The Birmingham Sunlights, a five-man, four-part harmony a cappella gospel group, was formed in 1978 by Music Director James Alex Taylor and his brothers Steve and Barry. The brothers, plumbers and pipefitters by trade, grew up in a musical family and sang in the a cappella tradition of the Church of Christ. The Birmingham Sunlights draw on the rich heritage of quartet-style singing of Alabama's Jefferson County region, often characterized by a fifth member doubling the tenor voice. This style, which developed after World War I when rural blacks left their farms to work in coal mines and steel mills, came to have widespread influence on the recorded gospel music of the era. Under the guidance of older quartets such as the Sterling Jubilees, Shelby County Big Four, and the Four Eagles, the Birmingham Sunlights became the inheritors of this musical tradition and, while keeping a firm grounding in it, they also explore new material and innovative arrangements in order to maintain a fresh approach to gospel music. Folklorist Hank Willett says, "The 'Birmingham Sound,' that traditional African American a cappella, vocal harmony which has so influenced American popular music, is among the most remarkable of Alabama's cultural jewels." In addition to appearing at the National Folk Festival and numerous venues across the nation, the Birmingham Sunlights have performed as cultural ambassadors under the auspices of the U.S. Department of State and have toured Canada, Italy, France, five African countries, the Caribbean, and Australia.
The Birmingham Sunlights members James Taylor, Wayne Williams, Bill Graves, Steve Taylor and Barry Tayor.
NEA: Why did you start The Birmingham Sunlights?
James Taylor: The Birmingham Sunlights were started because we had a desire to sing and we didn't have an avenue, we didn't have a group to sing with. So we formed our own. The first group was Barry Taylor, my brother; Carl Smith; Eddie Washington; my brother, Steve Taylor; and myself, James Taylor. So we formed the group so we could- we could get that singing that we so desperately needed, I guess you'd say.
NEA: And tell me, what's the attraction to gospel singing?
James Taylor: Gospel singing is and has been in our family since I was born. My grandmother had a trio. My father sang in a quartet and so did my mother. And we grew up listening to all the older guys, the Golden Gate Quartet, the Fairfield Four, the Sterling Jubilees, the Soul Stirrers, the Pilgrim Travelers, just so many of them.
NEA: Barry, a cappella gospel, that has its origins in the fact that some churches don't allow instrumental music, is that correct?
Barry Taylor: That's correct. Ours was not so much singing because of, you know, the style of music we sang in church. We were influenced by other gospel groups that sang a cappella and I just always felt that we had a better sound with no instruments.
NEA: What is the Birmingham sound?
James Taylor: The Birmingham sound… well, that one's hard. The Birmingham Sunlights have a sound that's been influenced by the city of Birmingham, so to speak, but it's more like Jefferson County. Jefferson County has its own style and its own sound. It's a little bit smoother than ours. Our sound is a mixture of, like, Jefferson County and Memphis, Tennessee, if you will, and some of the older groups. You know, there's influence of just about all of them incorporated into The Birmingham Sunlights.
NEA: You got together, what year was it, as The Sunlights?
James Taylor: It was 1978, wasn't it?
Barry Taylor: Yes.
NEA: And what was it like when you first started singing together?
Barry Taylor: Well, it was powerful but taking into consideration that three of the Sunlights are brothers and we've been singin' together all of our lives or listenin' to each other sing and we just always felt that we had somethin' quite special because we had a sound, even at a young age, that we didn't hear nobody else singing. As a matter of fact, it was a style all of our own. My brother, James, and my other brother, Everette, used to sing a cappella…
James Taylor: …like the Everly Brothers…
Barry Taylor: Yeah, doin' the Everly Brothers singin'. Singin' has been in our blood all of our lives and one day shortly after I got married, my wife's mother invited us to a church concert where I heard the Four Eagle Gospel Singers and, man, they set my soul on fire. I left there feelin' better about singin' than I had ever felt in my life, but I still felt that our style was just as powerful or even more powerful when we were comin' up, when we were growin' up.
And so, when we had the opportunity to form this quartet, it was somethin' that I had actually dreamed about ever since I could remember singin' and we did. And, you know, we had our ups and downs but the more we sang, the more powerful we became and I felt that the better we sounded. So, by my being the eldest of the three brothers, I mean, eldest of the four, I was a little bit pushy. You know how big brothers are? You know and I wanted to sing so they were gonna sing, too! So we pushed and we rehearsed – thanks to our director, James, now. He really rehearsed us. There for awhile, we were rehearsing three hours a day about three times a week.
James Taylor: After work.
Barry Taylor: And then we started taking' classes from the older quartets like the Sterling Jubilees, the Fairfield Four, Shepherd County Big Four. And so we incorporated a lot of their styles into our signin'. 'Cause, when we first started, we were singin' up tempo, jubilee types of music but then they introduced us to that old time southern gospel and you could, you could just tremble on inside when you sang it, it felt so good.
NEA: Do you remember the first old-time gospel song you all sang as a quartet?
