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Jo Reed: You just heard some a cappella gospel from The Birmingham Sunlights.
Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation’s great artists to explore how art works. I’m your host Josephine Reed. The Birmingham Sunlights are a five-man, four-part harmony a cappella gospel group, founded in 1978 by James Alex Taylor, along with his brothers Steve and Barry. Wayne Williams and Bill Graves complete the picture. The Taylor brothers grew up in a musical family and developed their a cappella sound in the Church of Christ. Despite having day jobs as plumbers and pipefitters, the Birmingham Sunlights have appeared in many festivals across the country and on State Department tours around the world. In 2009, the Birmingham Sunlights were presented with a National Heritage Fellowship and that gave me the opportunity to speak with James and Barry Taylor about the music they love and sing so well. I started the conversation by asking for a little bit of history.
Why did you start the Birmingham Sunlights?
James Taylor: Well, I’ll take that one.
Jo Reed: And that’s James.
James Taylor: The Birmingham Sunlights were started because we had a desire to sing and we not an avenue, we didn't have a group to sing with. So we formed our own. The first group was Barry Taylor, my brother; Carl Smith; Eddie Washington; my brother, Steve Taylor; and myself, James Taylor. So we formed the group so we could get that singing that we so desperately needed, I guess you'd say.
Jo Reed: What's the attraction to gospel singing?
James Taylor: Gospel singing is and has been in our family since I was born. My grandmother had a trio. My father sang in a quartet and so did my mother. And we grew up listening to all the older guys, the Golden Gate Quartet, the Fairfield Four, the Sterling Jubilees, the Soul Stirrers, the Pilgrim Travelers, just so many of them.
Jo Reed: Barry, a cappella gospel that has its origins in the fact that some churches don't allow instrumental music, is that right?
Barry Taylor: That's correct. Ours was not so much singing because of, you know, the style of music we sang in church. We were influenced by other gospel groups that sang a cappella and I just always felt that we had a better sound with no instruments.
Jo Reed: There’s a history to this music. This is a music that came out of the great migration of African-Americans to the north. Isn’t that true?
James Taylor: That's part of the history. There's another part of the history that goes back even much farther than that, back to the 1800s where ex-slaves, well, even the slaves they would start out with, you know, choral groups, not large groups out of church. Then you have the smaller choral groups and then you had the quartets that came afterwards. You have the female quartets and the male quartets and, believe it or not, the female quartets were very, very strong.
Jo Reed: You got together as the Sunlights, what year was this?
James Taylor: It was 1978, wasn't it?
Steve Taylor: Yes.
Jo Reed: 1978. And what was it like when you first started singing together?
Barry Taylor: It was powerful but taking into consideration that three of the Sunlights are brothers and we've been singing together all of our lives or listening to each other sing. And we just always felt that we had something quite special because we had a sound, even at a young age, that we didn't hear nobody else singing. As a matter of fact, it was a style all of our own. My brother, James, and my other brother, Everette, used to sing a capella …
James Taylor: Everly Brothers.
Barry Taylor: Yeah, doin' the Everly Brothers singin'. And singin' has been in our blood all of our lives and one day shortly after I got married, my wife's mother invited us to a church concert where I heard the Four Eagle Gospel Singers and, man, they set my soul on fire. I left there feeling better about singing than I had ever felt in my life. But I still felt that our style was just as powerful or even more powerful when we were coming up, when we growing up. And so, when we had the opportunity to form this quartet, it was something that I had actually dreamed about ever since I could remember singing and we did. And we had our ups and downs but the more we sang, the more powerful we became and I felt that the better we sounded. By my being the eldest I was a little bit pushy. You know how big brothers are? So, I wanted to sing so they were gonna sing, too, so...so we pushed and we rehearsed. Thanks to our director, James, now. He- he really, he really rehearsed us. There for a while, we was rehearsing three hours a day about three times a week.
James Taylor: After work.
Jo Reed I was about to say and you all have day jobs.
Barry Taylor: And then we started taking classes from the older quartets like the Sterling Jubilees, the Fairfield Four, the…
James Taylor: Shepherd County Big Four.
