The Dixie Hummingbirds have been called the Iron Men of Gospel for their durability as a performance group and their adaptability as musical legends. Led by Ira Tucker, Sr.—who is now 80—the group has continued to thrive for over 77 years. This week, the Dixie Hummingbirds musical ministry was celebrated with the ceremonial renaming of Poplar Street from broad to 21st Street to Dixie Hummingbirds Way.
Gospel fans, supporters and government dignitaries joined an audience of over 300 to honor the group’s efforts. Musical legends that were unable to attend sent messages of congratulations that were read by Ira Tucker, Jr.
“You’ve earned this honor and I love you like a rock,” wrote Paul Simon referring to the 70’s hit song “Love Me Like A Rock” the ‘Birds accompanied him on.
“Now I can drive my Christian automobile up Dixie Hummingbirds Way. Watch out!” read the message from Stevie Wonder that drew laughs from onlookers.
“Even though they started in the South Carolina, they’ve been Philadelphians for seven decades and that make this very special for Philadelphia and the state,” said Gov. Ed Rendell who recently bestowed the group with the Governor’s Award.
The Hummingbird relocated to Philadelphia in the 1940s and have called the region home ever since.
“When we first got out here we use to sing for the white folk and some of ‘em asked me why did we started singing,” said the group’s founder James B. Davis, 91. “I told ‘em that singing was what we knew.”
Actor Rev. Clifton Davis said the group helped formed his musical career. “I want to thank you,” preached Davis, “for going to those towns where you had to go to the colored outhouse, for going on the Chiltlin’ Circuit to sing the gospel of Jesus Christ. I want to thank you for struggling through segregation. I want to thank you for taking all of that discrimination and taking it in stride and praising god anyhow. I want to thank you for living long enough so that all of us could stop here today and thank you for what you’ve done for us.”
After the street naming, the audience was lead by the Heavenly Horns for their first walk up Dixie Hummingbird Way alongside the historic Metropolitan Opera House, or The Met, at Broad and Poplar Street. For many years the Met served as the gospel venue of choice for many artists and groups. Over the years, the Met has fallen into disrepair and is currently undergoing reconstruction.
“I think the met should be designated as a historical landmark because Same Cooke, Soul Stirrers, Dixie Hummingbirds, Clara Ward—everybody who was anybody in gospel sang at the Met and it should be just sitting there like it is,” lamented occasional Hummingbirds’ vocalist Rev. Joe Williams.
Other members of the Birds recalled fond memories of their days with the group. “It’s an honor that I never had any dream that I had any dream that I would accomplish one day,” said the group former guitarist Howard Carrol. “It proved to me that hard work does pay off.”
“It sort of transcends time,” said the group’s youngest vocalist Edwin Cornell McKnight, 21. “It’s more so like a time machine because you can hear the tunes of the past and the present day and a lot of people who were around when Mr. Tucker was around are no longer around. I came in knowing nothing about music and now Ii know so much, and I owe it all to him.”
The last living Ward Sister, Willa Ward, 85, practically hopped on stage and declared the group “the greatest quartet that ever lived.”
The naming of Dixie Hummingbirds Way also coincides with the group’s latest CD, “Keeping It Real…The Last Man Standing.” The title refers to the elder Tucker’s 60-plus years as the group’s lead vocalist.
“I really don’t know what to say,” said Tucker from the podium. “It really doesn’t get any better than this. I believe I voice the sentiment of everybody when I say God is good.”