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Black Vocal Harmony Groups of the 1930s and 1940s

In the decades before doo-wop, soul, and rock ‘n roll, there was an explosion of African-American singing ensembles that paved the way for the later styles.

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Ravens

Photo: William Gottlieb/Library of Congress

The Ravens: taking off in the 1940s.

The highly successful Mills Brothers inspired a large number of African-American singing ensembles in the decades of the Great Depression and the Second World War. Using only their voices and sometimes sparse instrumentation (guitars or tipples, which were a 10-stringed kind of ukulele), these groups combined jazz, pop, and gospel to produce recordings and styles that anticipated the rise of R & B, rock ‘n roll, and doo-wop in the 1950s.

GGQWe’ll hear the Spirits of Rhythm (featuring legendary hipster and scatter Leo Watson), the Golden Gate Quartet (who helped pioneer the “jubilee” gospel sound), the Four Vagabonds (an important transitional group between the jazz-jive vocal groups of the late 1930s and the black R and B groups of the 1950s), Cats and the Fiddle, the Ravens (their 1947 recording of “Ol’ Man River,” which included a bass vocal lead by Jimmy Ricks that served as a harbinger of the doo-wop movement to come), and more.

There’s more on black vocal harmony groups here, and you can also watch the Golden Gate Quartet doing “Hit the Road to Dreamland” with Mary Martin and Dick Powell (from the 1942 movie Star Spangled Rhythm):

Music Heard On This Episode

Miss D.D.
Mary Lou Williams — Black Christ of the Andes (Smithsonian Folkways, 1964)
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Miss D.D.
Mary Lou Williams — Black Christ of the Andes (Smithsonian Folkways, 1964)

Notes: opening theme.

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Go Where I Send Thee
Golden Gate Quartet — I Hear Music in the Air (BMG, 1937)
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I'm Gonna Take to the Road
The Ravens — The Dawn of Doo-Wop (Proper, 1950)
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My Old Man
Spirits of Rhythm — 1933-1945 (Chronological Classics, 1933)
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Dr. Watson and Mr. Holmes
Spirits of Rhythm — 52nd Street Swing (GRP/Decca, 1934)
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Golden Gate Gospel Train
Golden Gate Quartet — Travelin' Shoes (RCA/Bluebird, 1937)

Notes: From the Golden Gate Quartet's very first recording session.

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Didn't It Rain
Golden Gate Quartet — Good News (Proper, 1941)
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Swingin' On the Strings
Ink Spots — Swing High Swing Low (Remember, 1936)
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When the Sun Goes Down
Ink Spots — Swing High Swing Low (Remember, 1938)

Notes: Written by Leroy Carr.

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Public Jitterbug #1
Cats and the Fiddle — Killin' Jive (DeeJay Jamboree, 1939)
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I Miss You So
Cats and the Fiddle — Killin' Jive (DeeJay Jamboree, 1940)
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Killer Diller Man From the South
Cats and the Fiddle — Killin' Jive (DeeJay Jamboree, 1939)

Notes: midpoint music bed.

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Ol' Man River
The Ravens — The Dawn of Doo-Wop (Proper, 1947)
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Be I Bumble Bee or Not
The Ravens — The Dawn of Doo-Wop (Proper, 1947)
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Comin' In on a Wing and a Prayer
Four Vagabonds — The Dawn of Doo-Wop (Proper, 1943)
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P.S. I Love You
Four Vagabonds — The Dawn of Doo-Wop (Proper, 1947)
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Amazing Grace
Dixie Hummingbirds — Good News (Proper, 1946)
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Jesus Hits Like the Atom Bomb
Pilgrim Travelers — As Good As It Gets: Black Gospel (Disky, 1948)
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Lift Every Voice and Sing
Southern Sons — I Hear Music in the Air (BMG, 1942)
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The Song Is Ended
Louis Armstrong/Mills Brothers — Back Through the Years (MCA/Decca, 1938)
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Night Lights
Gerry Mulligan — Night Lights (Polygram, 1963)

Notes: Closing theme.

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David Brent Johnson

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, David Brent Johnson moved to Bloomington in 1991. He is an alumnus of Indiana University, and began working with WFIU in 2002. Currently, David serves as jazz producer and systems coordinator at the station. His interests include literature, history, music, writing, and movies.

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