The Golden Gate Quartet of America

Who was the Golden Gate Quartet?

The Golden Gate Quartet is considered to be the most well known Jubilee Quartet group during the Jubilee Quartet era (which lasted from around 1880-1929). A transition from the Jubilee Quartet style to the Gospel Quartet style occurred the 1930s, which is really when interest and popularity of the quartet music genre occurred (1930s-1950s).

A Jubilee Quartet is defined as a male or female ensemble that consists of four to six members. The vocal ranges of the Jubilee Quartet style consisted of four harmony parts. Since many of the most successful quartets were all male groups, the four harmony parts consisted of a lead singer that was usually a baritone, a bass singer, a second tenor, and a high tenor. Other elements of the singing style were call-and-response and a very formal appearance.  Many quartet groups, such as The Golden Gate Quartet, always wore tuxedos when performing. Perhaps the most distinctive element of a quartet was that performers always  sang in an a capella style.  Rarely were any instruments used in the background. Quartet groups also did not improvise their singing, meaning that they always sang their songs the exact same way every time they would sing the song.  

Early Beginnings of the Golden Gate Quartet

The Golden Gate Quartet was formed in 1934 by four high school students at Booker T. Washington High School in Norfolk, Virginia. The four members were Willie Johnson (the lead singer and baritone; died in 1980), William Landford (tenor singer; died in 1970), Henry Owens (second tenor singer;  died in 1970), and Orlandus Wilson (bass singer; died in 1998). 

In their early days, they sang in local churches and radio stations. Their early singing style was that of a traditional jubilee quartet style. In 1937, they won a contract with Bluebird Records in Charlotte, North Carolina. In 1938, their popularity grew since they made an appearance at the first From Spirituals to Swing Concert in New York City at Carnegie Hall. During this rise in popularity, there influence was so great that their 1938 recording of the song ‘John the Revelator’, which was inducted into the National Recording Registry in 2005. Besides performing at Carnegie Hall, the group also performed at the nightclub Cafe Society.

 

Peak of Success Years (1940s-1950s)

The high of popularity of the Golden Gate Quartet took place during World World II and a little bit after World War II. Due to their major success in New York City, they were given the opportunity to sign a new contract the subsidiary label of Columbia Records, Okeh in 1940. It was during the 1940s when the group gained nationwide fame and attention. In 1941, they sang at President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inauguration. At this event, The Golden Gate Quartet became the first African-American musical group to sing at Constitutional Hall. After this, they continued to do several performances at the White House.

The group continued to be popular during World War II and had several Hollywood appearances in films and performed secular music. The quartet had some unique and popular front songs, such as ‘Stalin Wasn’t Stallin’, which was song that displayed humor and political commentary. 

By the 1950s, the group started losing prominence and popularity due to new musical genre eras beginning, such as gospel. Another reason for their decline in popularity was because of new gospel groups forming that were more modern and did not have the traditional style of the Golden Gate Quartet. These groups included The Dixie Hummingbirds and The Soul Stirrers. Another contributing factor to a decline in popularity was that the original members left the group either because of being drafted into the war or to due other endeavors. 

However, in 1955, the new line up of he Golden Gate Quartet gave the group name it’s popularity back when they did their first official tour of Europe and had tremendous success. In 1959, the group relocated to Paris and continues to still tour in Europe today. 

Commodification of The Golden Gate Quartet

It is unknown how much The Golden Gate Quartet made. However, it must have been pretty decent and allowed them to live a financially comfortable lifestyle since they performed for radio stations and signed with a major record label, Columbia Records. They also performed at several prestigious venues, such as Constitutional Hall, Carnegie Hall, and the White House. The group has been stationed in Europe since the 1950s and has doe many U.S.State Department sponsored events and tours around the world. Though the group was very talented and popular, it should be noted that some of their talent was taken away and whitewashed by different talk show hosts and musicians, primarily Elvis Presley (who was also a big fan of the group). During the 1950s, with the creation of television, there was a notion of the black music becoming commercialized music. Sometimes, the group would sometimes go onto Hollywood television shows and be forced to sing the background vocals of a white singer that was trying to sing the same style of music that they (The Golden Gate Quartet) originally came up with themselves. It can be inferred that the group most likely did this to make money. 

Legacy, Awards, & Recognition of the Golden Gate Quartet

The Golden Gate Quartet has had a last legacy on the music industry in America. They have influenced many Motown music groups such as Smokey Robinson & the Miracles and The Temptations.  The group also helped pave the way for more career opportunities for black music artists in America. In 1998, after being long overdue, the group was inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame. None of the original members of the group were alive at this time. The Golden Gate Quartet has received much praise and recognition for influencing gospel and blues music as well. 

My Personal Opinion

I learned a lot of information about The Golden Gate Quartet when doing research and attending class lectures the son of one of the original group members. Dr. Kevin Johnson- son of Willie Johnson. I think that it is sad that so much history about black music and black excellence is not talked about in the media or in history textbooks. The Golden Gate Quartet has had so much influence on popularizing black music to mainstream popular American culture and for setting the stage for other new musical genres such as gospel, the blues, RnB, and the beginning groups of Motown. It is important to know the history behind music and the founders that helped contribute and influence the evolution of different genres of black music. It is important for people to know how much black music has been stolen and whitewashed by white music artists and do not receive credit for their musical genius and talent. I think The Golden Gate Quartet needs to be more talked about in music documentaries, books, and the media because they have done a lot for the progression of black music and American music in general during the mid-20th century. 

Sources

“Golden Gate Quartet.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 22 Feb. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_Gate_Quartet.

*NOTE: I got some of this information from my class lecture notes