On a Sunday afternoon, James Steen and Deacon William Evans sit shoulder to shoulder in creaky, collapsible wooden chairs between two carpeted pillars at the Atlantic Street Baptist Church in Southeast D.C. Eighty-two-year-old Steen, partially bald with a half-moon of grayish-white hair, holds himself upright, with his feet drawn close and his hands clasped quietly over his knees. He is sedate, unflappable, and he almost looks his age. However, Evans, who is 85, looks decades younger. He has straightened, jet-black hair, mahogany skin, heavily tinted glasses, and a gold pinkie ring with a diamond in it. He plants his feet far apart and cocks his legs wide. His age is betrayed only by his head, which quivers slightly but steadily.
In this small church built in an old house, with a neatly handwritten sign outside but without a steeple or a cross, Steen and Evans, the two elder members of the Four Echoes, the District’s last close-harmony jubilee quartet, wait for the start of their program. With them are their tenor, Jerry Andrews, 64, and bass Glenn Taylor, who, at 43, is called “the baby of the group.” The men are decked out in single-breasted beige suits and their signature collarless shirts with black-and-gold buttons. In the annals of African-American musical history, the quartet constitutes an epilogue. But this afternoon, if Evans has things his way, the Four Echoes will own the room.
Taylor begins to fine-tune the stage equipment while Evans dispenses a litany of commands from his folding chair. “The mike’s too close to the speaker there,” he scolds. “Don’t set [the mike stands] out there. I don’t want them out there.” Taylor smiles as if he’s keeping a secret, does as he’s told, and sits to tune his electric guitar. Andrews dozes off with his cheek pressed into his palm, emitting a light snore.
Soon, Evans nudges Steen, whispers in his ear, and points at Taylor. The other members of the group sport their usual straight-edged hand
kerchiefs folded in their breast pockets, but Taylor has adopted the contemporary tulip-shaped tuck today. Evans is not pleased. “It looks like you’re flying an airplane,” he warns. Taylor promptly folds the black accessory down, though Evans makes no apology for wearing his hankie in mismatched navy blue.
As they have gotten ready, about 12 churchgoers have trickled in. Now a robust woman serving as MC begins to prep the folks in the audience for the Four Echoes’ performance with her brassy alto gospel solo, which flows into a call-and-response pattern. “We’re about to break off a little bit of history,” she says. “Kirk Franklin didn’t just start this thing,” she adds, referring to the contemporary gospel-pop artist. “We’re going back to the roots.”
A thin, brown-skinned lady in the third row clutches her tambourine. Against a backdrop of purple-and-white plastic potted flowers on the royal-blue carpeted altar, Evans seizes a microphone. Steen marches into position stooped slightly forward. “We’re not going to do this temporary singing,” says Evans, suggesting that the music he does will be around for a long time to come. “We’re going to be down-home singing.” Evans and Steen grew up in rural North and South Carolina, back when AM radio was the only mass medium and their style of layered a cappella vocals was the rule rather than the curio.
Passing the vocal torch between baritone, bass, tenor, and lead, the Four Echoes’ voices rise and fall from supple high to bedrock-low tones. Bodies sway slowly to and fro with their rendition of the slow-tempo traditional spiritual “Wade in the Water”:
Oh, Jordan River, so gentle and cold
My God’s gonna trouble the water.
It chilled my body, child, but not my soul.
Three paper stick fans flutter in the air. Evans closes his eyes.
Wade in the water.
Why don’t you
the water children?
Down in the water.
You know my God’s gonna trouble the water.
Foot-stomping and hand-clapping vibrate the house’s foundation as each voice accepts its distinct place and tonal quality in the complex harmony structure of “Let Me Tell You About Jesus.” The Echoes’ delivery is concise, controlled, and affecting. Steen winks at Evans, and they milk the gatherers for more involvement. Like the classic showmen they are, the old-timers lean into Andrews’ mike, as if to tighten up the harmony.
Well Isaiah said he saw him
With his dying garment on,
Crossed up on his shoulder,
And wagging all alone,
Crown of thorns up on his forehead.
Blood like sweat ran down.
Tell me, who wouldn’t serve a God like him?
A plump woman in the second row blushes as Evans strokes the audience. “When’s the last time you heard singing like this?” he asks. “Tell the truth! Tell the truth!” Then he answers: “When you were a little child coming up in the fields.”
