Rejoice & Shout, filmmaker Don McGlynn's raucous new documentary about gospel music in America, reaches all the way back to 1902, when Virginia's Dinwiddie Colored Quartet made the first African American religious recordings, almost two decades before the first jazz and blues records.
Listening in on the music that came out of black Baptist and Pentecostal churches in the century since, Rejoice & Shout focuses attention on big-name and not-so-big-name gospel greats, from Mahalia Jackson and the Staple Singers to the Golden Gate Quartet and Swan Silvertones.
"These are people who really believe in God and are expressing themselves, body and soul, though this music," McGlynn said in an interview from Los Angeles last week.
Everyone seen on screen fits that description, starting with 10-year-old Jekalyn Carr of the contemporary gospel group the Selvy Family, who opens the movie with a jaw-dropping "Amazing Grace," and ending with the irresistibly energetic guitar heroine Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who died in 1973 and is buried in Northwood Cemetery in North Philadelphia.
Tharpe is the only act accorded two complete numbers in the film by McGlynn, who has directed music documentaries about Glenn Miller and Howlin' Wolf. She is one of several Philadelphians showcased in a story that finds primary focus in the 1940s and 1950s, when acts such as the Dixie Hummingbirds and the Clara Ward Singers helped make Philadelphia a gospel-music hub and the Metropolitan Opera House on North Broad Street, in the words of Ira Tucker Jr., "a mecca."
Tucker Jr. appears in Rejoice & Shout alongside his father, Ira Tucker Sr., who sang with the Hummingbirds from 1938, when he was 13, until his death in 2008. Along with Willa Ward, the sister of Clara Ward, whose many landmark compositions include "How I Got Over," the standard that lent its name to the latest album by Philadelphia hip-hop band The Roots, the Tuckers are interviewed while seated inside the Met.
Those interviews were conducted shortly before the death of the elder Tucker, whose June 2008 funeral took place in the storied 103-year-old performance space and house of worship, which was routinely packed for concerts in the 1950s. The shows featured acts including the Blind Boys of Alabama (and their rivals, the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi), as well as the hard-gospel Hummingbirds and their contemporaries the Soul Stirrers, whose vocalist, Sam Cooke, would become the first star to cross over from gospel to pop and help invent soul music along the way.
"I used to see Sam and my father go at it all the time, because it was all about who took the house, and Sam would yodel him away," says Tucker Jr., who manages the current lineup of the Hummingbirds, probably best known to non-gospel fans for singing on Paul Simon's 1973 hit "Loves Me Like a Rock."
Many of the clips shown on Rejoice are exceedingly rare. An incandescent performance of "Working on a Building" by the Rev. Claude Jeter, the falsetto signing genius who led the Swan Silvertones (and whose sweet and supple vocals were so influential on Al Green, and Eddie Kendrick of the Temptations), is the only clip known to exist of one of gospel's greatest vocal groups.
And that's fairly typical of an era when people weren't walking around with handheld recording devices at all times, and many profoundly significant African American acts never made it to television or the movies in a segregated culture. "People ask me how I could make a movie about the history of gospel music without showing a clip of Sam Cooke singing with the Soul Stirrers," says McGlynn. "The answer is: There isn't one."
Tucker Jr. is thrilled with McGlynn's work in Rejoice & Shout, which opened at the Ritz at the Bourse on Friday, because of the void it fills in the historical record.
Most contemporary gospel music, which is represented in Rejoice & Shout by acts like Andrae Crouch and Darrel Petties, relies on modern rhythm and blues and sometimes hip-hop arrangements. It often puts mass choirs to work in conjunction with slick production, in a style made popular by stars such as Kirk Franklin, Bensalem's Hezekiah Walker, and South Jersey's Tye Tribbet.
In Rejoice & Shout, the focus is more on tying the history of traditional gospel "quartet" music - sung in four-part harmony, but sometimes with as many as eight members - to the socio-economic and Civil Rights struggles of African Americans throughout the 20th century.
"To me, this film is to traditional gospel quartet singing and gospel music what [the 1977 TV mini-series] Roots was to American history," says Tucker Jr., manager of the Hummingbirds, whose new album, GPS: Gospel Praise Songs, is available in Philadelphia only at the Clef Club, the African American Museum, and the Met. "That's how I see it. Roots tells the story of a people. But instead of a race of people, this is a group of people who decided to not let Jim Crow and racism . . . stop them from moving this genre forward. If this movie hadn't come out, I don't think this story would ever have been told."
Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @delucadan on Twitter. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at www.philly.com/inthemix.