The 1940s quartet, the Tate City Spirituals, (l-r): O. J. Crowder (bass), Corneilus Rucker (baritone), James Pitts (tenor) and Henry Lee Gunn (leader).
By Dr. Kathleen Thompson
[This article is the seventh in a series devoted to the history of the Black residents of Pickens County. Dr. Kathleen Thompson has completed extensive research and interviews in order to write this series. This project has and continues to be made possible by the Pickens Arts and Cultural Alliance, and grants from the Georgia Humanities Council, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.]
In quartets and trios, Black residents past and present, have expressed their deep faith by sharing the gospel in song. The Pickens community has nurtured, listened to with pleasure, and appreciated this African-American tradition of singing spirituals.
Early Musical Groups
The local tradition began with Cornelius Rucker. He was a member of Pilgrim Church in Nelson, but directed the choir at Mt. Calvary Baptist Church in Tate. The multi talented Cornelius could sing all parts, but usually sang bass and baritone. The original quartet was organized by Rucker and consisted of Mr. Glover Green, James Pitts, Henry Lee Gunn, and Cornelius Rucker.
In the early 1940s the Georgia Marble Company and Colonel Sam Tate sponsored the quartet. Later the Brookshire Tire Company in Atlanta supported the group. During the 1940s they sang on the local radio every two weeks.
Later in the 1940s another groups formed. Sometimes they sang as a quartet using various combinations of members, and at other times they all performed together. The members included Mr. Preston Roach Sr. as lead singer, Truman Roach as baritone, Will Rucker, Cornelius Rucker as bass, T. J. McClure, Anna Mackey, and Earstene (Teen) Mackey. Later Mr. James Pitts sang tenor. During these years Melvin Bryant and James Howell also sang. Mr. James Anderson accompanied them on the guitar.
Truman Roach recalled another group that performed in the 1950s and 60s, during the era of segregation. The group included Truman, James Franklin (Chester) Roach, Glover Green, and Cornelius Rucker. Preston Roach Jr. remembers the clear clear, strong voice of Robert Allen Williams singing in various groups.
In addition to performing locally all of these groups sang in churches, and at events in Blue Ridge, Monticello, Canton, and other communities. All had ceased performing in the 1970s. The tradition was picked many years later by Preston Roach Sr., Robert McClure, and Truman Roach.
The Mount Calvary Trio
Mt. Calvary Church has been the centerpoint for all the groups past and present. Mr. Cornelius Rucker was the Choir Director at the church and all of the members of the earlier groups sang at the church.
Today’s trio members are also long time choir members at Mt. Calvary. Preston Roach sings (lead), Truman Roach (tenor), and Robert McClure (bass) comprise the trio. Truman and Preston are brothers and Robert a double first cousin to the Roaches.
In 1993 all three were reminiscing about the earlier trios and began to harmonize on songs they remembered from the days of Deacon Rucker.
As other members of the church heard those songs, requests were made to the three to perform at the church services. Before long they not only sang as a trio at Calvary, but began to be invited to other churches, including White churches, funerals, and public events.
Today if you attend Red Cross events, activities at the Tate Gym, attend the Senior Center or visit the nursing home, you will likely have heard the group. They have also sung on ETC-3 Television.
The group usually performs a capella creating a unique sound that harkens back to a long tradition of unaccompanied Negro Spirituals from the days of slavery. If the harmonies in this type of music remind you of Barbershop quartet music it is because the earliest groups singing in the Barbershop style of music were African Americans.
Asked why they sing and perform, all three members of the Trio testified to their pleasure at being able to share their faith, and to God’s generosity toward them as individuals and as a group.
Truman described his experiences, “I love to sing and have been singing since I was small. In grammer school I was always given singing parts in school musicals. At Fort Valley State College I worked to improve my skills and joined the college choir.”
Brother Preston Roach explained, “Singing uplifts me and others. I can get down and without intent start humming. Next thing I know and I’m feeling better. I get so much out of praising the Lord in song, it’s a blessing to be able to sing for others.”
“Anywhere, anytime, I’m 100 percent involved. When I was in Ohio I sung in my church choir and when I worked at Lockeed I joined their employee’s choir,” noted Robert McClure. “I love to give God praise in song. I’m not much on talking, but singing about My Lord is a privilege.”
Indeed, it must be a privilege for the members of the trio to perform, but it is also a privilege and pleasure to listen.
Stephen E. Griffeth, The Many Facets of Tate, Georgia, Wolfe Publishing, 1998
Interviews, 2010, Truman Roach, Preston Roach Jr. and Robert McClure
by Kathleen Thompson.