Using "only the instruments God gave them," the Gospel Jubilators have kept the Jubilee tradition alive going on 40 years. Jubilee singing peaked in popularity in the 1930s and 1940s, but Jubilators founder William P. Conner rejuvenated the style in 1972, when he founded the ensemble as a response to the growing commercialization of gospel music. Today, none of the group's original members remain. The group now consist of Daniel Massenburg, Don Adair, Frederick Tyson, Robert Sherrill, and Harry Leak, the next generation carrying the torch of the jubilee tradition. This all-male vocal group performs a cappella music with rare purity and soul, highlighting vocal traditions of the golden age of '30s and '40s gospel.
Conner was a singer who had previously worked with the internationally renowned Swan Silvertones. Concerned that then-contemporary gospel groups were more interested in flashy showmanship and elaborate instrumentation than a clear spiritual message, Conner sought to bring spirituality to the forefront of the music through the complex, unaccompanied harmonies of the Jubilators. The Gospel Jubilators' style and repertoire--an a capella form known as jubilee singing--intentionally hearkened back to popular African American gospel groups such as the Golden Gate Quartet and the Selah Jubilee Singers.
While the roots of jubilee singing reach back to the late 19th century--when groups like Fisk University's Fisk Jubilee Singers began to earn acclaim for their formally arranged renditions of African American spirituals--by the early 20th century, small a capella gospel groups (often referred to as quartets) had begun to fuse their tight, controlled harmonies with the nascent rhythms of blues and jazz. Feeding off the energy of Holiness congregations, these groups worked to turn out performances that were powerful, swinging, and divinely inspired, and by the 1930s and '40s, jubilee quartet singing was arguably the most popular form of black gospel music in America. Jubilee groups were largely eclipsed in the 1950s by the "hard" gospel sound of groups like the Dixie Hummingbirds and the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, who delivered their fervent message with instrumental backing. Many gospel devotees, including the members of the Jubilators, consider the jubilee years to be a golden era of gospel music.
Though Conner has passed, the Jubilators faithfully carry on his vision of unadorned vocal harmony and powerful spiritual message, and in so doing bear the torch of the jubilee tradition.
Jubilee quartets were popular African-American religious musical groups in the first half of the 20th century. The name derives from the Fisk Jubilee Quartet, a group of singers organized at Fisk University in 1871 to raise money for the school, which was the first American university to offer a liberal arts education to "young men and women irrespective of color." The group toured small midwest towns, and eventually performed at the World Peace Festival in Boston. At the end of 1972, they were invited to perform at the White House by President Ulysses S. Grant.
Students at other historically black schools, such as Hampton Institute, Tuskegee Institute and Wilberforce University, later formed similar ensembles.
Early jubilee groups featured close harmonies, formal arrangements and a singing style that emphasized restrained musical expression and technique derived from Western musical traditions. Early quartets reinforced their respectable image by adopting uniforms that a university glee club might wear and discouraging improvisation.
In time, however, the popularity of the jubilee style spread from the universities to black churches, where quartets, singing before audiences with a tradition of enthusiastic response, began to absorb much of the energy and freedom of Gospel music coming out of Holiness churches. Groups such as the Golden Gate Quartet-originally named the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet-infused their performances of spirituals with the rhythmic beat of blues and jazz and gradually began including gospel standards written by Thomas A. Dorsey and others in their repertoire. The Gates and other jubilee quartets gained nationwide popularity through radio broadcasts, records and touring in the 1930s and 1940s.