In 1942, Sherman Washington met Benjamin Maxon purely by chance while both of them were working at Higgins Shipyard in New Orleans.
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"I used to sit with this guy," Washington recalls, "I think he was a carpenter's helper or something. We used to eat our lunches together -- those old, cold lunches -- and one day we're talking and he invites me to a singing rehearsal."
The rehearsals turned out to be for the Zion Harmonizers.
Inspired by his aunt, Alberta French Johnson, the lead singer of the famous female gospel group, the Southern Harps, Benjamin Maxon had gathered some of his teenage friends together and founded the Zion Harmonizers. All of the members of the group were living in a small community of Zion City, a family neighborhood within the city of New Orleans. It was 1939 -- Gospel's Golden Era.
Under Alberta's tutelage, the Zion Harmonizers learned to sing the traditional four-part harmony, quartet style of gospel. The group traveled throughout the state of Louisiana opening performances for the Southern Harps.
After Washington came on board in 1942, Maxon began teaching him the business of singing gospel.
"When Maxon was called to the ministry in 1948," Washington recalls, "he asked me to become the manager of group. I asked God to help me and he has. For the last 49 years he's been there when I needed him."
"In 1948," Washington continues, "we were singing mainly a cappella. There might've been one group out there with a guitar. But since that time, more and more gospel groups are turning to using musical instruments to help in the celebration.
"I like the old style and I think it's coming back around. We get a lot of requests now for a cappella tunes. I assume that the audience can understand the words better without music. You know, a lot of times, a guitarist or a musician will want to star and it'll drown out the singing.
"Plus, we've found too that the music can make you lazy. It makes it so you don't have to produce. You can make a lot of mistakes with the music whereas you can't singing a cappella."
Washington proved to be an energetic and productive leader. In 1956, he was successful in securing the first weekly radio broadcast for the Harmonizers on radio station WMRY. Many years later WMRY was sold but Washington continued the broadcast every Sunday morning under the new owners and new call letters, WYLD. In 1987, Washington's brother, Nolan, (who also is a member of the Harmonizers) joined Sherman at WYLD and began to co-host a Saturday morning broadcast with Willie Hawkins. Today, you can still hear the brothers do their weekly shows on WYLD.
The Zion Harmonizers recorded for the first time in 1956 for the Avant label of Dallas and again in 1958 for Gotham Records of Philadelphia. Rather than the usual LPs or today's CDs, gospel groups generally recorded singles that could be released. The mid 1960s brought still another trip to the studio to record a single for the New Orleans-based Booker label. In 1974, with their popularity growing -- due, in part, to their participation in the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival -- the Harmonizers recorded their first LP for the Flying Fish label. Since those recordings, the Zion Harmonizers have made several trips back to the studio for different labels including Ponchartrain Records (1974), Sound of New Orleans (1982) and Mardi Gras Records (1992-93). They have just finished recording their second complete CD in New Orleans, a disk entitled God Promised Me, which should be released in September of this year.
The Zion Harmonizers played the first annual Jazz Festival which was held on the old Congo Square site in 1969. Since that initial appearance, the Zion Harmonizers have performed every year except one. Shortly after the first Jazz Fest. Quint Davis, the festival's executive director, approached Washington about organizing the now famous gospel tent.
Says Washington, "At first, a lot of the ministers didn't want their choirs singing in a place where people were drinking beer. So, in the early days, it was hard to attract choirs and we had to get by with what we had. We (the Harmonizers) used to sing several times during the Jazz Fest. Now everybody wants to be in it and if I don't put them in, they call Quint and say that I don't like them."
This year over 80 gospel groups will be featured at the that Washington built, most from the New Orleans metropolitan area with 8 to 10 national groups also making an appearance. One of the many highlights each year at Jazz Fest is when Aaron Neville takes his place among the Zion Harmonizers to sing a little gospel in the old Sam Cook and the Soul Stirrers' style.
In 1974, the Zion Harmonizers won the "Grand Staff Award" for Best Quartet from the New Orleans Chapter of the Gospel Workshop of America. In addition, they have won the Big Easy Award for "Best of New Orleans Gospel" six years in a row and OffBeat's Best of the Beat in Gospel in 1996 and 1997.
During the Zion Harmonizers European tour of 1995, the group met producer Gerard Kerkvliet, who along with American partner Carla DeCorte, runs C& G Music Partners. Kerkvilet secured promotional exposure for the Harmonizers on French national TV and radio. The group was delighted with the additional exposure. As a result, C& G was officially retained by the Harmonizers as their agency of record. C& G took the Hamonizers into the studio this year and hammered out the upcoming CD which is said to capture the feel of their live performances.
What more can one say about a traditional gospel group that is about to begin its sixth decade together.
Washington says, "I'm asking the Lord to let me be a more powerful leader. I want to be a role model for all the younger groups that are coming on. Quartet groups didn't usually stay together but here we've stayed together for 58 years. Now, I'm starting to see more and more groups staying together."
His brother Nolan nods his head and says, " It's a beautiful feeling; getting to meet so many different people. But you have to deal with the spirit when you're up there singing. I know if I can feel it, then the audience can feel it too. To sing, you have to sing and mean it and be sincere. We've all learned to always give God the praise."
To which Sherman Washington adds, "Gospel is alive and it's come from a long way back. If you don't like the traditional, then give contemporary gospel a try. Hang in there with gospel because singing it is the chief worship of God. And you can't go wrong there."
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