James B. Davis Sr., 90, founder of the Philadelphia gospel group the Dixie Hummingbirds, the iron men of the Lord's music who inspired stars as disparate as Jackie Wilson, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Bobby Bland and the Temptations and won a Grammy in 1974 for "Loves Me Like a Rock," died of heart failure Tuesday at Hahnemann University Hospital. He lived in Fairmount.

"We made pure joy music," said Ira Tucker Sr., 81, lead singer who joined the quartet in 1938 when they were touring churches throughout the Southeast.

Mr. Davis was 11 years old when he pulled together church friends to sing a cappella in his native Greenville, S.C., and named them for the bird that can fly forward and backward, a metaphor for the group's early fortunes.

"I can remember days back in South Carolina when we used to stand out on the highway, practicing how to holler in tune, so we could play the big gospel shows and churches," Mr. Davis said.

Mr. Davis ruled his gospel singers with an unforgiving, steady hand. No women could ride in their 1940 Desoto while they toured.

"If there was a woman," Mr. Davis said in a 1998 Inquirer story, "she'd better be your wife." No drinking because the Hummingbirds sang in pulpits. Being late for rehearsal meant a $5 fine.

The Hummingbirds spent their first decade together "wildcatting" and establishing their reputation in one small town after another. They recorded their first records on the Decca label in 1939.

Mr. Davis and his group had some tough times. "I was put in jail many times," Mr. Davis said in 1998.

They were stopped for a bad headlight, false accusations, speeding or simply because they were black and riding in a fancy car. One night after playing in Spartanburg, S.C., they were hauled into jail. An inmate who recognized them said, "Man, you got the Dixie Hummingbirds."

The officers let them sing behind bars. "We had some kind of program that night, Mr. Davis said. "You would have thought we were in church. We made the news the next day. They said if everyone were like the Dixie Hummingbirds, this would be a great world to live in."

Mr. Davis married Hortance Eddings in the mid-1930s and they moved to North Philadelphia in 1942. They had five children.

"It wasn't money that kept the Hummingbirds out there," Mr. Davis said in 1998. "It was love of what we were doing."

Mr. Davis retired in 1984. "Can't keep up with these younger men any longer," he said. When he stepped down, Tucker, whose voice is one of gospel's most celebrated instruments, led the group.

In 1998, 20 men who had called themselves Dixie Hummingbirds since 1928 were tenderly roasted at a 70th anniversary gala at the African American Museum of Philadelphia.

Gospel singer Albertina Walker said, "They were such gentlemen." She asked Mr. Davis how he managed to keep the Hummingbirds in line on the road when other performers were getting into trouble.

"They were married," Mr. Davis said. "They have wives. And they're going to bed."

Stevie Wonder, who hosted the 1998 event, called the quartet "unsurpassed in the history of African American music."

There have been several heydays over the Hummingbirds' 78-year span. In the 1940s and 1950s, the Hummingbirds packed arenas - 11,500 fans in Raleigh, 5,500 at North Philadelphia's Met. They toured Europe and packed in thousands. In the 1960s, they played Carnegie Hall and Madison Square Garden and brought the audience at the Newport Folk Festival to its feet.

In 1973, they crossed over to pop when Paul Simon asked them to sing "Loves Me Like a Rock" with him. The Hummingbirds cut their own version of the song the next year and won a Grammy for gospel performance. Years of performing at folk festivals and churches followed.

"Mr. Davis was an extraordinary man, and it was an honor to get to know him over the last several years," Gov. Rendell said yesterday. "I am grateful that the Hummingbirds were able to perform at my inauguration."

Mr. Davis is survived by daughters Janice Watlington and Betty Chambers; and sons James Jr., Arthur and Harold; 19 grandchildren; and several great-grandchildren.

Friends may visit at 9 a.m. today at Second Pilgrim Baptist Church, 15th and Ogden Streets. A funeral will follow at 11. Burial will be in Rolling Green Cemetery, West Chester.

Contact staff writer Gayle Ronan Sims at 215-854-4185 or gsims@phillynews.com.