He removes the mike from its holster. Sweat beads collect on his skin as he wops across the floor to “Children, Go Where I Send Thee.” Half the crowd stands as Evans begins to duck up and down and lurch toward the audience. The Four Echoes have succeeded in making the church their own.
“We can’t pay them for that singing,” says Deacon James McCambry during the offering. “We’d have to take up these baskets a thousand times.”
By the middle of the 1930s, traditional slave spirituals were stylized into the highly syncopated four-part harmony with rhythmic pulses dubbed jubilee. “It’s not fast,” says Steen. “But people think it’s fast. It’s like a trick to it. It’s 4/4 time.” Proud craftsman that he is, Evans adds, “You’ve got to know how to hit it and cut it.” Spirituals gradually build in momentum until they reach the fast-tempo “jubileeing” mode, where rhythm and lyrics are tightly woven together to produce vocal percussion.
Why don’t you swing down, sweet chariot,
Stop and let me ride?
Rock me, Lord,
Rock me, Lord,
I’ve got a home on the other side.
Like many African-Americans of his generation from the South, Steen didn’t complete grade school. But he knows a thing or two about a thing or two: He claims extensive knowledge of the jubilee repertoire. “I’ve been singing those verses for years. Over 40-something years,” says the jubilee griot. In quintessential jubilee, biblical parables serve as narrative hooks in a tradition of verbalizing against a musical backdrop, like rap:
Old Ezekiel went down in the middle of the field.
He saw an angel working on the chariot wheel.
Wasn’t so particular about the chariot wheel,
Just wanted to see how a chariot would feel…
As one of the rare quartets still practicing jubilee, the Four Echoes have become local legends with national significance. In 1994, they received a Mayor’s Arts Award from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. The group has performed at the Kennedy Center and the Smithsonian Institution; the members’ four-part harmony has taken them to churches and auditoriums in Pennsylvania, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, and West Virginia.
In 1988, the group appeared at the Library of Congress’ Neptune Plaza before a huge crowd. Inside the library’s offices, “not a letter was typed. Not a cup of coffee was poured,” remembers Mike Licht, who promoted the program while working as the resident folklorist at the D.C. Commission of Arts and Humanities. “It was the largest crowd [the library] ever had.”
Evans says the group was even invited to Liberia in 1994 to perform, though the country’s civil war prevented the Four Echoes’ first overseas appearance: They canceled the trip.
Since then, Steen and Evans have mostly stayed home. “We don’t travel much now,” says Steen. “Too old.” Nowadays, the farthest the guys stray out of the District is a church in Onley, Va., on the state’s eastern shore, where they’ve been singing once a year for almost 40 years.
The Four Echoes attribute their formidable staying power to their faith. “Once you get hooked on the power of God, there is no quitting,” says Evans. “As long as I’m alive, I’m going to
continue to sing.”
Evans, a retired police officer, says he had jubilee in his blood before the Four Echoes formed, in 1946. Two of his uncles were members of the Birmingham Jubilee Singers, which recorded with Columbia Records in the mid-’20s. A native of Rocky Mount, N.C., Evans arrived in the District with his father during the great migration of the ’20s and began singing in a family quartet when he was 9. In 1939, while working as a sleeping-car porter on the railroads, he formed the Gospel Four, and when he was 34, he sang in the 1948 Danny Kaye film, A Song Is Born.
Steen’s quartet history is equally extensive. At 16, the baritone could be heard on radio broadcasts with the Southland Jubilee Quartet in the Carolinas; and while in the military during World War II, he sang to thousands in Kentucky, Alabama, Florida, and Indiana under the banner of the Victory Four, his military-community quartet.
“All the originals, the ones who came in with us, done gone out,” says Evans. Four Echoes founder and lead singer Carl Covington died in 1986, which was when Evans took the helm.
In the quartet tradition, when one member is no longer willing or able to sing, the group goes on. “When one falls out, passes, or gets too sick, somebody has to fill in,” says Steen. “You know, carry the Four Echoes on.”
Illness forced James Nelson, the Four Echoes’ last tenor, to call it quits three years ago at age 69. The Four Echoes is the first jubilee quartet for Andrews, though he sang with gospel quartets before joining. He grew up listening to jubilee on the radio in North Carolina and was well prepared to step into Nelson’s shoes.