Barry Taylor: I think it was If I Perish, wasn't it?
James Taylor: No, the first old-time gospel song that we sang was taught to us by the Sterling Jubilee and that song would be When I was a Moaner .
Barry Taylor: That's right.
NEA: Now, what you do that I think is so interesting is that you have traditional songs and, at the same time, you also do original music as well.
James Taylor: Absolutely, yes. The original songs are not so much done in the traditional style, but they blend in. If we did an album and put some of our original songs on that, there would be a continuity there that would keep the album on the same frame.
NEA: Now, you still have your day jobs?
James Taylor: Yes.
NEA: And it must be an incredible juggling act to find the time to devote to your music.
James Taylor: Well, it's not really a juggling act, it's just something that we do. We do what we have to do. We all love singing with each other. I started training one of our lead singers and baritone, Wayne, when he was, like, 12 or 13. My younger brother, Steve, I started training him when he was about eight. I was trained by my elder sister. So it's just something that we love to do so once, you know, once we decided to do it, making the rehearsals to make it the best that it could be was a no brainer.
NEA: And who are the non-family members who are part of The Birmingham Sunlights?
James Taylor: That would be Wayne Williams and Bill Graves.
NEA: And did you all know them for a long time before they joined you or did you meet them when you were looking for other singers?
James Taylor: Well I've known Wayne since Wayne was a little boy. I actually started workin' with Wayne when he was either 12 or 13 years old. I met Bill about 15 years ago. So, let's see, this is 2009, yeah, about 15 years ago. And they're the only two non-members.
Barry Taylor: Now we have one more member who started with us in the beginning. His name was Reginald Speight. He left the group about eight years ago because his wife had a very bad illness.
NEA: Where did you get the name The Sunlights?
James Taylor: You know every time someone asks me that I get a little, not really, but a little testy because what we did was everyone put their own name in a basket. My name was the Winston Harmonaires — that's what I wanted the group to be called. The Birmingham Sunlights just so happened to be the one that Barry put in.
Barry Taylor: I was lookin' through a song book as we were lookin' for names and I saw the name Sunlight so I said, “well, it's five of us and we radiate light through the music so I'll just say Sunlights.” Now, originally, it didn't start out being' The Birmingham Sunlights. It was just The Sunlights. And not to be outdone, I think my brother, James, added Birmingham.
James Taylor: “Yeah, and I'm still disappointed over the Winston Harmonaires. I still like to talk about that.
NEA: Now, since you all have day jobs, performing must be just something that can be a little bit difficult because you can't travel a lot, I'm assuming? Or, you have to take vacation time or work that out with your jobs?
Barry Taylor: Well, as a matter of fact, it hasn't been hard for me at all. I'll be retired in just a very-- I'll be retired in less than six months. When we first started, we were all in business. We didn't have day jobs. But during the time we first started, the economy got real bad so we took day jobs. Most of us are master plumbers and master gas fitters. And I was able to take off just whenever— I had a very good supervisor. He said, "If you got the time, you can take off or you can take off without pay. So we never missed a concert because of a day job.
James Taylor: Never.
NEA: Will your family keep the tradition going?
James Taylor: Well, Barry's youngest son, Brandon, is also a member of the group now. He doesn't travel with us just yet but soon to come. My oldest son, Cesar, is also a member of the group. He will be traveling with the Sunlights maybe in a year or so. And my grandson, Messiah, wants to be the group's first tenor. Now, mind you, he's only 12, so he's gonna grow outta that first tenor. I'm almost sure of that.
NEA: When you started the group did you ever think that you guys would have this kind of success?
James Taylor: I knew that there was very good talent in the group and I knew that we were going to do something very special because of that talent. Now, at the time we started, I didn't know exactly to what level or to what extent we would be successful but as fate would have it, we've met some very, very interesting people who found us quite interesting as well and have given us opportunities to present our talents on many different avenues.
NEA: Do you have an audience that sort of goes across the generations?
James Taylor: Yes. You know, we've done workshops and most of our workshops have been done either on college campuses or in elementary schools or middle schools. One middle school in Hoover, Alabama, we have to go there every year. Now, we hadn't been in the last three or four years but for about ten years running, we had to go to that school every year to perform for those kids. As a matter of fact we go all over the state of Alabama, and some parts of Mississippi. Everybody likes good singing.
NEA: What keeps you motivated to be going on this long? It seems like you might get tired and just kind of give it up and say I'm going to go do something else.
Barry Taylor: Well, by us having day jobs, we were able to feed our families so we didn't have to really give it up. We were able to, you know, fulfill our dreams singin'. It's not somethin' that any of us ever thought about doin' is givin' up because we were trained and we had an avenue that we could travel to take care of our families. We did not have to depend on music to support our families. Music was just something extra that we enjoyed— -- an outlet.
NEA: Can you remember back to the first concert that you gave? Describe what that was like?
