The most popular of the Jubilee quartets, the Golden Gate Quartet started singing as the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet in the mid-’30s when they were students at Booker T. Washington High School in Norfolk, VA. The membership included Willie Johnson (baritone and narrator), Henry Owens (first tenor) William Langford (second tenor), and Orlandus Wilson (bass). Their harmonies became very sophisticated, laced with a heavy dose of jazz and a Mills Brothers influence right down to their vocal imitation of instruments. In fact, next to the Mills Brothers, they were probably the best at the “sounding like instruments” technique.
They built their reputation through performing on local radio shows and in churches. In 1937 the Gates signed to Victor’s Bluebird affiliate and applied their unique jazz-swing sound to gospel titles like “Go Where I Send Thee,” “The Preacher and the Bear,” and “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In.” On Aug. 4, 1937, they recorded an amazing 14 songs in two hours at the Charlotte Hotel in North Carolina. They performed in the same year on NBC Radio’s “Magic Key Hour.”
In June 1940, they recorded several sides with the legendary folk singer Leadbelly, released in 1941 on Bluebird’s parent label, Victor. By now they had dropped the Jubilee portion of their name, presenting themselves strictly as the Golden Gate Quartet. Though their recorded repertoire from 1937 to 1940 includes mostly gospel and Jubilee songs, they did record two pop-jazz 78s: “Stormy Weather” and “My Prayer.” One of the highlights of this period was a performance for President Franklin Roosevelt’s inauguration, which led to a number of appearances at the White House at the request of Eleanor Roosevelt.
In 1941 they moved to Columbia’s Okeh affiliate, and their entire recorded output during the war years was on that label. The most successful of these records was a version of “Comin’ in on a Wing and a Prayer” in 1943. Their biggest record success came in 1947 with the song “Shadrack,” and in 1948 the group appeared in the RKO musical “A Song Is Born,” starring Benny Goodman, Danny Kaye, and Louis Armstrong.
In 1959 the Golden Gate Quartet moved to Paris and landed a two-year deal to perform at the Casino de Paris. While based in Europe, they recorded for EMI-UK, Pathe Marconi in France, and EMI-Germany, creating more than 50 LPs. Over the years the group amassed a travelogue of 76 countries performed in. One of the truly great vocal groups, the Gates were cited as an inspiration to many rhythm and blues groups of the era.