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The Harmonizing Four

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One of the top gospel quartets of the postwar era, the Harmonizing Four were also a relative anomaly of the period; as their contemporaries raced to modernize their sound, rejecting the traditional jubilee style in favor of the intensity of the burgeoning "hard gospel" movement, the Four remained true to their roots, focusing instead on the spirituals and hymns of a time gone by. For all of their renown, little is known about the group's formative years — their leader and manager, Joseph "Gospel Joe" Williams, forbade any of the members to agree to interviews unless they were paid in advance, and as a result, the anecdotal information that does exist is sketchy and incomplete. Records have indicated that the Four made their formal debut at a grammar school in their native Richmond, VA on October 27, 1927; founding members included Thomas "Goat" Johnson and Levi Handly, with Williams signing on in 1933 and Lonnie Smith — the father of jazz pianist Lonnie Liston Smith — joining four years later.

The Harmonizing Four made their recorded debut on Decca in 1943; in all likelihood they came to the label at the behest of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, whom they frequently backed both on record and in concert. After World War II, they landed on the tiny Coleman label; included in the roster during much of this period was Tommy Ellison, later of the Chosen Gospel Singers. A brief tenure on Gotham followed, and after 1952, the Harmonizing Four cut only one record, a single for the Religious Recordings label, prior to arriving at Vee-Jay in 1957. There, the group — Williams, Smith, Thomas Johnson, and Jimmy Jones — finally began earning the fame long due them, honing their close harmony style to mellow perfection; Jones, in particular, earned renown as perhaps the greatest basso in gospel history, his canyon-deep voice distinguishing hits like "Motherless Child." After leaving Vee-Jay during the early '60s, the Harmonizing Four recorded for Nashboro, slowly easing into retirement in the years that followed.