“The harmony just began to fall apart in some areas, all the way up until Jerry came along,” says Taylor, who’s been with the group for 26 years. “He’s about one of the best tenors I’ve ever heard.” That is, except for the original and “superb” tenor, the late Paul Davis.
In more than 45 years with the Four Echoes, Evans and Steen have watched seven other members expire.
The gospel is made flesh every week among D.C.’s faithful in a sprawling local quartet culture. In a close-knit community, almost 100 quartets hop among school auditoriums and churches—big or tiny, modern or creaky—ministering in song every week to all who lend an ear, offering a spiritual repertoire with secular styling. Many groups jam for Jesus and garner grass-roots prestige in hot-red jackets or royal-blue shoes, but the Four Echoes are staunch conservatives. In this extended family of quartets, the old-timers stand out—for reasons that go beyond their preference for basic black or beige suits and matching shoes.
The Four Echoes cherish a dying art. With the rise in heavy instrumentation and the almost total disappearance of professional, commercially successful jubilee quartets, the emphasis on the four-part harmony that defined the African-American quartet tradition through the ’60s has all but vanished. Even the word “quartet” has become a misnomer. Historically, the term signified the harmony structure—tenor, lead, baritone, bass—not necessarily the number of people in the group. But the District’s widely encompassing quartet family is unofficially redefining the word to denote groups of four as well as small ensembles.
“It’s easier to be a quartet singer now—just because you don’t have to work at some of the nuances of harmony as before. It’s not an exact science like it was before,” says George Washington University musicologist Kip Lornell. “It’s background singing more than harmony singing.” Today, quartets play up the instrumental accompaniment and lead singing, whereas the emphasis used to be well divided between lead and harmony singing.
Flatten or sharpen the wrong note in four-part harmony, and you hear it very quickly. “It’s like if you’re a tennis player and you screw up; you’re the only one on your side unless you’re playing doubles,” says Lornell, who in 1988 published Happy in the Service of the Lord: African-American Sacred Vocal Harmony Quartets in Memphis.
If “you have harmony…you’ve got it made,” Evans maintains.
When Rose Simenton first heard the Four Echoes on WUST in 1985, she was sold. “I thought it was the most fascinating singing going,” says Simenton. “I don’t think I paid any attention to jubilee until I heard the Four Echoes.”
In 1992, Simenton was awarded a grant from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities to have Evans train her and her female gospel quartet, the Stars of Hope, for eight weeks. They learned “Twelve Gates to the City” and “Steal Away,” among other songs. Simenton became a “basser.” Still, she admits, the rest of her group wasn’t wild about the idea of singing jubilee style, and its two-month tour of “deep, deep harmony” was tough going.
And that’s just the harmony. The Echoes, formerly an a cappella group, added an acoustic guitar in 1954, and in 1977 they replaced it with an electric guitar. They still oppose bringing on the drums, electric keyboards, electric guitar, and bass guitar used by gospel quartets today, and their low-playing guitar sounds more like a ukulele. The Four Echoes scoff at the jazzed-up, church-rocking gospel quartet sound. “All they’re doing is bammin’ and bammin’ and bammin’ and busting your eardrums,” says Andrews. “This young generation, they want to hear the music. They’re not thinking about the words.”
Steen shakes his head in dismay. “That’s what kills things now, the music,” he chimes in.
Whereas other quartets pepper their repertoire with issues of the day, such as drug abuse and crime, the Four Echoes keep the Bible as their mainstay. “This gospel they’re singing now is not real gospel,” says Steen of other quartets. “Real gospel is like the jubilee song. Songs that have an ending, that tell a story.” He uses “gospel” in its most literal sense. The Four Echoes’ classic jubilee repertoire yields liberal interpretations of biblical parables, like “Jezebel,” about the seductress of antiquity who lured men to sin.
Stop. Let me tell you ’bout Jezebel.
Her soul went leaping and jumping in hell.
They tell me way back yonder in the olden days
John told Jezebel about her ways.
She got mad at John because he told her ’bout the gospel,
Told her servant to boil him in oil.
They tell me God looked down from the windows of heaven,
Spoke one word and the oil wouldn’t boil.
“The half-sung, half-spoken vocal lead, the rhyming scheme, and the vocal patterns used may vary some, but the idea is not that different from rap at all,” says Lornell. Except instead of the self-aggrandizing lyrics that characterize rap today, there are words devoted to God Almighty.