Barry Taylor: Shepherd County Big Four. And so we incorporated a lot of their styles into our singing. 'Cause, when we first started, we were singing up tempo, jubilee types of music but then they introduced us to that old time southern gospel and you could, when you sing it, you could just tremble on inside when you sang it, it felt so good.
Jo Reed Do you remember the first old-time gospel song you all sang as a quartet?
Barry Taylor: I think it was “If I Perish,” wasn't it?
James Taylor: No, the first old-time gospel song that we sang was taught to us by the Sterling Jubilees and that song would be “When I was a Moaner.”
Barry Taylor: That's right.
Jo Reed What you do that I think is so interesting is that you have traditional songs and, at the same time, you also do original music as well.
James Taylor: Absolutely, yes. The original songs are not so much on the traditional style, but they blend in that there not so far from the traditional style that they don’t blend in. If we did an album and put some of our original songs on that, there would be a continuity there that would keep the album consistent.
Jo Reed You still have your day jobs?
James Taylor: Yes.
Jo Reed And it must be an incredible juggling act to find the time to devote to your music.
James Taylor: Well, it's not really a juggling act. It's just something that we do. We do what we have to do. We all love singing with each other. I started training one of our lead singers and baritone, Wayne, when he was, like, 12 or 13. My younger brother, Steve, I started training him when he was about eight. I was trained by my elder sister. So it's just something that we love to do so once, you know, once we decided to do it, making the rehearsals to make it the best that it could be was a no brainer.
Jo Reed Who are the non-family members who are part of the Birmingham Sunlights?
James Taylor: That would be Wayne Williams and Bill Graves.
Jo Reed Did you all know them for a long time before they joined you?
James Taylor: Well I've known Wayne since Wayne was a little boy. I actually started workin' with Wayne when he was 12. I met Bill about 15 years ago.
Barry Taylor: We have one more member who started with us in the beginning. His name was Reginald Speight. He left the group about eight years ago because his wife had a very bad illness. He expressed interest in coming back to the group about three or four weeks ago?
James Taylor: Yeah.
Barry Taylor: Now, he's a very powerful first tenor and so he'll be rejoining the group.
Jo Reed Where did you get the name the Sunlights?
James Taylor: What we did … everyone put their own name in a basket. My name was the Winston Harmonaires but that's what I wanted the group to be called. The Birmingham Sunlights just so happened to be the one that Barry put in. I think he fixed the basket.
Barry Taylor: I was looking through a song book as we were looking for names and I saw the name Sunlight so I said, “well, it's five of us and we radiate light through the music so I'll just say Sunlights.” Now, originally, it didn't start out being the Birmingham Sunlights. It was just The Sunlights. And to be outdone, I think my brother, James, added the Birmingham.
James Taylor: “Yeah, that-- and I'm still disappointed over the Winston Harmonaires. Just a little bit. But it’s fun, I do love to talk about that.
Jo Reed Because you all have day jobs, performing must be a little bit difficult because you can't travel a lot, I'm assuming?
Barry Taylor: No, it hasn’t been hard for me at all. As a matter of fact, I'll be retired in less than six months. When we first started, we were all in business. We didn't have day jobs. But during the time we first started, the economy got real bad so we took day jobs. Most of us are master plumbers and master gas fitters. And I had a very good supervisor. He said, “If you got the time, you can take off or you can take off without pay.” So we never missed a concert because of a day job.
James Taylor: Never.
Steve Taylor: So we have been very fortunate in that respect.
Jo Reed: What about the younger generation. Will your families keep this tradition going?
James Taylor: Well, Barry's youngest son, Brandon, is also a member of the group now. He doesn't travel with us just yet, but soon to come. My oldest son, Cesar, is also a member of the group. He will be traveling with the Sunlights maybe in a year or so. And my grandson, Messiah, wants to be the group's first tenor. Mind you, he's only 12, so he's gonna grow outta that first tenor. I'm almost sure of that.
Jo Reed: When you started the group did you ever think that you guys would have this kind of success?
