Southern Gospel: Like a Train Whistle


The Birmingham Sunlights keep the tradition of Southern Gospel alive and well.

Written by Phillip Ratliff; Photography by Beau Gustafson

For the past three decades, the Birmingham Sunlights have been celebrated for their rootedness in the city’s venerable gospel singing tradition—and for being among that tradition’s great innovators. Threading that needle has meant learning from the Birmingham gospel scene’s best minds, and infusing what they’ve picked up with a surprising array of musical influences. Besides gospel, listeners can detect traces of blues, rock, pop, and, most saliently, funk in their eclectic style.

v51a0086Now in their 60s, brothers and Sunlights co-founders James and Barry Taylor absorbed these influences as journeymen in Southern musical enclaves. As a kid, James worked the nightclubs circuit in the late 1960s and, as Alex Taylor, signed with legendary Memphis company Stax Records. After his return to Birmingham in 1978, he and Barry paid their dues as members of another gospel ensemble, the Inter City Singers, before launching the group that would define their musical lives.

Barry and James Taylor can explain these influences and appropriations in exacting detail—that’s likely a product of their musical pedigree. These days, they are putting their explicative abilities to use as teachers, passing along their craft to younger family members who will carry on the legacy they, too, inherited. About 12 years ago, the Sunlights began mentoring a group of now teenagers, known as the Sons of the Sunlights, starting them out as young as four years of age. The Sons of the Sunlights have taken the stage with their elder family members.

This October, I sat down with Barry Taylor at his residence in Mason City to talk about how the Birmingham Sunlights achieve their sound and the lessons that they’re passing on to their proteges.

Barry Taylor’s house is something of a compound surrounded by chain link and brimming with activity the morning of our interview. We began with small talk, about Barry’s love of old TV westerns, but it didn’t take long for the conversation to turn to one of his favorite subjects, his brother, James. It is clear that Barry is convinced of his brother’s musical genius. Barry’s accounts of his brother’s solo recording career is perhaps the most compelling evidence.

v51a0286James recorded lush versions of 1970s pop ballads with companies and at studios across the South — a list that includes Stax and Casino in Memphis and Mill and Fame in Muscle Shoals. James output during this period includes such uptempo numbers “Slowly Turning to Love,” a Barry White-ish “It’s All in Your Mind” as well as the sort of lush ballad that permeated the airwaves in the late 1970s. One of these, “I Go Crazy,” was also covered by adult contemporary artist Paul Davis. Barry Taylor insists that James’ take on the late 1970s hit is superior to Davis top ten version.

Eventually, James arrived, bedecked in blue coveralls, the attire of his day job, plumbing. James soon dropped the name of another pop influence:

“Johnny Mathis: I loved his vocal quality.” James says that he especially admires Mathis’ ability to push hard and loud without losing musical purity. This isn’t yelling, he reminds me, but it almost is.

Besides appropriating 1970s era popular music, the Taylors have also borrowed concepts from the world of opera and choral music. James can get more than a little wonkish and abstract on the subject of musical color. To get their sound, he says, the Sunlights rely on three tenors. In their present configuration, the Sunlights rely on three mezzo tenors, a type of tenor which creates what James describes as a liquid wash of sound. There was a period when the Sunlights employed just two mezzos topped off with a lyric tenor, a configuration James describes as two “watery voices with a razor sharp voice at the top.” Either way, this strong emphasis on the upper registers tilts the Sunlights’ sound toward the high and bright end of the musical color spectrum.

On the bottom end, shaping their sound has required rethinking how the bass voice would be sung. On this point, the Sunlights look back, to gospel music the 1930s, 40s, and early 50s. During this period, bass vocalists executed the lowest part using a “mumming bass” technique, a swallowed subterranean thud. This changed in the 1950s, James says, when groups removed the bass part and replaced it with an electric bass guitar.

Barry and the Sunlights brought the bass voice back to the gospel singing, but with a modern twist. Barry borrowed slap bass textures of 70s era funk, groups like the Bar Kays and the Brothers Johnson, and performers like Sly and the Family Stone bassist Larry Graham. Barry made the gospel bass voice a musical instrument again.

The Sunlights found ample opportunity to explore the abstract quality of sound. Sit in on a rehearsal and you’ll likely hear members deliberate how a harmony is attacked and released, and the shape the harmony takes as it resides between those two points. Music engineers refer to these conditions as the musical sound’s envelope.

Choir directors obsess over musical envelopes because they are so closely tied to diction. One choir director, in particular, made an impression on James—Dan E. Bakey of Miles College. James recounts a formative experience in his acquisition of choral technique, a singing competition which included Bakey and his choir.

v51a0219Groups came from all over, James says, but it was a choir from just up the road, Oakwood’s, that had everyone talking. Bakey knew that Miles Choir at that point didn’t measure up, James recalls.

“We started paying attention to detail—how we would go from a soft spot to singing strong. We’d do all of that over and over and over again.” After a year, Miles College was ready to take on choirs of Oakwood’s calibre at an extravaganza at LeMoyne Owens in Memphis. “We did three songs and got four standing ovations—one in the middle of a song.”

The lesson stuck with James. After the Sunlights formed, attacks, releases, expressive gestures, vocal quality—all went under James’ microscope.

To further strengthen their grasp of gospel virtuosity, the Sunlights spent a year honing their craft under the veteran gospel group the Sterling Jubilee Singers. From them, the Sunlights learned “old school chord progressions” tracing back to barbershop and Negro Spiritual traditions. They studied voicing—how parts should be stacked to create the most appealing sound.

“We went beyond just finding someone who could sing a part. I placed the best voice in the top, the one that I am looking for. If I can’t find that one we’ll rearrange the song,” James says.

James says that he didn’t hear the sound from other groups. He was hearing it in his head. There are different techniques to singing, requiring whispering techniques all the way up to powerful “blowing” sounds straight from the city’s industrial roots. “It’s just something that you know,” he says.

“When you reach that blowing sound, it’s almost like a ringing sound in your ear. When the harmony sounds so perfect that it rings, like a train whistle.” It’s a hard concept to communicate in words to the Sons of the Sunlights, he says. But it’s easy to recognize once it’s achieved.

You can hear this train blowing in the Birmingham Sunlights’ rendition of “There’s a Hand Writing on the Wall.” The piece, taken from the Book of Daniel, begins with a thick chord lifted directly from the lonesome, mournful sound of a train whistle. This chord carries the text in unpredictable spoken rhythms, a technique referred to as recitative in Baroque opera. Like recitative, the chord and its associated text are followed by a measured, songlike section recalling late Negro spirituals of the early 20th century, with subtle hints of Barry Taylor’s slap bass-style lines.

The Birmingham Sunlights have taken their take on the Jefferson County tradition all over the world. They’ve performed at the National Folk Festival and as cultural ambassadors under the auspices of the U.S. Department of State, touring Canada, Italy, France, five African countries, the Caribbean, and Australia. Closer to home, they recorded several numbers for the Birmingham Industrial Heritage Trail soundtrack in the Jefferson City Church of Christ sanctuary.

The Taylors’ work with the Sons of the Sunlights includes instilling the values of their tradition, learning to execute the attacks and releases, to respond to audiences, to recognize the beauty of train whistle chords.

James is encouraged that his students are beginning to develop the musical sensitivities that he has spent half a century honing. “I don’t have to say there it is. They’ll say ‘I heard it.’ I’ll say ‘yes you did,’” James says.  

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