The ringing of the hammer was judgment.
The ringing of the saw cried, “Sinner repent.”
One hundred years he hammered and sawed
Building the ark by the grace of God.
Then he called in the animals two by two—
The ox, the camel, and the kangaroo.
Then he called in Japheth, Ham, and Shem.
They tell me God began to flood the land.
Raised his hand,
Stood on the land,
Stepped off the shore,
Declared the tide wouldn’t be no more.
“The talking parts made jubilee famous. Some guys have been to college and can’t touch these verses,” says Steen. “I’m about the only one living who can say those verses now. Owens with the Golden Gates, he passed. Brother Bill with the Gates, he’s gone,” he says.
“A jubilee quartet is sharp,” says Evans. “You don’t go and repeat the same thing over and over again.” Gospel quartets like the Southern Gospel Singers also differ from jubilee in that they lean toward a more colloquial repertoire, toward more personal testimony.
Mama, I remember when we were young
You tried to raise us as best you could.
You would go and work the field
So we would have a family meal.
Sometimes through the storm and through the rain,
Sometimes through the heartache and pain,
I am glad Jesus will never say no…
“I don’t care what comes or goes. [The Four Echoes] maintain their style,” says Samuel Johnson, the manager and lead singer of the Dee Cee Harmoneers gospel quartet. When Steen arrived in the Washington area after World War II, gospel quartets had begun to eclipse jubilee.
“Before the war, it’s spiritual quartets and tuxedos; and after the war, it’s gospel groups and pink jackets,” says Licht. Even a decade after the war, many gospel quartets sang some jubilee songs; there was still significant, widespread interest in the style. But not anymore. The Four Echoes, says Johnson, “stand alone.”
Fisk University’s Jubilee Singers, many of whom were former slaves, won international recognition for their 1871 tour of America and Europe, and are largely credited with introducing black spirituals to the world. Fueled by the need to raise funds for the school, the Reconstruction-era group became the cornerstone of a musical movement as its fundraising strategy was adopted by other struggling black schools, including Tuskegee University in Alabama and Hampton University in Virginia. “The community-based quartet movement is directly linked to the university and college jubilee tradition,” says Bernice Johnson Reagon, who is a founder of the all-woman a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock and a music historian at American University.
The harmony training and vocal culture taught at the universities moved into elementary schools and high schools around the turn of the century, and it caught on among working-class blacks, ultimately leading some folk quartets to professional (or semi-professional) status. A few female quartets developed, but the majority of quartets were all-male—and, by the early 1900s, the country counted scores of them. From the ’20s through the ’50s, community-based jubilee singing was a national African-American pastime. Wherever black men from the South settled, they formed quartets. Porters, soldiers, high school students, and factory and construction workers alike would seek or be sought to sing in a quartet. Quartets helped build a parallel universe of affirmation during the segregation era. Alabama produced the Birmingham Jubilee Singers and the Famous Blue Jay Singers; Tennessee produced the Fairfield Four; and the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet called Norfolk home.
“If Bill Monroe started bluegrass and Charlie Parker pioneered bebop, then the Golden Gates are the progenitors of the jubilee gospel style,” says Lornell. Both collegiate and independent jubilee quartets mined the treasure of traditional spirituals—songs that date back to slavery and are largely unattributed. The Golden Gates introduced lyrical and musical innovations.
In the mid-’30s the Golden Gates’ founder, Willie Johnson, wrote jubilee songs with a narrative structure that included biblical heroes—such as Noah and Job—and the group perfected a highly rhythmic, syncopated sound that sharpened the timing of the traditional songs by adding percussive vocals. “Any group that calls itself jubilee today would have to have some of the songs from the Golden Gates,” says Reagon, who dubs their sound “cushion-rich” four-part harmony.
The Gates, as they were called, recorded on Bluebird in 1937, and, later, on Columbia Records. They were broadcast on the NBC radio network, and appeared in several films. The group became the most commercially successful of jubilee quartets.
There have been 16 members of the Golden Gates since the quartet first formed at Booker T. Washington High School in Norfolk 65 years ago, and the group, expatriate in Europe since 1955, currently performs without any of its original members. The Gates were flexible enough to add pop songs to their repertoire before they left the U.S., where their fame began to ebb.
