Ira Tucker, a little man with a giant vocal range and acrobatic stage antics who as lead singer of the Dixie Hummingbirds helped propel gospel music toward a harder-edged, more emotive style, died Tuesday in Philadelphia. He was 83.
The cause was heart failure, his son, Ira Jr., said, adding that he had earlier suffered two major heart attacks.
According to publicity material from 1950, Tucker, a native of Spartanburg, joined what became one of the longest-lasting groups in gospel music when he was 14. Other sources say he joined in 1938 at 13. In any case, he never left.
At its peak in the 1940s and '50s, the group was one of gospel's most popular and innovative, using shouting lead parts and walking bass lines in songs like “Thank You for One More Day,” “Trouble in My Way” and “Bedside of a Neighbor.” The back-and-forth singing of Tucker and another tenor, James Walker, is legendary.
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In the 1970s, the Hummingbirds attained a new and different sort of popularity when they backed up Paul Simon on his hit “Loves Me Like a Rock,” then recorded the same tune themselves and won a Grammy.
Tucker was a tenor when he started, moved on to baritone and sometimes eased into a rumbling bass. His scream, though, was his defining characteristic: It originated far back in this throat and issued forth at a high register in perfect pitch. He then returned to the baritone range without missing a beat.
Tucker added fire to the group's performances. With a style borrowed from Southern preachers, he wailed, hollered and gesticulated in what today sounds like a precursor to James Brown.
It is hard to gauge how much influence one musician truly has on another, but many articles suggest that Tucker's highly stylized singing may have inspired Jackie Wilson, Stevie Wonder, the Drifters, Hank Ballard and the Temptations.
Tucker had no doubt of his power to inspire. His son remembered him recently listening to a Sly Stone record and smiling broadly at an idiosyncratic inflection. “They heard my old records,” he said.