Not By Bread Alone: Gospel Quartets and Food Sponsorships in the South

The mingling of food and music often seems like a given, especially around this time of year when festivals fill the weekends and the sun finally seems here to stay. Food and music have paired in other ways besides celebrations, though–perhaps so often that their linkage seems natural in contexts that are actually rather new. For the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing some essays that explore the unexpected ways the worlds of food, drink, and popular music have overlapped in the past century in the South.

Not By Bread Alone: Gospel Quartets and Food Sponsorships in the South

by Carrie Allen Tipton

wheaties

On Christmas Eve, 1926, the radio jingle was born, in a sudden and unequivocal fashion few historical phenomena can claim, when a male quartet crooned the question “Have You Tried Wheaties?” to a Minneapolis-St. Paul audience. The song extols the cereal’s virtues through advertising’s classic cocktail of plainspoken fact (“they’re whole wheat with all of the bran”) and startling overreach (“wheat is the best food of man”). The tune, arranged in the lockstep harmony and uniform rhythm characteristic of early barbershop styles, is an a cappella, squared-off version of the chorus of “She’s a Jazz Baby,” minus some syncopation and hot instrumental licks. According to media historians, the struggling Wheaties product experienced revitalized sales based purely on this novel advertising approach.

By this time, though, church folks in the South were already used to smooth-sounding guys in matching suits persuading them to buy something through close harmonizing. In 1910, Tennessee-based James D. Vaughan, owner of a gospel publishing and singing school empire, sent out the Vaughan Quartet to promote his songbooks by performing repertoire contained therein. According to James Goff’s Close Harmony: A History of Southern Gospel, when they debuted at the 1910 Cumberland Presbyterian Assembly in Dickson, Tennessee, the quartet sold 5,000 songbooks. By the 1930s, the Dallas-based Stamps-Baxter gospel publisher was farming out multiple quartets to push product. The groundwork had been laid for sacred quartets to advertise commodities. Over the next couple of decades, the economic partnership between southern quartets and their commercial sponsors – especially food companies – would help steer the groups away from a church-based, community-centric, amateur ethos into a prominent role in the growing popular music industry.

Gospel quartets – both white and African American – were a booming business in the years leading up to World War II. In the South and in northern cities with large populations of southern migrants, the quartet industry flourished, with all-night singings in civic auditoriums, traveling shows with multiple groups, and, thanks to commercial sponsors, radio airtime. (Southern musicians of other genres were also cashing in on this music-food symbiosis; think of the long-running blues show King Biscuit Time, first broadcast on KFFA in Helena, Arkansas, in 1941; or Hank Williams’ short-lived Mother’s Best Flour Show, aired on Nashville’s WSM in the early 1950s.) Gospel quartets wanted in on the action, too, so bakeries and coffee, baking powder, flour, and canned milk companies began to sponsor both white and African American gospel quartets, paying stations for the groups’ airtime in exchange for sung jingles. In the 1940s and 1950s, typical gospel quartet radio programs lasted fifteen or twenty minutes and were broadcast weekly or even daily. Usually regional quartets partnered with local or regional food companies, although a few lucky quartets acquired nationally-known food sponsors for their radio shows.

swan silvertones

In the case of the legendary Black gospel quartet the Swan Silvertones, the group’s relationship with its local radio sponsors was inscribed in its very name. Founded in West Virginia in the late 1930s as the Four Harmony Kings, the quartet changed its name a few years later after the Swan Bakery began sponsoring its daily fifteen-minute show on Knoxville’s WNOX. In 1950, a letter from the Silvertones’ manager and baritone John Myles states that they worked with the company for six years, “which brought us pretty good dough” (quoted in Alan Young’s Woke Me Up This Morning: Black Gospel Singers and the Gospel Life). Lead singer and founder Claude Jeter told gospel scholar Anthony Heilbut that once the bakery started sponsoring them (“after we went commercial” is how he described it in Heilbut’s The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times), the group got a raise every thirteen weeks. (From these remarks, it seems the bakery actually paid the group a fee beyond simply sponsoring their airtime, which would have been somewhat unusual.) The quartet, now firmly ensconced in the annals of Black gospel music history, built its national fan-base from the radio exposure afforded by their partnership with the bakery.

In his book Happy in the Service of the Lord: Afro-American Gospel Quartets in Memphis, Kip Lornell relates how the Fairfield Four won a radio spot in 1952 on 50,000-watt broadcasting giant WLAC Nashville through a contest sponsored by Colonial Coffee. Later, as they were sponsored by Sunway Vitamins, their show was transcribed and broadcast across the country, resulting in coast-to-coast recognition for the quartet. On the other side of the state, Memphis’s WDIA radio was making history in its efforts to target a Black demographic, much of which was accomplished successfully via gospel music broadcasts. WDIA’s headliner gospel quartet, the Spirit of Memphis, were sponsored at various times by Gold Medal Flour, General Mills, and the Carnation Milk Company, all of whose jingles they performed on-air. You can hear audio here of an announcer lauding Carnation Milk (“from contented cows”) while the Spirit of Memphis harmonizes in the background.

When television stations began cropping up in the mid-1950s, a few lucky gospel quartets jumped to the new medium, which in its early years employed the radio model of sponsorship. Probably the most successful TV-quartet partnership was between Nabisco and the Statesmen quartet, a powerhouse Southern Gospel group. The Statesmen initially caught the interest of the National Biscuit Company in the early 1950s with their gospel program on Atlanta’s WSB radio, Singing Time in Dixie. This rare clip of the Statesmen hamming it up during a Saltines jingle on their TV show gives a good sense of why Nabisco backed them. According to James Goff, over one hundred southern television stations broadcast the weekly Nabisco-sponsored television show, which ran from 1953 to 1957.

In 1954, WJBF-TV in Augusta, Georgia, began broadcasting the Parade of Quartets, a long-running program of African American gospel music still broadcast every Sunday morning on the regional station. In the show’s early days, local and out-of-town quartets would sing gospel pieces, discuss upcoming concert appearances (Augusta was a major stop on the “chitlin’ circuit”), and advertise its commercial sponsors. For example, every time the Traveling Singers quartet performed on the show, they sang the Claussen Bread jingle for their sponsor, Claussen Bakery of nearby Columbia, South Carolina. (They also sang the spiritual “Low Down the Chariot” as their “theme song” during each televised appearance, indicating that gospel quartets embodied both religious and commercial identities.) According to Parade of Quartets’ official account of its early years, both parties benefitted: quartets got television exposure—rare for African American groups of the time—and “many businesses that normally could not get on television [had] an opportunity to advertise their products and services”—especially to Black viewers.

These relationships between quartets and food companies in the mid-twentieth-century South tell the story of a region undergoing tremendous upheaval. The commercialization of sacred song; the growing celebrity of gospel singers; the regional embrace of new media; the rise of experimental advertising techniques; the movement of African Americans into new cultural and civic spaces – all these narrative threads intersect in the relatively untold tale of these economic partnerships. Of course there were partnerships with other sorts of businesses: furniture companies and men’s clothing were also frequent quartet sponsors. But there is something wistful and nostalgic about these jingles for crackers and flours and bread, sung earnestly by men very accustomed, in the Charles Finney tradition, to persuading audiences to consider their claims. Gospel quartets were pros at using music, in the old Aristotelian sense, to act upon the listener’s emotions, to function as an agent of moral and ethical redirection leading to a change in praxis. Perhaps the rhetorical leap from advertising salvation to selling soda crackers was not so very great after all.

Author’s note: Many thanks to gospel music scholar Bob Marovich who graciously pointed me towards the Spirit of Memphis radio broadcast audio.