About this Recording
8.120731 - GOLDEN GATE QUARTET: Gospel Train (1937-1942)



‘Gospel Train’  Original 1937-1942 Recordings


More than any other vocal group, the Golden Gate Quartet was responsible for combining traditional spirituals with secular musical forms in a way that was commercially appealing to the record buying public during the late 1930s and 1940s. Although there were other groups on the scene at the time, the “Gates’” sound permeated the popular music field with its successful blend of spirituals, barbershop harmonies, and hot jazz in a career that has endured for seventy years, despite wars, the changing tastes in popular music, and the inevitable turnover of personnel that is expected with long surviving groups.


It was in 1934 that the original quartet, consisting of first tenor A.C. “Eddie” Griffin, second tenor Henry Owens, baritone Willie Johnson, and bass Robert “Peg” Ford, began performing together in the Tidewater region of Norfolk, Virginia. Griffin, who ran a Norfolk barbershop, formed the group with Ford, who got his nickname due to the unfortunate loss of one leg. Together, they recruited the other two members, Owens and Johnson, who had been singing with the Booker T. Washington High School glee club. Their plan was to perform spirituals in the new “jubilee” style that was sweeping Virginia churches in the early 1930s.


The term “jubilee” had its origins in 1871 when the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University, the first professional black vocal group in America, began a nationwide tour, performing spirituals to raise money for their college. Jubilee came from the Old Testament, when a “year of jubilee” was used to indicate a time when slaves would be emancipated. Eventually, the success of the Fisk group caused the term “jubilee” to be generic, used to identify the groups as well as the material used in their repertoire. By the early part of the twentieth century, this term was expanded to include groups that performed not just spirituals and hymns, but gospel and even secular material. Early examples of these include the Norfolk Jubilee Quartet, the Utica Jubilee Singers, and the Tuskegee Institute Singers. Configurations ran the gamut, and included choirs as well as quartets, the latter becoming more prevalent due to the combination of jubilee with the popular barbershop quartet format, consisting of two tenors, baritone, and bass.


Their name, the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet, had been used by a number of other groups dating back to the 1890s in Baltimore, making reference to the “golden gate” of heaven, and not the famous Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco Bay, which had began construction in 1933 and was completed around the time of the quartet’s first sessions in 1937.


The GGJQ’s repertoire initially consisted of Negro spirituals, but soon expanded to include composed gospel music by such writers as Thomas A. Dorsey, Lucie Campbell, and Charles Albert Tindley. Its style was an innovative combination of a variety of influences; most notably, the highly rhythmic small band sound of the Mills Brothers. Whereas the Mills Brothers used their individual voices to emulate the sounds of riff-driven horns (trumpet, trombone, saxophone), the Gates went a step further by adding a self-propulsive rhythm based on the repetition of words and syllables lying underneath the lead vocal, which group member Willie Johnson called “vocal percussion.”  Although the chords the Gates sang on their songs were simple, the percussive element was anything but. Precision and syncopation, both elements integral to the Swing Era, were their hallmarks, taking the group’s sound far beyond that of secular groups like the Mills Brothers and the Three Keys.


The quartet’s personal appearances began shortly after their inception and by 1935, they were performing at churches in Virginia as well as parts of the Carolinas. Griffin did not want to jeopardize his barbershop business during the Depression, so he left the group to be replaced by a tenor from Portsmouth named William Langford. The following summer, Robert Ford also left, and was replaced by Orlandus (sometimes spelled Arlandus) Wilson. Ford was older than the others and not physically well enough to assume the rigorous travel schedule the group was adopting. Wilson, on the other hand, was an ambitious sixteen-year-old bass singer who would often fill in for Ford when the latter was ill. The three other members had to convince Wilson’s parents of the idea of bringing Wilson on as a permanent member.


With the addition of Wilson, the quartet’s youthful lineup began expanding beyond the traditional spiritual repertoire established by Griffin. Baritone Willie Johnson served as their arranger, and infused their music with innovative and complex rhythms patterned after the Mills Brothers’ recordings, which had become hugely popular. Johnson incorporated not only elements from the Mills Brothers, but also from the jazz hipster style made famous by Cab Calloway. Johnson’s is the voice heard most often on the narrative pieces, such as Noah, in which the Biblical story of the Great Flood is told through Johnson’s syncopated, jazzy chanting.


William Langford was the virtuoso of the group, having a wide range that enabled him to effortlessly slide from baritone to a falsetto soprano. Henry Owens had a vocal versatility that enabled him to adapt to whoever was singing lead, while Wilson, who would become the group’s director, utilized a bouncing, rhythmic bass accompaniment that gave the quartet’s sound its verve and sense of swing.


With tenor Clyde Riddick serving as an able replacement, the group became a sensation while performing on radio stations WIS in Columbia, South Carolina, and WBT in Charlotte, North Carolina. In late 1935, they began performing on The Magic Key Hour for NBC over WBT, a 50,000 watt station that reached much of the eastern United States.


The next year saw them begin making appearances on WIS after making a bold proposal to sing on the station. After performing three or four songs, the station was inundated by enthusiastic phone calls, leading to a regular weekday programme. The shows stimulated requests from local churches to have the Gates perform concerts, despite objections by pastors who complained that despite the group’s richness in sound and strictly religious-based repertoire, their approach was too “eccentric” and rhythmic. These pleas went unheeded and the Gates’ fame grew exponentially.


Eventually, this brought them to the attention of Victor’s savvy director of artists and repertoire Eli Oberstein, who signed them to record for the label’s Bluebird subsidiary. Their first session took place at Charlotte’s Pope Hotel on 4 August 1937, resulting in fourteen recordings cut in a whirlwind two hour session.


One of their most popular numbers was cut at this session. Golden Gate Gospel Train featured train effects, horn imitations, and the syncopated accompaniment by the lower voices to simulate the sound of the train chugging along. Story-songs, with Willie Johnson serving as narrator, drama-tized events in the Bible, such as the saga of the Great Flood in Noah. Two decades later, folk singer Harry Belafonte used the Gates’ recording as a model for his own version of the song.


In December 1938, impresario John Hammond brought the Gates to New York where they appeared in the historic From Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall. After seeing the concert, Barney Josephson, owner of the Café Society nightclub in Greenwich Village, signed the group to appear in his club, thus introducing them to one of New York’s most fashionable watering holes.


In 1939, William Langford left the group to form another quartet called the Southern Sons. With Riddick replacing him as a full-time member, the group shortened its name to the Golden Gate Quartet as they added more and more secular material to their repertoire. Their fame peaked with two inaugurations: that of their own CBS network radio program (1939) and a command performance at President Franklin Roosevelt’s third inaugural in January 1941. Their last session for Victor saw them join forces with the influential folk singer Leadbelly before switching labels and recording for Okeh in 1941, followed by a stint with Mercury after World War II.


Between 1943 and 1947, the Gates appeared in five motion pictures, including Star Spangled Rhythm and A Song is Born, the latter starring Danny Kaye. Changes in the lineup began when Johnson and Owens left the group respectively in 1948 and 1950. In 1955, a successful tour of Europe led to the Gates relocating permanently to France four years later, where they were able to avoid the racism often inflicted on black artists touring in the United States. They have remained there ever since, with Orlandus Wilson serving as their manager, arranger, and elder statesman. He stayed with the group until poor health forced him to retire in October 1998. He died a few months later on 30 December at the age of 81. Seventy years after their inception, the Golden Gate Quartet survives, the most prominent and successful gospel quartet of their time.


– Cary Ginell (folklorist, radio broadcaster, and

award-winning author of four books on American music.  He lives in Thousand Oaks, California)

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