This article first appeared in the Mountain Xpress on
For years, The Double Crown in West Asheville has been a home for decidedly not mainstream musical groups, DJs and karaoke nights. Depending on the night of the week, passers-by can hear R&B, country and western, soul, disco and international music spilling from the bar. In 2015, owner Steve Mann wanted to expand the venue’s repertoire to include one of his favorite genres, and the gospel night was born.
To mark the 25th such event — on Thursday, Aug. 31 — Mann booked one of the most influential bands in gospel music history. “The Swanee Quintet has been performing continually for 78 years with no sabbaticals,” says Mann. “Manager and guitarist Eddie Bynes has been with them 34 years, and guitarist Johnny Reese Mims has been with them 55 years.”
The group, which originated in Augusta, Ga., in 1939, has played everywhere from church halls to Madison Square Garden. Bynes says the Swanee Quintet currently plays in venues such as civic centers, festivals and the Fox Theater in Atlanta, Ga. The band is looking forward to playing the Double Crown, says Bynes, who adds that their job is to “entertain and to praise God, and have a great time doing it along the way.”
Every month for the past two years, Mann has hosted holy crooners such as the Legendary Singing Stars, the Edwards Sisters and the Highway QCs. “Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls and Johnny Taylor all got their start with the Highway QCs, [who will] be here in November,” says Mann. “A lot of these groups have never performed in a bar setting [where they] really get to unwind. They are typically on programs with multiple groups and only have 20-30 minutes to sing. They play a much longer set here.”
Gospel music can be traced to the choirs of African-American churches in the southern U.S., using a call-and-response form of singing to worship. Gospel quintets are an outgrowth of this, traditionally using five male singers to harmonize, with subject matter derived from biblical stories and hymns.
The first iteration of the Swanee Quintet consisted of Charlie Barnwell, Rufus Washington, William “Pee Wee” Crawford, James “Big Red” Anderson and Ruben Willingham. The band toured the World War II-era South and was featured on a gospel radio show out of Augusta. The collective’s first breakout hit was “Sit Down Servant” in 1953, and it kept on producing well-received singles throughout that decade, culminating in the wildly popular “New Walk” of 1959.
“We have a dedicated fan base that has grown with the band,” says Bynes. “Older fans introduce us to the younger generation, and we continue to maintain a following. Many of the newer members grew up listening to us and auditioned themselves when there was an opening.”
Here’s a piece of history: The Swanee Quintet opened for James Brown regularly in the 1960s. “He later produced some singles for them,” says Mann. “He did ‘Try Me Father,’ a gospel version of ‘Try Me,’ [recorded by Brown and The Famous Flames in 1958].” The legend goes that the Godfather of Soul shined shoes outside of the WGAC studios in Augusta where the quartet had their regular radio show. Brown would listen to them play and eventually implemented their musical style into his own band, secularizing and further popularizing their sound. Once Brown was an established act, he brought the gospel outfit along for the ride.
The Swanee Quintet saw mixed success throughout the 1970s and ’80s, reflecting America’s shifting preference for more secular music. The group shuffled members and saw some off to moderately successful R&B careers. With the addition of Percy Griffin and Clarence Murray in the 1990s, the Swanee Quintet began touring and recording more actively and has been a mainstay on the Gospel Highway circuit since.
The group maintains its traditional foundation but has added new layers of sound as technology has advanced. “Gospel has influenced all kinds of popular music,” says Bynes. “Many chord and guitar techniques in modern rock ‘n’ roll are taken directly from gospel.”
For young gospel bands just starting out, Bynes’ advice is simple. “You’ve got to have God in your heart and follow and trust in him. And always hire a good bookkeeper,” he says with a laugh.
Mann plans to continue Double Crown’s gospel night as long as audiences continue to show up for it. “Many of the most influential R&B and soul singers got their start in the church and with quintets in particular,” he says. “Quintets’ role in the American music scene cannot be overstated.”
WHAT: Gospel night with the Swanee Quintet and Voices of Harmony
WHERE: The Double Crown, 375 Haywood Road, thedoublecrown.com
WHEN: Thursday, Aug. 31, 9 p.m. $10