Pine Bluff’s Singing Center serves as a reminder of both the legacy of resourcefulness and ingenuity of Pine Bluff residents and the rich music heritage these residents helped to create.
Image Credit: Jimmy Cunningham
In the 1920s, the impact and reach of Blues music began to spread as it rose to commercial success. During this period, Thomas A. Dorsey, a raunchy blues pianist and prolific composer nicknamed “Georgia Tom,” was a major catalyst in changing the entire sound of gospel music. After experiencing a great spiritual awakening following a serious illness and the death of his wife, Dorsey dedicated his talents as a musician and composer to the service of the Lord and the church. Dorsey, “The Father of Black Gospel Music,” not only incorporated the spirituals, hymns, and ring shout songs of gospel's predecessor, African American spiritual, but he also incorporated the energetic rhythms, blues chords, primal growls, keyboard runs. He also utilized instruments like the guitar, unlike gospel music of the time which featured simple piano and organ accompaniment. Male vocal quartets who sang a cappella spirituals were also popular.
In the late 1940s, gospel became big business increasing the national demand for gospel “race” records. During this time, quartets and groups (female and mixed) began to perform around the country and expanded their gospel repertoire to include much of Dorsey’s music and style. Gospel quartets even furthered the development of the new style of gospel Dorsey had created by improving their versatility and musical creativity through competing with each on the gospel chitlin’ circuit. Churches across the South were not accepting of this new style of gospel as they saw the fusion of the sacred and secular as controversial. As a result, many gospel quartets were barred from performing at these churches.
In the 1940s and 50s, many Pine Bluff pastors considered the music sacrilegious, especially after the addition of the bass and lead guitars. In response, many local gospel quartets chose to rent places like the Merrill High School gym, St. Peter Catholic gym, and other sites that would accommodate them. This arrangement only worked for a short time, as the quartets soon ran into scheduling conflicts and issues paying for venues. In response, a quartet association of African American singers in Pine Bluff was formed. By 1948, they built the Pine Bluff Singing Center on the corner of Bell and Palm Street. The existence of the Singing Center allowed the quartets to worship and entertain freely. It also allowed them to feature local acts like the Kentle Ensemble(one of the legendary families of gospel royalty in Pine Bluff and Delta region), and major quartet groups like the Swan Silvertones, the Pilgrim Jubilees, the Mighty Clouds of Joy, and the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi. It is likely that Sam Cooke's career was launched at either the Singing Center or at Merrill High School's gym.
During the height of its popularity, the Singing Center was the place to be. Many Pine Bluff residents who lived in the area remember hearing the sounds from the Center all throughout their neighborhoods. Many also remember trips to the Center being memorable family events as cars were parked up and down the tiny surrounding streets and locals poured into the building.
The Singing Center later declined in popularity, as quartet music became more accepted by the mainstream and churches opened their doors to these groups. Though the Singing Center now sits dilapidated and vacant, it still speaks to the past resourcefulness of Pine Bluff residents and the rich music heritage it created.
www.facebook.com - Jimmy Cunningham's Post:The Singing Center
www.wikipedia.com - Thomas A. Dorsey
www.jstor.org - The Changing Nature of Gospel Music: A Southern Case Study
www.loc.gov - African American Gospel
Written by: Ninfa O. Barnard