Swanee Quintet 75th anniversary Gospel show
Seamus McGarvey went to the Swanee Quintet's 75th Anniversary at the Bell Auditorium in Augusta, Georgia, recently. Here's his report and photos of the event.
The history of gospel group The Swanee Quintet goes back to 1939 in Augusta, Georgia, with founder-manager Charlie Barnwell, Rufus Washington and William 'Pee Wee' Crawford who travelled around Georgia and neighbouring states as the Hallelujah Gospel Singers. Around 1945 they added James 'Big Red' Anderson and Ruben Willingham to form The Swanee Quintet, with Willingham on lead and 'Pee Wee' on guitar. ('Pee Wee' still lives in Augusta but no longer performs.) In the 1960s The Swanees (pictured below) toured with James Brown who also wrote some material for them.
The Swanee Quintet's 75th Anniversary celebration saw the Bell Auditorium in downtown Augusta 90 – 95% full, a great turnout, and 'takin' charge' M.C. Rev. Eddie Harris keeping control, which included ensuring the CD sellers stayed in line! Amongst the younger groups, New York's June and The Sionettes (pictured below), led by June Rogers-Eliely with strong supporting harmonies, opened the show delivering a variety of tempos from slow-stepping to stomping, and featuring some great vocal interplay across three numbers including 'Too Blessed'.
The modern sounding Claude Deuce and his singers showed a wide vocal range and tight, near choir-like harmonies, despite just five voices, and hit with 'One Thing Only', a touch of 'A Change Is Gonna Come', nicely sung, and 'This Praise Is 4 U'.
The Gospel Legends were impressive, especially lead tenor Allen Pringle on the stomping 'Let Him In' revealing his ability as a strong testifier, and a stepper with real energy and style, before they changed pace to the slower moving 'Strengthen Me, Jesus'. Their closing 'When I Get In Glory' introduced a visual routine built around sudden jumps up out of a chair which got the crowd going and eventually had the rhythm section out dancing and stepping in unison. A talented quartet.
The legendary Sensational Nightingales drew huge applause for their opening 'What A Friend We Have In Jesus' from Joseph 'Jo Jo' Wallace, a member since 1951, plus his preaching intro to 'See You In The Rapture', a beautiful mid-tempo hand-clapper with his exhortation to 'come on, church – let's have a good time!' Horace Thompson's 'Hold On' and Larry Moore's slow-stepping 'Standing On The Promise' kept things moving through to a strong conclusion.
Peacock and Hob recording artists Tommy Ellison's Singing Stars, with original member Billy Hardie, emerged as highly active with leaping musicians and exciting choreography on the driving 'Closer' before the bluesy slow-stepping 'Anyhow' featuring lead tenor Justin Mickens amongst an array of rapid and sudden unison steps from the group. Mickens proved a strong testifier throughout, leading into the closing 'Holy Ghost' and a wild finale – there are simply no other words to describe it!
After a presentation of plaques to the members of The Swanee Quintet, they launched into 'A Man Called Jesus' with the formidable trio of leader Percy Griffin (pictured below), Eddie McCoy and Koby Weaver out front. The soulful 'Meeting Tonight' changed the pace (with Percy joking, 'it's our anniversary so we can sing what we want!'), 'Sit Down Servant' benefited from a wonderful blend of voices, plus help from a lady in the audience ('She took my show!' Percy joked), while 'Stumble And Fall' went over so well that Percy stepped down into the congregation 'to be close to you all'. With a testifying 'Prayer Changes Things', and given some exciting visual and vocal workouts from Eddie and Koby, it was a case of 'Follow that!', before Percy ended the set with 'Georgia On My Mind'. Excellent.
The inimitable Shirley Caesar's appearance was also highly anticipated and the mid-tempo 'I Remember Mama' was a fine opener, with 'God Will Make A Way' proving highly emotional as Shirley and her four backing singers delivered some impassioned vocals. She also sang 'Armour Of God', a real stepping piece which ended with Shirley leading her singers plus some 'volunteers' and one or two 'conscripts' from the congregation through various steps and manoeuvres, and 'Hold My Mule' and 'I Cannot Stop Praising Him' brought the auditorium to a higher level of excitement before the soulful 'Jesus, I Love Calling Your Name'. She said she 'might have to take [her] shoes off' for 'Heaven', which was almost the case, with the singers providing strong support – complete with choreography - while Shirley really got the congregation 'up' and around the stage. A memorable performance.