Listen to the words: Sensational Nightingales to perform at Juneteenth
They have performed with some of the giants of gospel music – including Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin. But when Joseph “Jo Jo” Wallace and Horace Thompson talk about their many decades with The Sensational Nightingales, they always come back to the meaning and message of the songs they sing.
“We try to magnify the word and minimize the music,” Thompson said in a phone interview from his home in Maryland. “We try to tell the whole story biblically in our song,” Thompson said. Wallace, who books and manages the Nightingales and has written many of the group’s originals, said every performance is about bringing the power of Christ to listeners. “That’s what it’s supposed to be about anyhow – not just entertaining,” Wallace said.
The group will perform Saturday during Juneteenth ceremonies in downtown Durham.
Between them, Thompson and Wallace have combined more than a century singing with the Nightingales. The group dates back to 1942, according to some sources, when Barney Parks (who sang with the Dixie Hummingbirds) founded the group. Wallace, who settled in Durham in the 1950s, where he still lives, has been a member since 1946. Thompson joined in 1961.
Wallace talked about the group’s early days in an interview this week. Wallace grew up in Williamston, N.C., and when he was 12, his family moved to Philadelphia. There, he sang with a group called The Silver Arrows. Parks knew of The Silver Arrows and asked Wallace to join about the time the Rev. Julius Cheeks was leaving the group (he would later rejoin and record with the Nightingales). When Wallace joined, group members included Carl Coates and Bill Woodruff, Wallace said. The first recording they did for Houston-based Peacock Records was “Will He Welcome Me There?” “and it took off from there,” Wallace said.
Cheeks (who died in 1981) later returned in the 1950s, and recorded many songs with the Nightingales with Peacock Records (“Burying Ground,” “Standing in the Judgment”). Cheeks’ intense vocal delivery was a strong influence on soul singers like Wilson Pickett and Bobby Bland, according to allmusic.com. Cheeks’ singing style “influenced a lot of the secular music of that time,” Thompson said, adding that Cheeks and Sam Cooke “revolutionized gospel music” during their time.
When Cheeks left again, Charles Johnson became a featured vocalist. Johnson tried to emulate Cheeks’ style, but kept getting hoarse, and stuck to a more refined style of singing, Wallace said.
Thompson and Wallace have seen numerous personnel changes. In the current lineup, Wallace plays guitar, and sings baritone and sometimes lead. Thompson plays the bass, sings tenor and sometimes lead vocals as well. Vocalist Larry Moore rounds out the group. (Vocalist Darrell Luster recently left the group.) A drummer and keyboard player will join the Nightingales on Saturday. The group has been recording since 1979 for Malaco Music Group of Jackson, Miss.
The Sensational Nightingales were nominated for a Grammy in 2003 for Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album. In 1985, they toured African as part of the U.S. Information Agency’s cultural exchange program.
Eventually, the group settled in Durham as its home base, which put it within touring distance of East Coast venues. The Carolinas and Virginia are often referred to as “the gospel Bible belt,” Thompson said, and have more places, particularly churches, where the Nightingales’ style of traditional gospel is popular.
Thompson and Wallace are, respectively, 73 and 86 years old, and continue to tour. Today, the group will perform and preach in Norfolk, Va. After Saturday’s Juneteenth event, they will head to a church in Greenville, N.C., for a Father’s Day service, Wallace said.
“Nobody but God – that’s why I’m still here,” said Wallace. “It’s been an exciting journey. I’ve really enjoyed myself,” he said.
Thompson grew up in Gainesville, Ga., singing gospel with his family. “That’s what I’ve done all my life with the exception of two years in the military,” Thompson said. “God has blessed us with a form of music the people really like. … I’m grateful to God he has kept us around this long.”
WHAT: The Sensational Nightingales, guest artists for Juneteenth
WHEN: Saturday, 6;30 p.m.
WHERE: CCB Plaza downtown
ADMISSION: Free. Juneteenth events begin at 1 p.m. and continue until 10.