Key Hour for NBC in late 1935 on WBT, a 50,000 watt station that served a large portion of the eastern United States.

They boldly proposed to sing on WIS, and the next year they started doing appearances on the station. The station received so many positive phone calls after playing three or four songs that it decided to make the show a regular weekday show. Pastors objected, saying that the group's approach was too "eccentric" and rhythmic, even though the Gates had a rich sound and purely Christian repertoire. However, the shows encouraged local churches to request that the Gates give concerts. These requests were ignored, and the Gates' notoriety skyrocketed.

Eli Oberstein, Victor's astute head of artists and repertoire, eventually heard about them via this and signed them to record for the label's Bluebird subsidiary. On August 4, 1937, they had their first session at Charlotte's Pope Hotel, where in a frenzied two hours, fourteen records were cut.

At this session, one of their most well-known songs was omitted. In order to replicate the sound of the train chugging along, Golden Gate Gospel Train included train effects, horn imitations, and syncopated accompaniment by the lower voices. Story-songs, narrated by Willie Johnson, dramatized biblical events, such as Noah's account of the Great Flood. Two decades later, folk musician Harry Belafonte fashioned his rendition of the song after the Gates recording.

John Hammond, the legendary producer, invited the Gates to New York in December 1938, when they performed at Carnegie Hall's iconic From Spirituals to Swing performance. Following the performance, Barney Josephson, the proprietor of Greenwich Village's Café Society nightclub, signed the group to perform there, acquainting them with one of the trendiest hangouts in the city.

Musical Evolution and Rebirth: Langford's Departure to Golden Gate Quartet 2.0 (1939-1941)

William Langford quit the group in 1939 to start the Southern Sons, another quartet. As they began to incorporate more and more secular music into their repertoire, the ensemble shortened its name to the Golden Gate Quartet and Riddick took his place as a full-time member. Their two inaugurations—their own CBS network radio program in 1939 and a command performance at President Franklin D. Roosevelt's third inaugural in January 1941—marked the height of their notoriety. They collaborated with the well-known folk singer Leadbelly during their final session for Victor. Later, in 1941, they moved labels and recorded for Okeh. Following World War II, they worked for Mercury.

The Gates had five film appearances between 1943 and 1947, including Star Spangled Rhythm and A Song is Born, which starred Danny Kaye. The group's 1948 and 1950 departures of Johnson and Owens, respectively, marked the start of lineup changes. After a triumphant European tour in 1955, the Gates moved permanently to France four years later. 

There, they were spared the bigotry that frequently befells black performers on tour in the United States. Orlandus Wilson has been their manager, arranger, and senior statesman ever since, and they have stayed there. 

He remained a member of the group until October 1998, when ill health caused him to retire. A few months later, on December 30, he passed away at the age of 81. The Golden Gate Quartet, the most well-known and prosperous gospel quartet of their era, is still going strong 70 years after they were founded.

HowNHowTo.Com Team

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