Ira Tucker has countless stories. Over 82 years—almost 70 of them spent singing in a hard-traveling gospel group—you tend to collect a lot of them.
For instance, schooled by singing at silver teas in his hometown of Spartanburg, S.C., Tucker felt he was ready to join a big-time gospel group. At age 13, he talked with James B. Davis about signing on with the group that Davis had formed 10 years before in Greenville, S.C.: The Dixie Hummingbirds. Davis was looking for a tenor, but Tucker had been singing baritone. Still, the youngster, emboldened by the confidence of youth, knew he could make the switch to tenor. "I said, 'Mr. Davis, would you give me a chance?'" recalls Tucker. "I said, 'Greenville is only 29 miles by highway. If I get to Greenville and can't do it, then I'll walk on back to Spartanburg.' So he took me on." He pauses and concludes with a warm chuckle: "I've been with them ever since."
And then there was the time that Tucker—then flush with the friendly competition with other area groups like Charlotte's Golden Gate Quartet and Norfolk's Jubilee Singers—took showmanship to new heights. "I was putting my flavor to it, you know," Tucker says. "We were in Suffolk, and something told me to jump down off of the stage while I was singing. Nobody had ever done that before. And when I hit the floor, I took my coat off and slung it up through the audience. Man, the people went wild!"
So there you go: passion and showmanship and, oh yeah, heavenly voices blending and circling and complementing like friends finishing each other's sentences. These elements made the Dixie Hummingbirds legendary, led Tucker to write with Jackie Wilson, and drew secular groups like the Temptations to marvel in their light. The roots, most agree, of soul music.
The Dixie Hummingbirds relocated to Philadelphia in the '40s, and there it earned another lifelong fan, one who's done OK for himself in the passion and showmanship and heavenly voice department and who's taken those roots to heights of his own.
"I'm from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania," says King Solomon Burke in that voice from on high, "and the Dixie Hummingbirds are true legends. It just humbles me to be in their presence."
Actually, humbled is how you feel being on the other end of the phone with the reigning king of rock 'n' soul. He has stories, too, but the conversation is more stream-of-consciousness, with the cadence and spirit of a sermon. "Those messages in the blues, jazz and rock and in classical, country are just messages of hope and love and peace and joy. And 'Please Take Me Back' and 'Don't Leave Me' and 'Give Me Another Chance' ... I'm just naming all these songs here for you," offers Burke with the perfect mix of the holy, the commercial and the humorous. You don't feel lectured, just a little wiser—and maybe a bit blessed—when the talk is done.
"I still want my jacket," Burke says, returning to the topic of the Dixie Hummingbirds. "They have these leather jackets with the hummingbird on it. I said, 'I'll lose some weight if you give me a jacket.'" No jacket yet.
He has a favor to ask of us, too: He wants people to visit his Web site (www.thekingsolomonburke.com) and request songs for his performance Saturday at Duke. And perhaps even suggest a title for his upcoming album while we're at it.
And for the record, my request, duly submitted, is his deep-soul take on the country heart-shredder "He'll Have to Go." As for the album title, I kept it simple: Conversations with the King.
Duke Performances presents "The Definition of Soul," featuring Solomon Burke and the Dixie Hummingbirds, at 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 2, at Page Auditorium. Tickets range from $5-$42.