In the beginning, after the word, before rock 'n' roll, and before there was rap, hip-hop, disco, punk, funk, metal, soul, Motown, rock-a-billy, before bebop, doo-wop, and the big band swing, there was the Dixie Hummingbirds. The mighty Dixie Hummingbirds.
And so Jerry Zolten began his biographic celebration of the iron men of gospel, titled "Great God A'Mighty!"
The Birds must go on without legendary singer Ira Tucker, who died Tuesday in Philadelphia, his home. He was 83. He joined the group when he was just 14.
I met him a few times over the years, and they were memorable -- first in his apartment near City Avenue, where he sat and told this confused young man about the old days, how the 'Birds took wing in the South under the firm grip of Mr. James Davis. Then he greeted me in a tent at the edge of Chinatown, where some well-known guests were dropping by to celebrate the 'Birds' 70th anniversary. That was in 1998.
I listened to Stevie Wonder and Bobby Womack blow away the lucky guests who sat at folding tables.
But the most amazing time was the entire day I got to sit in a corner of Sigma Sound Studios as the Dixie Hummingbirds were gathering to re-record "Loves Me Like a Rock," and Paul Simon was in charge of the new arrangement. Simon didn't want a mere redo of his 1973 hit. He tossed out a young horn section, asked the drummer to try brushes, not sticks, and basically broke the song he once recorded with them down into a street-corner doo-wop thing that left me convinced Simon was some sort of damned pop genius.
Now Ira's gone, and the tributes are coming in. It is rare and lovely when a great talent turns out to be a good man in person. He was that.
Thanks to Stevie and his cue cards, here's a version and a half of "Loves Me Like a Rock" from a PBS tribute to Paul Simon.