Shedding Some Light on Underrated Jubilee Quartets

Jubilee Quartet Background

History

The Jubilee Quartet genre began in the mid-1800’s, which came from the African American university singing movement. There were three distinct periods throughout the progression of Jubilee Quartets. The first period was from 1880-1929 which is referred to as the jubilee period. The second period was from 1930-45 and it is called the transitional period. The final period was from 1946-69 which is known as the gospel period. These periods did overlap since they were transitioning into another period. In the 1840’s, whites created minstrel shows, these shows were for whites and they included dancing, verbal dialogue, and songs. African Americans began making their own minstrel groups since they can’t perform in the white shows. As early as the 1850s companies began having all-Black casts and it began popular in the 1870’s. The sacred quartet singing had fully developed by the 1890s. Benefits the quartet singers received included recognition, money and the ability to perform in the entertainment world that was exclusively for whites.

In the 1880’s, the barbershop quartet tradition was observed by the African Americans. Hence the name, these groups were established in neighborhood barbershops. White performers appropriated the African American barbershop quartets and it was included in Black minstrel shows as well. Recordings of white groups singing the barbershop style become popular so many associate the barbershop sound with white quartets.

During it’s primetime, the quartet culture evolved and advanced a lot. Quartets advanced to five members instead of the standard four during the late 1930’s, this is referred to as “swing lead”, “switch lead”, or “double lead”. The guitar was added in the 1940’s. Song battles were another popular advancement of the quartet culture. In these battles quartets would go head to head and compete against each other for trophies and publicity or just to get their names out there. In some cases they’d be rewarded with recording contracts or having their music played on the radio. The winner would be decided either by judges or the audience.

Instruments and Elements

Common instruments used by quartets included bass and drums, the guitar was added on later in the quartet culture. A quartet consisted of four voices, up to six voices, this changed over time as they added a voice and the standard became five singers. They sang four-part harmony arrangements a cappella style or with limited instrumentation. 

Quartets would dress very professional, as the old saying says they “cleaned up very well”. They wore matching suits and some groups would wear tuxedos. This was especially the case when they had a formal performance or one in front of white audiences. 

Fisk Jubliee Singers

Despite their name the Fisk Jubilee Singers, today, are not a jubilee quartet. The Fisk Jubilee Singers saved their school, Fisk University in Nashville from going bankrupt in 1870. In 1871, the university’s treasurer and choir director, George L. White, decided to put together nine students and take them on tour. By the beginning of 1873, they were touring all across the U.S. and even expanding to Europe. The Fisk Jubilee Singers did not only save their school financially, they also gave the signers fame and created a foundation for the Jubilee genre. The quartets based everything on the university jubilee quartets.

The Quartets

The Mills Brothers

The brothers were born in Piqua, Ohio. The oldest of the brothers was John C. Mills, second born was Herbert Mills, the third born was Harry Mills and the youngest was Donald Mills. The brothers started out a barbershop quartet, which was only appropriate considering their father owned a barbershop. In 1936 John died so their father, John H. Mills took over for him so they could keep the act going. The brothers’ biggest hit was their 1943 “Paper Doll”. The group performed with other well known artists such as the Bosewell Sisters, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. The brothers were the first African Americans to have their own national radio show.

Five Blind Boys of Mississippi

The members were Archie Brownlee, Joseph Ford, Lawerence Abrams and Lloyd Woodard. In the late 1930’s, the group was formed at Piney Woods School and originally they called themselves the Cotton Blossom Singers. The group had several replaced singers throughout the development of their careers. In the 1950s the group moved to Houston, Texas and signed to Peacock Records. Their biggest hit and most popular song was “Our Father”. Ray Charles and James Brown took their cues from the original leader, Brownlee’s performances.

Golden Gate Quartet

The most popular jubilee quartet was the Golden Gate Quartet. The group was from Norfolk, Virginia, in the mid 1930s they went to Booker T. Washington High School. The members were the baritone and narrator, Willie Johnson, the first tenor, Henry Owens, second tenor, William Langford, and bass, Orlandus Wilson. In 1947, they had their biggest record success with was the song, “Shadrack”. The Golden Gates performed President Franklin Roosevelt’s inauguration and were requested by Eleanor Roosevelt to come back. In 1959, the quartet moved to Paris and signed a two-year contract with Casino de Paris. 

Impact

Jubilee quartets helped influence the development of gospel music. Considering quartets started with singing spirituals and songs with biblical references the quartet genre transitioned into gospel music smoothly. During the gospel period of quartets they transitioned into being called gospel quartets. Quartets not only influenced gospel music but music to come after it in general. Beatboxing comes from the influence of barbershop quartets. 

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