The recorder is off. But the Capitol City Five is not finished: David Jones, who didn't say more than a word or two for the past hour, is swaying in his seat, under the spell of his strong baritone. Warren Baldwin, equally quiet up to this point, sings in a bass that makes one think of smooth stones tumbling down a brick well into the bluest water you've ever seen. The group eases into song.
The first song is built around an exuberant chorus—"Shine on, shine on"—and it's followed by "When the Sun of My Life Goes Down." It's a celebration, one of faith and of fellowship, of musical gifts and, truth be told, maybe of not having to answer any more questions. The voices meet, but not as one. This is important: They meet as six individual voices, each with a role to play: first lead and second lead, tenor and bass, and so on. The result is the sound of pure joy—that's the only way to put it—and it will choke you up from a couple feet away. "We got you, didn't we?" asks Millard Jones.
"This old house was home and comfort as we fought the storms of life."
It's an outbuilding behind a small house not far from where Hoke Street ends at the old Garner Road, just near the Southern edge of Raleigh. It's nondescript as far as outbuildings go, a place that, after all, is known as the Soul Shack, not the Soul Palace. But every Thursday night for decades, it's been the scene of some righteous activity. It's where the Capitol City Five—Millard Jones and his brothers Wilbert and David, along with James "Mr. Gospel" Thomas, Warren Baldwin and the Five's sixth man, Louis Boyd—gather to rehearse. They're surrounded by LPs, 8-tracks, cassettes, CDs and reel-to-reels of gospel and soul music.
Tonight, Thomas, Baldwin and the Jones brothers sit in chairs along the wall that separates the two rooms of the Soul Shack. Boyd is in the opposite corner behind an amp. Thus, the space is filled with a combined 475 years of wisdom and grace.
"We're still on a mission for the King," Thomas says just before the singing. "That might be our last words to say: We're still on a mission for the King."
"Everybody joined right in and sang the glory down."
These gentlemen have been singing together for a healthy chunk of those 475 years. Millard Jones, a wiry 85-year-old who could pass for 20 years younger, started singing in a gospel group in Raleigh in the early '40s, but the other members of that ensemble have all passed away by now. His two younger brothers caught the singing bug early on, the choir at St. Matthew Baptist Church providing their initiation just as it had for Millard Jones, so the three began performing together. Thomas joined in 1952, and the Capitol City Five really took flight. Bass singer Baldwin signed on in 1966, and Boyd, who provides prerecorded percussion tracks as well as a sixth voice, came aboard in the early '70s.
"We try to sing straight old gospel with harmony," says Millard Jones, in customary understatement. The Capitol City Five has earned its renown as makers of harmony music, with the distinctively different tones of the singers' voices circling, swooping and blending to dramatic and uplifting effect. He continues, "We don't sing contemporary."
In contemporary gospel, they explain, many groups don't have a bass singer. "They have the music to make up for that," offers Wilbert Jones. "Bass, guitars and drums." The only sounds accompanying the long-ringing voices of the Capitol City Five are those of Boyd's rhythm tracks.
"I've got a Home in that Rock, don't you see?"
True to the name, the Capitol City Five has always been based in Raleigh. Similarly, James "Mr. Gospel" Thomas comes by his nickname honestly. The group's co-elder statesman, he was the first person to put black gospel on the radio during the day in Raleigh, with live broadcasts on Sunday mornings from 7:30 until 11 on 570 AM, way back in 1953. The Capitol City Five was, of course, among the groups that got play.
Thomas promoted gospel shows in Raleigh, too. He now has a gospel radio station in Sanford, the city where he's lived for the last 18 years.
And he's been in the record business for more than 60 years. These days, his Soul Shack is just a rehearsal space and not a combination rehearsal space and record shop, but it wasn't long ago that it was the place to haunt if you were after an obscure jazz or rhythm & blues record or, as you'd expect, that hard-to-find gospel record. Although the Soul Shack is officially closed down, Thomas still gets phone calls. "I guess I'm one of the only places where some singers and some church choirs, when they're trying to find something, can look," he says. "They'll call me, and I'll order it for them if I don't have it."
"I started out traveling for the Lord many years ago."
These days, it's rare to find the Capitol City Five performing outside of North Carolina, but that wasn't always the case. Festivals were the Five's forte, and the group traveled up the East Coast all the way to New England for events featuring dozens of acts. And like any other musical gathering, there were passionate and noisy crowds.
"We'd like to go to a place where there's a whole lot going on, a whole lot of singing going on," says Millard Jones, preparing to describe the Capitol City Five's trademark move. "We're called up [to the stage], and in the middle of all that excitement, we'd come up with a low-tone song with the harmony vocals, and that would turn the house around. It usually worked for us pretty good."
Thomas joins in, chuckling: "I don't think we really tried to out-sing them, but we got our two cents in, so we'd be asked to come back. We've been fortunate enough to leave something with our audience and at the places we have sung that they call us back."
Richmond was one of their favorite stops. The Five would play an annual celebration for that city's Harmonizing Four. Evidently, the trademark move really worked on the Harmonizing Four's hometown fans. "It got so that a member of the group told us, 'We're not going to ask you to come on our anniversary. In fact, I don't want you. The people here in Richmond want you,'" Millard Jones recalls. Big laughs all around.
"We'll shout and shine."
Appearance is also important to the Capitol City Five, a point that Wilbert Jones wants to make. "Another thing to add to the performance is how we conduct ourselves and how we dress," he says. "When we give a performance, we all dress alike and conservative. Our shoes are shined, we have our neckties, all of that. And that's part of the singing, and that's carried us a long way. You can sing all day, but you've got to be presentable."
OK, but how about choreography and signature stage moves? "Not a whole lot these days," offers Millard Jones. Another big laugh.
Maybe the moves have suffered due to the passing of time, but the group is together, and the members continue to gather once a week—two things that clearly aren't lost on the Capitol City Five. "We've been a blessed group in that we're all still here and can all still try," says Wilbert Jones.
"We can still get together and can still perform," adds Millard Jones. "Can't do it like we used to do, but we try to do some of it the best we can. We enjoy it, socializing and sharing the gospel." And to celebrate that longevity and that spirit, Raleigh's St. Matthew Baptist Church will hold a 66th anniversary celebration for the Five this weekend. Seven other groups, ranging from Carla & Redemption out of Lumberton to the Branchettes from Benson, will perform. And, of course, the Five will sing a couple of tunes. They'll have you, too.
The 66th Singing Anniversary of the Capitol City Five is Sunday, June 1, at St. Matthew Baptist Church, 5410 Louisburg Road, Raleigh. The celebration starts at 4 p.m., and it's free.