Howard Alexander Carroll performed for the original Dixie Hummingbirds like no other, his fingers sliding along the neck of his electric guitar so fast that he was called “Grease Lightning,” said family friend Ira Tucker Jr., who now manages a new generation of the quintet known most famously for decades of exuberant gospel music.
Born in Philadelphia, Mr. Carroll, 92, was a music icon and the oldest living member of the Dixie Hummingbirds. He died in his sleep at a Mount Airy convalescent home on Tuesday, Oct. 17.
“He was a great musician and one of the best who ever played gospel music,” said Tucker, whose father, Ira Tucker Sr., was the lead singer who performed with Mr. Carroll. When he was 10 years old, Tucker said his father introduced him to Mr. Carroll after a performance at the Metropolitan Opera House on Broad Street around 1952. Mr. Carroll was a pioneer introducing the electric guitar to gospel music.
In addition to the guitar, Mr. Carroll also sang baritone as the group grew so popular and drew crowds to national gospel, jazz, country/western, and Southern festivals for decades. Mr. Carroll played at major concert halls across the United States and abroad, and shared in the group’s 1974 Grammy Award for “Loves Me Like a Rock.”
Mr. Carroll was a teenager when he formed the group Sensational Nightingales. While still in his teens and a student at Central High School, Mr. Carroll joined the jubilee-styled acts formed by James B. Davis in Greenville, S.C., which became the Dixie Hummingbirds.
The original Dixie Hummingbirds performed together for more than 60 years. According to a statement released Thursday, Mr. Carroll coached Chuck Berry. The group was influential for others that included James Brown, Stevie Wonder, and the Temptations. The Sons of the Birds, consisting of the actual sons of the group along with the vocalist the Rev. Joseph Williams, often toured with the group.
“Howard Carroll was a master musician,” said Williams, who will officiate at Mr. Carroll’s funeral on Wednesday, Oct. 25. “When he played the guitar, it sounded like three guitars. In fact, when he was on stage some would sneak around to see where the other musicians were hiding.”
Williams said, “I would just say that he was a guitar and musical genius.”
Mr. Carroll, whose father and grandfather played banjo, recognized the appeal of the electric guitar, starting a trend that could not be stopped, said Jerry Zolten, a Pennsylvania State University musicologist who wrote a book about the Hummingbirds and its influence on gospel and secular music. When Davis brought Mr. Carroll into the group to play guitar, “it was legendary,” Zolten said.
“They called him the BB King of gospel music,” Zolten said. “So he had quite a reputation.”
Next year, the new generation of the Dixie Hummingbirds will celebrate their 90th anniversary, Zolten said.
Although Mr. Carroll had other musical interests, his performances remained consistent with gospel and the high ethical standards Davis had set — no drinking, no music that the church did not condone, perfect attire, and a respectful demeanor. If they strayed, they were fined, Tucker recalled, adding that the group took the rules seriously.
“They knew he was going to lead them to the promised land, and he really did,” Tucker said.
When celebrating their 70th anniversary, Paul Simon joined the group in Philadelphia to remake “Love Me Like a Rock.”
In their early years, the group traveled through small towns across the United States asking to sing live at the local radio stations. They slowly gained a following with their grassroots effort, Zolten said.
A 1998 article published in the Inquirer noted that when the Dixie Hummingbirds moved to Philadelphia — a thriving gospel scene decades ago — they found fast work at WCAU-AM, where they sang on the radio every Sunday for 18 months. Their radio style was different from their church singing.
“Everything was sweet, whatever it was,” Davis said at the time. “It didn’t matter what the song was. Our main aim was to harmonize as much as we could when we were broadcasting. In church, there was so much emphasis, it was so loudly done, excitingly done.”
In addition to the 1974 Grammy, the Hummingbirds received the 2000 National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellowship, and they are featured at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.
Diane Turner, curator of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University, called Mr. Carroll a “cultural icon.”
“Though he is gone, his music will live on forever,” Turner said. “He was one of a kind as far as his sound.”
The original group had only a handful of replacement members. In 1978, Williams replaced Davis as a singer, while Davis remained the manager until the original group folded. The Sons of the Birds reunited in 2015, and Mr. Carroll, at times, joined them on stage.
A stretch of Poplar Street from Broad Street to 21st Street has been officially designated Dixie Hummingbirds Way in acknowledgment of the group’s Philadelphia ties.
Mr. Carroll’s survivors include his son, Howard Carroll Jr., and a grandson.
There will be a public viewing for Mr. Carroll on Tuesday, Oct. 24, from 12:30 to 9 p.m. at the Batchelor Brothers Funeral Services, 7112 N. Broad St., in the West Oak Lane section. The viewing will include a musical tribute from 5 to 9 p.m. Mr. Carroll’s funeral is scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 25, at 11 a.m. at the Mount Airy United Fellowship Church, 701 W. Johnson St., next to the Walnut Street Bridge Circle. Before the funeral, a private viewing will be held at the church from 9 to 11 a.m. Burial will be at Merion Memorial Park, 59, Rockhill Road, Bala Cynwyd.