Harry Leak’s first attempt to join The Gospel Jubilators didn’t go as planned. Not only did the a cappella group’s old codgers turn him down, but they then insisted he come listen to them practice.
And lo, Leak went to the house where harmony reigned. And the rest is all amen.
To be a bit more specific, he showed up about five years ago in the kitchen of Rudolph “Mack” Floyd, now 72. Floyd had joined the Jubilators six months after the Durham group had first formed nearly 30 years before.
“Mack would be sittin’ in there cooking his afternoon dinner; it would be about 4 o’clock, and 90 degrees outside,” Leak recalled by phone recently. “His air conditioner’s on, but he’s got his stove on in the kitchen. So here’s me and the old men sittin’ around the table, [and they’re] just singin’ and harmonizin’. And I’m sittin’ there smellin’ those beans, but I’m sweatin’ bullets, and also soakin’ up all of this gospel genre that I can intake.”
Because even by then, true gospel had in practice become that rarest of things.
Leak, a retired schoolteacher originally from High Point, came up singing in church; by age 12, he was already leading choirs. Later, his music instructors at Winston-Salem State University introduced him to a broad segment of black gospel, including various a cappella styles — jubilee singing in particular.
“It encapsulates what we have done as a people,” Leak notes. “And its spirit-filled renditions speak to my spirit, if you will.”
Yet Leak had never actually heard real-live performances of the conservative musical tradition until he moved to Durham, where he now works as a payday lender and life-insurance salesman. Jubilee singing, which dates to gospel’s own origins in the late 1800s (and the formation of quartet groups at Southeastern black colleges), peaked in popularity in the 1930s and ’40s.
And while the heady four-part-harmony style managed to hang on in rougher form a la The Soul Stirrers, The Sensational Nightingales and the two great Blind Boys groups (of Mississippi and Alabama), jubilee was soon overtaken by the rising tide of firebrand church singing now associated with such incomparable soloists as Mahalia Jackson.
By the 1970s, tastes for gospel had shifted anew, toward the mass-choir style so fully defined by the Rev. James Cleveland’s early GMWA group. Yet within another decade, the genre’s most venerated traditions were losing their already limited foothold on the popular market, with gospel music increasingly mimicking secular “soul” styles (The Winans, the Staple Singers) and serving as a proving ground for later pop careers (Boys II Men, Whitney Houston).
So when Leak first heard the Jubilators at an anniversary celebration for the male chorus at Durham’s Peace Missionary Baptist Church (where both he and James Shipman, the group’s bass singer, are parishioners), he was primed to be blown away.
“I was just taken aback at the style of music that they did,” Leak gushes. “I was awed that there was still somebody doing it, and doing it that well. And at how these elder statesmen reached the audience with their harmonies and their hand-clapping rhythms. Nothing electric about it, just human voices.”
And little but Leak’s faith uplifts him more, he admits.
Yet by the time he was witnessing beans and great jubilee being cooked up in Mack Floyd’s steamy kitchen, the Jubilators were much changed from back when professional gospel performer William P. Conner had formed the group as a stopgap against fading traditions; Floyd is now the only surviving original member. (It was the subsequent passing of another elder singer that finally opened a spot for Leak to join.)
And of that core group that Leak first heard practicing, Robert Sherrill, 73, and Shipman, 82, are also still Jubilating. Leak has since brought two additional members into the fold: Danny Massenburg and Talbert Myers, both 53 (and fellow Peace Missionary Baptist members).
Leak, at 52, is the self-described baby of the group.
The six-strong Jubilators now undertake everything from public-school programs to nursing-home performances, though they’re lately taking on more festivals and public concerts. A favorite event is the Bynum General Store Front Porch Music Series (in the Chatham County town of Bynum). The group’s 2001 appearance there — shortly after 9/11 — remains a bittersweet highlight for Leak.
“We do a song that I remember my mom used to sing,” Leak explains. “What it says is [that] if you can’t say anything at all, you can just say, ‘Lord, remember me.’ And that’s all the words of the song: ‘Remember me.’
“That song didn’t leave a dry eye in the place.”
Success at Bynum led to the Jubilators’ initial invitation to last year’s MerleFest, where they started out performing a single song as part of an indoor round-robin set with seven other groups.
“The place was packed,” Leak recalls.
Then, following a 15-minute break, the Jubilators were supposed to do their own solo show.
“The place emptied,” Leak admits with a groan. “I was scared to death!
“So we started singing, and people started puttin’ their heads in,” Leak continues. “They started coming in and sittin’ down. And when we got through, there wasn’t an empty seat in the house — it was standing-room only. Then, to top it off, there were people who followed us for the rest of the MerleFest.”
And those new fans kept asking what else the group did.
For starters, the Jubilators put out a few singles back in the late-’70s; one cut now appears on the 1979 album Eight-Hand Sets and Holy Steps: Early Dance Tunes and Songs of Praise From North Carolina’s Black Tradition (compiled by folklorist Glenn Hinson and reissued in 1989 by the North Carolina Museum of History and the state arts council).
But only recently has the group begun working up a full album of their own concert favorites, including a highly jubilated take on the spiritual nugget “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” that’s both earthy and ornate, and a rollicking rethinking of the old hymn “Count Your Blessings,” with the six men’s barbershop-y voices interlocking like latticework.