The legendary Sam Cooke himself sang jubilee before joining the Soul Stirrers, a trailblazing gospel quintet, in 1950. The Soul Stirrers, who originated in Texas and migrated to Chicago, stand among the forefathers of rhythm and blues and doo-wop, though Cooke anchored himself to the gospel quartet tradition for only six years before leaving the group to begin his solo, secular, rock ‘n’ roll career.
Jubilee and old-line gospel quartets overlap in their respective repertoires, but the latter deliver more emotional, passionate, and evocative lead singing, prodding their audiences with the energy of an intense preacher. Whereas jubilee is more likely to present traditional spirituals and the original compositions of the Golden Gate quartet, gospel quartets limit the spirituals, work out their own arrangements, write their own songs, and include more composers. They draw on the work of composers like Kenneth Morris and Thomas A. Dorsey, the former piano-playing blues artist who accompanied the legendary Ma Rainey as “Georgia Tom” before becoming the consummate gospel composer in the ’30s known today as the “Father of Gospel Music.”
But repertoire notwithstanding, when interest in soloists, large ensembles, and choirs rose in the ’60s, both jubilee and gospel quartets’ radio play shrank. Commercial interest in quartet music has been comparatively limited ever since. From folk status to popular acclaim and back, jubilee quartets have come full circle.
Yet Evans, a jubilee man to the end, is not dismayed. Jubilee and the gospel quartet tradition have influenced both Sweet Honey in the Rock and the Grammy Award-winning gospel group Take 6. Not even in the rise of today’s gospel stars, such as Kirk Franklin and God’s Property, does Evans detect a threat.
“I don’t care about Kirk Franklin. I mean, I love him, but I don’t care about his temporary music,” says Evans. “The singing that we do will last forever.”
Today’s quartet audience wants to speak in tongues, shout “Hallelujah!” and feel the spirit of the Holy Ghost course through its veins. But the Four Echoes, elder statesmen of the quartet community, don’t feed that craving. “This year we’ve been out only a couple of times, because folks just haven’t invited us,” says Steen.
“They can sing. That’s not the problem,” says Washington Metropolitan Area Quartet Association President Jonathan Shanks (also the drummer for the Southern Gospel Singers). “The people who come to the programs now really don’t want to hear that type of singing. They want to hear something they can shout to….People won’t invite them because of their style.”
The District quartet community puts on at least 100 events a year. Every week, it seems, there’s an anniversary party held for some quartet or other—some quartets even have anniversary parties for their fan clubs. They spice up the programs with special guest community and semiprofessional performers from as far away as Brooklyn, N.Y., and Tyler, Texas. Local groups sometimes get a cut of the door, sometimes a small portion of the offering, and sometimes nothing at all. But no matter, the programs are often the main outlet for the insular community.
Well, that is, besides the home-grown annual black-tie “Grammy-style” awards program, where the Metropolitan Washington Area Quartet Association has honored its own for two years. Of the 300-plus awards given out at this event, the Four Echoes have taken home one each year. Still, on the whole, says the Stars of Hope’s Simenton, “People don’t really recognize jubilee like they should.”
Even if people were clamoring for the Four Echoes, the group would still have trouble staying together. Andrews, the newest member, says he has stuck with the group for far too long. He signed up for just an interim stint in 1996 while the group was supposed to be finding another tenor, and he says his three years will not turn into four: “They don’t want to see me quit. I spoke about quitting the Four Echoes two or three times with them.”
To hear him tell it, he’s a tenor extraordinaire. “I swell my tenor to fill in the empty spots. If I’m back there singing, you’ll think it’s two people there, and it’s just me—one,” he says through the space where he’s missing his front teeth. He says he can squeal, moan, and sing minors and overtones in tenor.
But jubilee, he says, is just not his style. Andrews yearns to exercise his vocal dexterity with a quartet reminiscent of the Soul Stirrers. “I’m strictly a gospel singer. I can’t get my feeling in [jubilee],” he says. “It’s killing my feeling.” He’s been distancing himself lately, driving himself to programs instead of rolling in Evans’ minivan with the group. “I’m backing out. I have to go where my heart is leading me to go,” he says.
Andrews contends that he’s not easily replaceable. “They know I’m leaving. I don’t think they want to find another tenor. They really don’t want me to go anywhere,” he says. “Everybody can’t do that jubilee tenor. They can’t fill in with it.”
