|Album of Golden Gate Quartet, with Josh White|
recorded at the Library of Congress in 1940.
Long before Detroit’s Motown sound changed the world of popular music, there was a distinct and enormously influential Norfolk sound. Like Motown it was built around crisp, sophisticated harmonies and driving rhythms. But, in a category by itself, this music was part jazz and part blues, but mostly gospel.
It’s been called the Tidewater gospel sound or the jubilee quartet movement, and it came straight out of black church choirs. Its popularity spread around the nation and abroad and put its stamp on both Motown and rock ’n’ roll.
Among the stars of this genre was – and still is – the Golden Gate Quartet. Founded in 1934 by students from Booker T. Washington High School, the group, originally the Golden Gate Jubilee Singers, was one of the most successful gospel groups in America.
“They really made it big,” says Rachael Born, a recent College of William and Mary graduate, who wrote a meticulously researched paper about the subject while in her freshman year.
There were many other groups from Norfolk that rose to national prominence, including the Silver Leaf Quartet, the Sparkling Four and the Harmonizing Four. They were known for close, four-part harmony, usually sung without accompaniment.
A modern group, the Paschall Brothers of Chesapeake, call themselves torchbearers of the Tidewater gospel sound.
During the early 1900s, Norfolk was a magnet for immigrants from nearby Virginia and North Carolina where the effects of slavery still lingered, and the music they brought came from the depths of this experience, says Clarine Roberts, a former professor at Norfolk State University.
“They could go to the churches to get some comfort,” she says. “Steal away, steal away to Jesus. It goes back to the cotton fields. To comfort themselves they would sing. The same thing went into the groups that were formed. That’s all you’d hear. Hot roles and fried chicken for breakfast on Sunday and listen to gospel on radio. You went to church and came back home and listened some more.”
As the groups grew in stature they staged competitions. The Sparkling Four advertised in the Norfolk Journal and Guide in 1922 that it was ready to challenge any other group in completion, Born writes, adding that the Golden Gate Quartet and the Heavenly Gospel Singers engaged in a good-natured rivalry.
But it was “the Gates,” with their driving beat, close harmonies and clever sounds that mimicked instruments and even train engines, who took the world by storm. The originals were Orlandus Wilson, bass, Willie Johnson, baritone, William Langford, tenor, and Henry Owens, second tenor.
In 1938 they performed at Carnegie Hall in New York, only one month after the first black artists performed there. Three years later they sang at Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s inauguration and were often invited by Eleanor Roosevelt to sing at the White House. During World War II, they performed in such Hollywood movies as “Star Spangled Rhythm” and “Hollywood Canteen.”
After their star lost some of its luster in the mid-fifties the group moved to Paris and continued to travel to several countries on concert tours and on behalf of the State Department in cultural exchanges.
Just as the Golden Gate Quartet drew inspiration from popular groups like the Mills Brothers, they spread their influence into later American popular music. Born quotes music critic Michael Corcoran who said the quartet “is the link between the Fisk Julilee Singers . . . and the Motown-inventing Soul Stirrers.”
And then there was Elvis Presley, a huge fan of the group. While in the Army, he caught their act at a Paris nightclub and reportedly held a jam session in a dressing room until the early hours of the next morning. Some of his recordings, especially “Rock My Soul,” sound almost like a Golden Gates recording.
In fact, the tenor soloist in the Gates version could easily have been Elvis.
There were several personal changes through the years as members found other opportunities. One helped make the Ink Spots famous. There are numerous recordings and videos on the Web, including a recent performance in Vienna of “Oh Happy Day.”
The leader of the Gates introduces the number in French. Throughout the performance, many of the mostly white Europeans in the audience dance as though at a rock concert. The singers reflect this enthusiasm with broad smiles.
They’re a long way from Norfolk.