Legendary gospel group Dixie Hummingbirds celebrate 90-year milestone with performances

The Dixie Hummingbirds will perform at World Cafe Live Wednesday.

Cherri Gregg
August 27, 2018 - 7:37 pm
From left: Lyndon Baines Jones, Torrey Nettles, Carlton Lewis III, Troy Smith and Ira Tucker, Jr. of the Dixie Hummingbirds. Not pictured: Roy Smith

Cherri Gregg | KYW Newsradio

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — With energetic performances, coordinated suits and dancing, the Dixie Hummingbirds have used gospel music to wow audiences for 90 years.

Founded in South Carolina in 1928, the Dixie Hummingbirds called Philadelphia home in the 1940s. 

The legendary gospel group announced at the African American Museum in Philadelphia Monday a major celebration for their milestone anniversary, with help from a special guest.

"It's just a great thing to see people coming together to spread the message of God's goodness," said Stevie Wonder via phone to the crowd gathered at the museum. He called into the press conference announcing a yearlong celebration of the group's legacy.  

Wonder said he used to listen to gospel while growing up in Detroit and was heavily influenced by the style of the genre, specifically the style of the Dixie Hummingbirds. The group influenced American music, including rock and R&B, but they also had an influence during the civil rights era. 

"The Dixie Hummingbirds was a group of black men who would ride through the South in a Cadillac," explained Ira Tucker, Jr. "When you were black and in a Cadillac, you were pulled over — it was assumed you were up to something. They had to endure all types of racism, Jim Crow."

Tucker's father, Ira Tucker, Sr., began performing with the Dixie Hummingbirds in 1938 at age 13. At the time, the group was based in South Carolina. They relocated to Philadelphia in the early 1940s and would practice at a home near 23d and Girard streets.  

Tucker, Sr. was well known for his flamboyant performances, which included moments like "dropping to his knees in prayer." He stayed with the group until he died in 2008. Now, younger members are continued the legacy.

"We are just honored to be a part of this," said present band member Carlton Lewis III.

The Dixie Hummingbirds have honors across the city, including a mural at 15th and Poplar streets.
Cherri Gregg | KYW Newsradio

They will be a part of a yearlong celebration, including a free, sold-out concert at World Cafe Live on Aug. 29.  

Other events include a concert on Sept 16 at 3 p.m. at Oak Grove Baptist Church in North Philadelphia, and on Sept. 30, a gospel breakfast tribute to the Hummingbirds by the Mighty Writers at Girard College.

The Hummingbirds will also reissue their 2011 CD, "Gospel Praise Songs — Powered By Quartets."

The Dixie Hummingbirds have honors across the city, including a mural at 15th and Poplar streets, and a plaque on the Philadelphia Walk of Fame on the Avenue of the Arts. Dixie Hummingbirds' 1946 rendition of "Amazing Grace" was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2000. The group was deemed a "national treasure" by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2000.