James Taylor: Yes. Our very first concert we did for the family at our church. We went to our church and we did the concert because we had to try our sound out on the family and they were just ecstatic. That second concert we did was in Dayton, Ohio. And we blew the curtains off the wall. We were young and strong and had that hippity hop in our voice and, of course, we still got the hippity hop but our voices are more mature now.
NEA: Yeah, I guess that's the other thing I want to ask you because 31 years have gone by. What's stayed the same? Obviously, some things have shifted as well. Because you are older.
James Taylor: Yes. Uh.. well, they are. You'll notice I said "they".
NEA: Some people are forever young.
James Taylor: That's right. The thing about that is when we were younger, we may have been stronger and our voices may have been lighter but, as the years go by, the more you do something, the better you get at it. Our voices are stronger now, they're more mature now. We sound more like mature. It's that sound that I've been waiting for, for like 20 years. It's finally here. But I'm also noticing that that sound, that mature sound that we want also only comes with age. And with that sound comes the ailments as well. So I love the sound, not so much the ailments.
NEA: Do you agree, Barry?
Barry Taylor: I wholeheartedly agree. The word that I would use would be we sound fuller. We resonate better and I'm a lot more comfortable singin'. There was a time when I would be nervous about goin' on stage but now I don't care how large the concert, once my foot hits the first step, well, then I'm ready to go, I'm ready to sing because I know that we've put a lot of time in, we're well rehearsed and we have the sound that we want, the sound that we like, and the sound that excites people and that gives us the energy to get out there, to give to the public and thus far they give us back just as much energy as we give them. And we enjoy that. That's a big, a very big turn on to us.
NEA: When you found out that you were getting the NEA National Heritage Fellowship, what went through your mind?
Barry Taylor: I couldn't believe it.
James Taylor: Neither could I. Just plain downright ecstatic.
Barry Taylor: He didn't believe it. I called James and told James and it was, like, “Yeah, right.” I said, "No, no. They called me and told me that we had actually won the award.” And he says, "Okay," and we talked on. We didn't talk much about that because I don't think it sank in. But when he told me who he was and I knew that we had talked to him before, I don't think he would call from D.C. and lie to us. Then it began to sink in and then, you know, we all got excited and, from there, it's been building every day.
NEA: Looking back, are there any particularly memorable performances?
James: Yes there are several. I remember the first performance we gave in Memphis. We did six songs and we got five standing ovations. I was very uplifted after that. Rufus Thomas came up and gave us a special thanks. There were several others there who came up because they hadn't heard that good old fashioned a cappella, southern gospel, he said he hadn't heard it in so many years and how refreshed he was.
Barry Taylor: There was another one in Dayton, Ohio, at a Church of Christ, normally a very staid group. And these people were -- some of the ladies -- were fainting. They started shouting. It was as though we were in a Baptist church. I said, "Man, did you see that?" I said, "The rest of the United States knew that these people up here were shouting and they'd kick 'em out of the brotherhood."
James Taylor: Absolutely right.
Barry Taylor: So I felt that, if we could get the Church of Christ people that excited where they could just let themselves loose and enjoy themselves and be happy, that we had something that was very, very special. Why keep it within this circle right here when we can give it to everybody? Let everybody enjoy it?
James Taylor : And I'll tell you something about that particular concert. We did something that night that we haven't done since. We ended our show by leaving the stage and walking through the auditorium out to the back, to the back of the auditorium and we were singing and walking towards the back and I looked back and there was about 100 people coming down the aisles right behind us singing. Singing the same song. Singing along with us. That was exciting. It kinda threw me off my step, you know? You know you've got your step that you're using, it kinda threw me off because I heard all these voices and I thought they were still sitting in their seats and, when I looked around and saw that they were coming down the aisle behind us I got off my step a little bit but it only took me a fraction of a second to get back on it.
James: The other one was Carnegie Hall and the performance on the National Mall.
NEA: I've heard you. You say to people, "Okay, who are the singers in the audience?" And sometimes you call them up on the stage to sing with you.
Barry Taylor: When I've Gone the Last Mile of the Way, that's done originally by Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers and that's a song that we use to get the audience involved and if there's someone in the audience who feels like they want to sing and sing along with us, we give them that opportunity so that they can participate. We like doing that very much because you'd be surprised at how many gifted singers are out there in the audience listening to you.
NEA: Who do you listen to today?
James Taylor: Well, me personally, I listen to Marvin Gaye, the Coon Creek Girls, I listen to The Birmingham Sunlights, especially, I love The Sunlights. I love all kinds of music but when I really wanna hear something that's gonna touch my soul, I either listen to the Birmingham Sunlights, the Coon Creek Girls, or Marvin Gaye because Marvin, he sings some gospel songs like His Eye is on the Sparrow. I was listening to that one last night. I listened to it I guess maybe six or seven times. The Soul Stirrers, I listen to all of their old stuff all of the time. And the Dixie Hummingbirds. You know, that group
Photo by Steve Grauberger
The Birmingham Sunlights discuss the creation of their group and their unique "Birmingham sound" [28:50]