The Violinaires have been an institution in Detroit gospel music since 1952, appearing under a variety of names -- usually the Violinaires or the Fantastic Violinaires -- and being led by a number of singers, including founder Willie Banks and Robert Blair, who led the group until his death in 2001, when he was replaced by pastor Danny Walker.
The first version of the Violinaires was formed by Isaiah "Lil Shot" Jones, Leo Coney, and Wilson DeShields in 1952. Not long afterward, Providence Thomas and Raymond, Mississippi native Willie Banks joined, and the group adopted the name the Violinaires. From the outset, the membership of the group changed frequently, but Jones, Coney, and DeShields were mainstays through the '50s.
The Violinaires made their recording debut in 1953, when "Another Soldier Gone" appeared on the local Drummond imprint. The following year, it was re-released for the secular market under the name the Question Marks by Swing Time Records, and this crossover attempt led the vocal group to pursue R&B in the late '50s. At the peak of their R&B phase, the group featured Wilson Pickett on lead; the singer appeared on the 1957 single "Sign of the Judgment."
By the time the Violinaires signed with the Chess subsidiary Checker in 1964, the group returned to gospel music and featured Robert Blair as the lead; Jones, Coney, and DeShields all remained in the band. The group stayed with Checker throughout the '60s and moved to Jewel in the '70s.
In the '80s, the Violinaires became the Fantastic Violinaires and signed to Malaco Records. This lineup featured Blair and a selection of new vocalists: Robert Arrington, David Battle, Dwight "Tito" Arthur," David "Bunker Hill" Walker, and Dr. Frank "Daddy" Thompson, Jr. This lineup held through the late '80s, when the group moved to Atlantic International Records to release the successful album The Pink Tornado. During the '90s, the lineup shifted on a semi-regular basis -- Danny Walker joined during this time -- as did the group's record labels; during the '90s, they recorded for Paula, Grammercy, Gospel Jubilee, and Universal Music.
Robert Blair led the Fantastic Violinaires until his death on March 19, 2001. In the wake of his passing, the group spun off into several incarnations, including a brief spell where Rev. Charlie Brown took Blair's spot. The Fantastic Violinaires continued under the direction of pastor Danny Walker -- they were billed as Danny Walker & the Fantastic Violinaires -- while Titus "Lil' Blair" Stallworth took a different group out as Lil' Blair & the Fantastic Heirs. There was also a group called Robert Blair & the Fantastic Violinaires. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine