Ira Tucker fronted the gospel group the Dixie Hummingbirds for 70 years. His soulful singing and flamboyant performances influenced James Brown and Jackie Wilson, while the Drifters and the Temptations took the template of the Dixie Hummingbirds into the charts in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies.
The group had their own taste of secular success when they guested on There Goes Rhymin' Simon, the 1973 solo album by Paul Simon inspired by his love of doo-wop and gospel. Their heavenly harmonies on "Tenderness" and especially "Loves Me Like a Rock", a reworking of the group's 1968 single, helped the album reach the Top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic. The following year, the Dixie Hummingbirds won a Grammy award for their own version of "Loves Me Like a Rock".
Born in Spartanburg, South Carolina, in 1925, Ira Tucker sang lead with the Gospel Carriers in his early teens. In 1938, taking part in a battle of the groups, James B. Davis, who had founded the Dixie Hummingbirds in 1928, spotted Tucker, as well as Willie Bobo, bass vocalist from the Heavenly Gospel Singers, and recruited them both. For years, they scratched a living performing at churches for a few dollars. "If you weren't working, they put you in jail," Tucker recalled of their days touring the segregated South. "So we stayed busy, all the time. It was tough, but we had the courage enough to keep it going. It's been a long journey, but it always seems to keep getting better."
The group moved to Philadelphia and began appearing on the radio station WCAU. After adding a baritone, Beachy Thompson, and a second tenor, Jack Walker, and signing to the Peacock label in 1952, they issued a run of singles, combining gospel standards – "Jesus Walked the Water", "Jesus Hold My Hand" – with material written by Tucker, who drew on his own experiences and concerns – "Let's Go Out to the Programs" – and added a dash of humour – "Christian Automobile". The Sixties saw them performing at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem and receiving a standing ovation at the 1966 Newport Folk Festival. Later, they worked with Stevie Wonder and Dr John.
By the time the group released their last album, Still Keeping It Real. . . The Last Man Standing, in 2006, Tucker was indeed the last surviving member of the Fifties line-up, and its leader following the retirement of Davis in 1984. The Dixie Hummingbirds had recently embarked on their 80th anniversary tour. "When I started with the Hummingbirds, for the black man there was nothing in America," Tucker said in 2005. "But we kept on keeping on."
Ira B. Tucker, singer and songwriter: born Spartanburg, South Carolina 17 May 1925; married Louise Archie (one son); died Philadelphia 24 June 2008.