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Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2010

Hummingbird Records’ Songs of Praise

For decades, the Milwaukee label enjoyed the soul-gospel boom

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There was a time whenAfrican-American men in matching suits and women in diaphanous dressessingingpraises to the Lord inimpassioned harmonywere major concertdraws in urbanchurches and other venues. The prominence of soul gospelquartet music may have waned, but Milwaukee played a part in its original vitality thanks toHummingbird Records.

Chester Witherspoon, now a semi-retired pastor, was asinger with The Sensational Hummingbirds in mid-1960s Dumas, Ark., when his longshoreman uncle, Benjamin, paid a visit from Milwaukee to see his musically inclined nephew.

"It was organized in 1966 or 1967," Witherspoon recalls of the label. With no apparentimmodesty, he adds,"What caused him [Benjamin] to start the label was that he heard us. He always carried his reel-to-reel.

"Our first record was recorded in a house," Witherspoon adds.

That single was for Chicago's Church Records, and the publisher associated with that label, Sonny Bonomo, would continue to work with Hummingbirduntil its mid-1980s demise.

"He got sick, and it stopped," Witherspoon says of his uncle Benjamin'spart-time occupation as a mogulof sacred music.

Until the mid-1980s Hummingbirdissued 45s and LPs by some ofMilwaukee's most colorfully named gospel acts, some of which are still active.The Holy Providers, The Holy Supremes, Gloster Williams & The Gospel Chanters and the comboregularly heard on WCGV Channel 24's “Gospel Roundup”in the ’80s, The Heavenly Stars, number amongartists from Tennessee,Arkansas, Mississippi, Michigan and Kansas who all recordednationally distributed releases for the label.

Though its founder didn't earn enough to quithis longshoreman gig, "every month we had to order more material,"Witherspoon says in reference to the vinyl that Hummingbird ordered from pressing plants. As for royalty money earned by The Sensational Hummingbirds (later known as The Sensational Birds of Harmony to avoid confusion with the more widely knownDixie Hummingbirds), "we didn't earn enough to argue about it."

The biggest radio hit the imprint produced, to Witherspoon's recollection, was by The Christian Harmonizers, an ensemble originally hailing from Memphis, Tenn., who madeMilwaukee theirbase fora while. Their"Black Man, Keep On Doing Your Thing" was recorded "right after the riots"that the Northwest Side experienced in1969, Witherspoon says.

The changing nature of black gospel music production—where synthesizers overtookmore organic keyboard sounds—coincided with Hummingbird’s demise. An earlier culprit in diminishing theprofileof local and regional gospel was the rise of the same practice that some mark as the death of rock ’n’ roll's innocence in the ’50s: payola.

"The big companies paid to have their stuff played," says Witherspoon, contrasting with a time in 1969-’70when Hummingbird "had five songs in the top 10 in the Midwest," according toindividual radio stations’ playlists.

Recently retired local gospel singer Johnny Euell, who recorded for Hummingbird as a soloist and as a member ofa choircalled The Harmoniques, affirms the importance of the label. "Mr. (Benjamin)Witherspoonrecorded quite a few of the groups out here,” he says.

Choral music and more contemporary sacred music have largelyovertaken traditionalsoul gospel sounds in the city and nation. But as the trend for reissuingsoundspost-golden age/pre-synth gospel continues, the Hummingbird catalog is due for some excavation.

Some ofHummingbird’sreleases canbe heard via MP3 on the Web site JustMovingOn.info, which also hosts a partial discography.

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