Alabama Folkways Articles

August, 1994


by Joyce Cauthen

A cappella music is hot these days. Hip movie director Spike Lee produces a television special on it. The vocal group Take 6 sells vast numbers of albums of it. The Birmingham Sunlights win standing ovations from audiences around the world with it. In Bessemer, Alabama, the Sterling Jubilee Singers have been singing a cappella, or "without instrumental accompaniment," for 65 years, whether it was hot or not.

In 1929, at a time when a number of gospel quartets were forming among black workers in the coal, steel, and railroad industries around Birmingham, a group of men, mainly associated with U. S. Pipe, organized themselves into the Sterling Jubilee Singers and invited local quartet master Charles Bridges to train them. Though they were primarily a gospel group, in the 1940s and '50s they gained union sponsorship and appeared as the CIO Singers on local radio programs and at union functions throughout the state.

Whether singing in a union hall, church, or municipal auditorium, the Sterling Jubilees always "brought down the house" with their exciting music with its flamboyant harmonies, their ever-changing meter with well-rehearsed pauses, stops, and sustained notes, and with their ability to carry the level of excitement to a higher pitch each time a new lead singer stepped forward to "top off" the previous one.

Sixty-five years later, with three of its five members in their 80s, the group, now known as John Alexander's Sterling Jubilee Singers, can still charge up an audience. None of the original members are still living, but their original arrangements have been maintained through weekly rehearsals at which new members are taught the parts of those who have left the group, usually due to illness or death. These sessions are more than rehearsals; they function as religious, business, and social events as well. Before the Sterling Jubilee Singers sing a note at their Wednesday morning rehearsal, they pray, recite scriptures and hold a formal business meeting with reports from the members in their various roles--critic, chaplain, and costume committee. Then they prepare for their next performance, usually a program celebrating the anniversary of another gospel group of an upcoming festival such as Birmingham's City Stages or Mobile's First Night. On two occasion, they have performed at the Smithsonian in Washington, D. C. No matter how intense the rehearsal, the group always ends with a lively benedictory song, laughter, and handshakes.

The Sterling Jubilees have continued this tradition through the years, though the popularity of their music has waxed and waned and many former a cappella groups have taken on instrumentalists.

They have also contributed to the survival of the Jefferson County a cappella sound by serving as mentors to a group of young men seeking to learn traditional numbers. Now the popular Birmingham Sunlights carry their music to enthusiastic audiences around the world. For their role in helping to preserve this special music, the Sterling Jubilees were awarded the Alabama Sampler/City Stages Musical Heritage Award at that festival this June.