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ClassicsOnline Home » GOLDEN GATE QUARTET: Gospel Train (1937-1942)
THE GOLDEN GATE QUARTET
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
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
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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GOLDEN GATE QUARTET: Gospel Train (1937-1942)