The tenor position has been a revolving door. Evans’ dictatorial managing style hasn’t helped. Willie Green of the Dee Cee Harmoneers served as the Four Echoes’ tenor for two years in the ’80s. “I like jubilee,” Green says, “but it really wasn’t my style.”
A month ago, George Blake filled in when Andrews missed a program. But Blake says he won’t become a regular. Popularity isn’t Blake’s reason for staying on the fringe; his quartet singing career ended when he became a full-time pastor.
“It’s hard to find someone that wants to fill in,” says Steen.
What happens to jubilee 10 years from now?
“It won’t be no jubilee if the young guys don’t try to learn it,” he says. “It’ll die out if they don’t pick it up.”
Traditionally, the quartet trainer, a curator of vocal craft, would pass on the repertoire, teach groups how to arrange the songs, and determine who was best-suited for which parts—low-range alto, and so on. It was an esteemed position.
No one has requested Evans’ skill as a trainer for almost a decade. “You worry yourself to try to find someone to sing jubilee,” says Evans. “I’m tired of teaching people” who don’t try to carry it on, he adds. “You’ve got to want it.” Evans trained the Stars of Hope, Prophecy, and the Spiritual Kings of Harmony. The last group has disbanded, the Stars of Hope rarely sing the handful of
songs he taught them, and Evans isn’t sure what became of Prophecy.
The Four Echoes’ own harmony is not quite as crisp as it used to be. Traditionally, the bass is the most vocally active part, the rhythmic anchor, but Taylor is no Barry White. He wasn’t born with a deep, husky voice, and he’s had to learn his part. After playing the guitar for three years, he began to work into bass, until he outlasted their original basser. “I give him a lot of credit, because he’s not a real basser. But he knows how to force his voice and make it heavy,” says Blake, an elder in the quartet community who MCs quartet events.
Besides, Taylor can hear harmony, perhaps more of a gift than a skill. In the early ’50s, Elvis Presley himself tried out for the all-white Songfellows quartet in Memphis, but, says Lornell, “he couldn’t hear harmony. He was used to being a lead singer. He couldn’t hear harmony.”
“I had a vision we would cut records as good as we sounded when I first joined,” says Taylor. “But everything just has its place in time. In other words, longevity has its place.” Age has taken the group’s sound down a few pegs. Right now, the Four Echoes are just trying to keep jubilee and their brand of harmony alive.
It’s 8:45 on a Sunday morning at all-gospel WWGB 1030 AM. Evans sits with his black Bible case on the table, his canvas hat tilted to the side. Through a glass window, the DJ gives him the cue. Evans thanks the Florida Avenue Grill, Johnson and Jenkins Funeral Home, and J.B. Jenkins Funeral Home for sponsoring the Four Echoes’ 15-minute radio program. Then he thanks God: “Lord, I do thank you. Thank you right now for the food we do eat. Thank you right now for this broadcast. Thank you for this radio station so the quartets can be heard…”
The Four Echoes used to issue cassettes regularly to feed their fan base, but that didn’t help them get radio play. Even on AM radio, programmers decline to play cassettes. But unlike more popular old-line gospel quartets like the Southern Gospel Singers, the Four Echoes have never even recorded an album. “We all know if you have tapes, you’re not going to get your music played. The average announcer is not going to be trying to cue up a tape,” says Shanks, the drummer for the Southern Gospel Singers. “The average quartet group locally cannot afford to get CDs.”
On the “sunup-to-sundown” station, the Four Echoes are in “very, very light rotation”—which translates to once a month, if they’re lucky. But it’s their vintage style, just as much as the inconvenience of the cassette, that keeps them mostly off the air.
“We try to follow the hits and stay in with the trend of what is popular with the listeners,” says WWGB Program Director Kevin Lankford, who had never even heard of the Golden Gates when we spoke. “There are no jubilee groups in heavy rotation. We try to stay with modern music, youthful music.”
“Turn on…any of the larger gospel stations in any of the cities where [community quartets] are large, and you’re not going to hear quartets. Period,” says folklorist Licht. However, some stations, such as D.C.’s WYCB and WHUR, will slide in a quartet track from time to time. “But just because [quartets] stopped being popular in the segment of mass market that’s gospel doesn’t mean they stopped doing what they do.”
In the District’s quartet field, the Southern Gospel Singers are in a realm of their own. They host 60 percent of their programs out of town, have recorded two albums and several singles, and have traveled as far as Milwaukee on the three buses they own.