James Taylor: No, I really didn't because, let me rephrase that. Or let me retract that. I knew that there was very good talent in the group and I knew that we were going to do something very special because of that talent. Now, at the time we started, I didn't know exactly to what level or to what extent we would be successful but as fate would have it, we've met some very, very interesting people who found us quite interesting as well and have given us opportunities to present our talents on many different avenues.
Jo Reed: Do you have an audience that sort of goes across the generations?
James Taylor: Yes. You know, we've done workshops and most of our workshops have been done either on college campuses or in elementary schools or middle schools. One middle school in Hoover, Alabama, for about ten years running, we had to go to that school every year to perform for those kids. As a matter of fact we go all over the state of Alabama, and some in Mississippi if my memory serves me right. And then everybody likes good singing so, so the audience will be there.
Jo Reed: You’ve been doing this for a long time. What keeps you guys motivated?
Barry Taylor: Well, by us having day jobs, we were able to feed our families so we were able to, you know, fulfill our dreams singing. It's not something that any of us ever thought about doing is giving up because we were trained and we had an avenue that we could travel to take care of our families. We did not have to depend on music to support our families. Music was just something extra that we enjoyed, an outlet.
Jo Reed Can you remember back to the first concert that you gave? Describe what that was like?
James Taylor: Yes. Let, let me do this right here. Our very first concert we did for the family at our church. We went to our church and we did the concert because we had to try our sound out on the family and they were just ecstatic. That second concert we did was it in… Ohio?
Barry Taylor: It was in Dayton, Ohio.
James: It was in Dayton, Ohio. And we blew the curtains off the wall.
Barry Taylor: Blew the curtains off the wall.
James Taylor: We were young and strong and had that hippity hop in our voice and, of course, we still got the hippity hop but our voices are more mature now.
Jo Reed: Yeah, I guess that's the other thing I want to ask you because 31 years have gone by. What's stayed the same? And what shifted as well ?
James: Well …
Jo Reed: Because you are older.
James Taylor: Yes. Uh.. well, they are. You'll notice I said "they".
Jo Reed Some people are forever young.
James Taylor: That's right. The thing about that is when we were younger, you know, we may have been stronger and our voices may have been lighter but, as the years go by, the more you do something, the better you get at it. Our voices are stronger now, they're more mature now. We sound more like mature— it's that sound that I've been waiting for like 20 years. It's finally here. But I'm also noticing that that sound, that mature sound that we want well only comes with age. And with that sound comes the ailments as well. So I love the sound, not so much the ailments.
Jo Reed Do you agree, Barry?
Barry Taylor: I wholeheartedly agree. We sound, the word that I would use would be we sound fuller. We resonate better and I'm a lot more comfortable singing. There was a time when I would be nervous about going on stage but now I don't care how large the concert, once my foot hits the first step, well, then I'm ready to go. I'm ready to sing because I know that we've put a lot of time in, we're well rehearsed and we have the sound that we want, the sound that we like and the sound that excites people and that gives us the energy to get out there, to give to the public and thus far they give us back just as much energy as we give them. And we enjoy that. That's a big, a very big turn on to us.
Jo Reed: Okay. As you think about all the years that you’ve been singing is there any one performance that jumps out at you, that you especially remember?
Steve Taylor: To me, one of the first ones was the one that we did, that we did in Dayton, Ohio. Now, mind you, that we were singing for the Church of Christ who a very starched set of people who just sit up and very seldom do they clap their hands.
Barry Taylor: That's right.
Steve Taylor: And these people, some of the ladies were fainting. They started shouting. It was as though we were in a Baptist church.
Barry Taylor: That's right.
Steve Taylor: I said, "Man, did you see that?" I said, "The rest of the United States knew that these people up here were shouting and, and they'd kick 'em out of the brotherhood."
Barry Taylor: Absolutely right.
Steve Taylor: So I felt that, if we could get the Church of Christ people that excited where they could just let themselves loose and enjoy themselves and be happy, that we had something that that was very, very special. Why keep it within this circle right here when we can give it to everybody? To let everybody enjoy it.
