When mentioning traditional southern black gospel music, you can’t leave out North Carolina based gospel quartet The Sensational Nightingales. The group is one of the earliest gospel quartets. The group was founded as The Nightingales in 1942 by Barney Parks in Philadelphia. Parks was previously with the Dixie Hummingbirds. The original Nightingales line up included Howard Carroll, Paul Owens, Ben Joiner, and William Henry. They recorded several sides for Decca Records.
In 1946, Parked discovered a singer named Julius “June” Cheeks who had a soulful filled voice that evoked the emotion of a preacher. His vocals punctuated with high falsettos to raspy growls, he could carry the audience on an emotional musical religious journey. Cheeks style has been said to have been borrowed by artists like Bobby Bland and Wilson Pickett. Cheeks was influenced by the likes of groups like the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Fairfield Four, and the Soul Stirrers. Cheeks was singing with a quartet called the Baronets in South Carolina when he was approached to join the new line up of The Nightingales. That new group led by Parks consisted of Cheeks, Joseph “Jo Jo” Wallace, and Carl Coates.
The Nightingales rehearsed for a month in Goldsboro, North Carolina before their first appearances and since they were so sensational, they added the moniker to their name to become The Sensational Nightingales.
The group signed with Peacock Records and released their first single, “Will He Welcome Me There” in 1947. During the ’50s their hits included “New Burying Ground,” “Somewhere to Lay My Head,” and “See How They Done My Lord.”
Over the years, Cheeks would leave and return to the group until 1960 when he left to form his own group The Knights. The Sensational Nightingales added Charles Johnson to the roster to sing lead until the mid-80s, when he was replaced by Calvert McNair. The group is often referred to as “The Gentlemen of Song” for the way they carry themselves while singing soul stirring quartet harmonies.
The current line-up of The Sensational Nightingales consists of 91-year-old Joseph “Jo Jo” Wallace, Larry Moore, Horace “Sug” Thompson, and Darrell Luster, and they are still actively performing.
In October 2017, the group was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame for their contributions to the music industry.