Whatever the differences between the old style and the new, the quartets are firmly linked. Evans shares the radio station’s roundtable with Shanks and Pat Seigler of the Gospel Pearls. Seigler and Shanks leaf through multicolored fliers, announcing all the quartet programs in the city for the next three weeks between a 30-second snippet from a Four Echoes song and a Gospel Pearls song. They use this time to promote quartet events.
The quartet community is somewhat cloistered. “Right now what happens is, you sing on my program, I’ll sing on yours. And the same audience will come around and pass around the same raggedy dollar bill between everybody,” says Licht woefully. “To my way of thinking, if you like the Four Tops, you’re going to like the Dee Cee Harmoneers.” But, he adds, as often as not, “they play for each other. They sing for each other.”
The gospel quartet community once had a more purposeful agenda. Whereas Fisk’s Jubilee Singers acted as a fundraising arm for higher education, the District’s community quartets raised their voices to uplift storefront churches through the early ’80s. Shanks remembers hopping from church to church to help shore up their building funds. Many of the churches had choirs, but pastors knew their congregations would come back for evening programs to hear groups that they hadn’t heard during the regular service. “Quartets are the ones that built the churches,” says Shanks. “In a month’s time, they’d raise close to a thousand dollars from the quartet programs. And the quartets didn’t charge.”
More recently, though, preachers have begun to look down on the gospel quartet community. “There are churches and there are pastors who think that [the quartet community is] undignified and low-class and country and ‘Bama,” says Licht.
The more conservative Four Echoes’ reach has been diminished by time and a fragmenting audience. When Steen first joined the Four Echoes, they rehearsed once, sometimes twice a week for performances every Sunday. But the group has rehearsed only three times in the past three years. “We don’t rehearse much now, because we don’t do that much singing. They don’t invite many quartets like they used to. Used to be quartets were the main thing years ago,” says Steen. “We had a few more standard dates. But we don’t have them now. See, when they change preachers, they change their plan.”
But unsavory behavior by men in some quartets also helped shrink their platform. Occasionally, members would smell like alcohol while crooning about Jesus or womanize on church grounds—which made preachers hesitate to invite them back.
“When they’d build the church,” says Shanks, “they’d forget about you.”
“Check One. Testing One. Check One. Testing One.”
On Saturday night at the Holy Land Spiritual Temple on Montello Avenue NE, two ladies under church hats sink into maroon-velveteen-cushioned pews. “Praise the Lord, sugar,” says a woman in a royal-blue hat and polyester dress to MC Rose Simenton, grabbing her close. The progressive, early ’80s trend toward presenting Jesus as black in black churches passed by this small sanctuary with bluish-green walls and a deeply Southern feel. A white Jesus hangs on each wall, in portraits of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion, among others. As many quartet singers as audience members collect in the church’s 13 pews.
The Four Echoes are third on the list of nine quartets scheduled to perform at the Washington Metropolitan Area Quartet Association’s fundraiser. The Echoes look dapper in black pinstriped, double-breasted suits, white collarless shirts, and Pierre Cardin signature socks. Their old-fashioned tie-ups curve at the tips. Evans’ shoes shine the brightest, but Steen’s monogrammed black handkerchief exudes classic style.
The drummer brought in to play for several groups taps the cymbal, preparing to accompany the Four Echoes. He’s been cranking it up for the other quartets.
“Still the drums,” Evans tells him. “We don’t need the drums. I want you to hear what we’re singing about.”
During “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” Evans swings around with the microphone in his left hand and reminds the drummer to put on the brakes with a wave of his right hand. The drummer chomps on his gum and grimaces.
They sing three songs. Three people stand and sway, but most just bob their heads to the rhythm. When they finish, the group disperses. Evans, the only one of the Four Echoes without a bald spot, sits in a row in back. Andrews sits two rows in front of Steen, on the opposite side of the church.
Next, the Dee Cee Harmoneers rock the house with gospel funk. Lead singer Johnson’s hot-pink jacket clashes with the pews. He sports a Jheri curl, a gold cross around his neck, and a gold pinkie ring on each hand. Guitarist Ray Lytes Jr.’s balding head glistens with moisture; sweat drizzles through his hourglass sideburns. At least 15 people in the crowd stand. A light-skinned man in the second row does the wop. A Little Richard scream comes from the audience.
Steen looks on and is still. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Christopher Bruns.