James Taylor: And I'll tell you something about that particular concert. We did something that night that we haven't done since. We ended our show by leaving the stage and walking through the auditorium out to the back, to the back of the auditorium and we were singing and walking towards the back and I looked back and there was about 100 people coming down the aisles right behind us singing. Singing the same song. Singing along with us. That was exciting. You know you've got your step that you're using, it kinda threw me off because I heard all these voices and I thought they were still sitting in their seats and, when I looked around and saw that they were coming down the aisle behind us I got off my step a little bit but it only took me a fraction of a second to get back on it. And that concert we did in Memphis, Tennessee, we did seven songs, got five standing ovations. Rufus Thomas came up and gave us a special thanks. There were several others there that came up because they hadn't heard that good old- good old fashioned a capella, southern gospel. He said he hadn't heard it in so many years and how refreshed he was. It uplifted our spirits.
Jo Reed I've heard you. You say to people, "Okay, who are the singers in the audience?" And sometimes you call them up on the stage to sing with you.
James Taylor: Yes. When I've Gone the Last Mile of the Way, that's done originally by Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers and that's an avenue that we use, that's a song that we use to get the audience involved and if there's someone in the audience who feels like they want to sing and sing along with us, we give them that opportunity so that they can participate. We like doing that very much because you'd be surprised at how many gifted singers are out there in the audience listening to you.
Barry Taylor: We are peoples’ people. We don't mingling with the audience. If they want us to, we'll come back out and we'll mingle with the crowd and sign autographs. We enjoy people. We love people.
Steve Taylor: Yes. And, and we do that basically every concert.
Barry Taylor: Every concert.
Jo Reed What went through your mind when you found you won a National Heritage Fellowship?
Steve Taylor: I couldn't believe it.
James Taylor: Neither could I. Just plain downright ecstatic.
Steve Taylor: He didn't believe it. I called James and told James and it was, like, yeah, right. I said, "No, no. They called me and told me that we had actually won the award." I don't think it sank in. Then it began to sink in and then, you know, we all got excited and, from there, it's, it's been building every day.
Jo Reed: Are your parents still alive?
Steve Taylor: My mother is still alive. My father's deceased. He, my father passed in1973, and the group was not formed until 1978 so he never got a chance to hear us.
Jo Reed So he didn't get a chance but your mother has. And...
Steve Taylor: She's one of our biggest supporters.
Jo Reed What did your mother say when she found out that you'd won the Award?
Steve Taylor: She had been praying for it for years.
Jo Reed: Before we go, let’s hear one of your songs. Let’s listen to “It’s Gonna Rain.” What I’d like to do is listen to the song and then have you talk about. So, this is from a live performance you guys gave in 2000 in Montgomery, Alabama. And it was recorded by Steve Grainberger.
SONG - It’s Gonna Rain
Jo Reed: Okay. That was fantastic. Tell us about the song.
James Taylor: That was a rap song from back in the late 1800s, 1862, '63. I did the very first verse in the old traditional rap and I did the second verse in the new- in the new millennium rap. It's a favorite. It's, it's a favorite everywhere we go.
Jo Reed: Barry, you look like you have something you want to say?
Barry Taylor: Well, it's one of my mother's favorite songs. She loved to hear it. I think every time she's in the audience, she could listen at it two or three times a concert.
Jo Reed: It's a great song.
Barry Taylor: And it-- that- that song, by being traditional rap and then James incorporated today's rap we were able to cross the age lines and that- that song has been very popular for the Sunlights.
Jo Reed: Thank you so much. My very, very warm congratulations. It's such a well-deserved honor. Thank you.
James Taylor: Thank you very, very much and let me say again that the hospitality here has been outstanding. Thank you.
Jo Reed: That was James and Barry Taylor, they’re members of the Birmingham Sunlights. The Birmingham Sunlights were named National Heritage Fellows in 2009.
You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Pepper Smith was the assistant producer.
The Arts Work podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. Next week, Jazz Master David Baker. To find out how art works in communities across the country keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEArts on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.