The Sensational Nightingales- Charles Brown impersonating June Cheeks.
Sensational Nightingales, late 50’s promo photo.
Mid-sixties solo album, sharkskin suits for Jesus.
June Cheeks with the Sensational Nightingales, at his peek.
Early solo single, Holy Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee.
I just can’t seem to stay off the subject of screaming. Why is it that I love to listen to folks screaming so much? Personally, I never scream. Nor does my wife. In fact she almost never even raises her voice, save for those times she falls down the stairs (the stairs in this house are very slippery, I fall down them myself quite regularly). Anyway, you may have to ask Sigmund Freud why I enjoy to hearing musical screams, but it doesn’t a genius to tell you who the greatest musical screamers of them all were. The greatest screams came from those singers that came out of the Church Of God In Christ, and of those singers there are two who have gone down in history as the greatest of the screamers. One was Archie Brownlee of the Five Blind Boys Of Mississippi, who literally shouted himself to death, his lungs wracked by pneumonia, he passed away on tour with the Five Blind Boys in New Orleans back in 1960 at the tender age of thirty five. The other was Reverend Julius “June” Cheeks– born August 7, 1929 in Spartanberg, South Carolina, (the same town that begat Ira Tucker of the Dixie Hummingbirds) who will always best remembered as the hard shouting frontman for the Sensational Nightingales at their peak.
Cheeks was born into poverty, one of thirteen children, his mother, a widow known to all as “Big Chick” Cheeks, picked cotton to raise her brood. Julius, known from childhood as June, dropped out of the second grade to join his mother in the fields, a tough way to get by– “It was bad, man. We didn’t have a clock, we told time by the sun. We didn’t eat right, we lived off fatback and molasses”, he told Anthony Heilbut for his classic volume The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times (revised edition: Limelight Editions, 1985). He went through life illiterate, although he could sign his name. He would listen to the recorded Bible on massive stack of 78’s and eventually be ordained in the Church Of Holiness Science out of Detroit. As a teenager he heard local bluesman Blind Boy Fuller, and on a neighbors’ radio his favorite spiritual groups– the Soul Stirrers, the Dixie Hummingbirds, and the Fairfield Four. In the mid-1940’s June joined a local group called the Baronets and in 1946 they found themselves opening a bill for the Five Blind Boys Of Mississippi and the Sensational Nightingales. Cheeks was working in a filling station at the time. June Cheeks took the stage in his finest clothes– overalls with patches sewn over the holes. When the Sensational Nightingales left town the next day they took June with them, he would become their new lead singer. To Archie Brownlee, who was also on the bill that night, up to that time, unquestionably king of the house wrecking shouters, a man who could cause an entire audience to “fall out” when he hit his blood curdling scream in the Five Blind Boys’ version of The Lord’s Prayer–, Cheeks was his only compitition–“Don’t nobody ever give me any trouble but June Cheeks. That’s the only trouble I have, that’s the baddest nigger on the road”. The Nightingales manager rehearsed the group from nine in the morning until late afternoon until Cheeks was ready to take the stage. It was an impressive group with hard shouting tenor singer Paul Owens, guitarist Jo Jo Wallace (who wore an Esquerita styled pompadour atop his dome, and was known for his wild stage antics, he said, when looking back on his career with the Nightingales– “I was Chuck Berry and Little Richard and Jo Jo, rolled into one”), Carl Coates singing bass (husband to the great Dorothy Love Coates), were all in the group at the time. To this, Julius Cheeks added his thundering baritone lead, and his own wild stage antics. He’d run up and down the aisles, fall down on his knees, tell corny jokes— “I cut the fool so bad”. He was much criticised for his showmanship at the time, but the audience loved it. He was the hardest working man in the business. And along with the aforementioned Dorothy Love Coates, one of the few gospel singers to vocally back the Civil Rights movement at a time (late 40’s/early 50’s) when such expressions of free speech could be dangerous for one who toured the south constantly.
Life on the Gospel Highway was not an easy one. Once Cheeks found his group stranded in Miami with only fifty cents in his pocket. “I just went and threw mine (fifty cents) as far as it could go into the Atlantic”. To support his family– a wife, two kids, and Big Chick back in South Carolina, he joined the Soul Stirrers for two years in the early fifties (“I was the one caused Sam Cooke to sing hard. I gave him his first shout”) before returning to the Sensational Nightingales in time to cut a string of classic records for Don Robey’s Peacock label out of Houston. From 1952-1959 he led them through a string of spine tingling discs, including such classics as Blood Of Jesus, Morning Train, Savior Don’t Pass Me, What Would You Give, I Want To Go which featured Jo Jo’s rocking guitar riffs, To The End, Standing At The Judgement (which Hank Ballard and the Midnighters would re-write as the rocker What Is This I See), and his greatest recorded moment– Burying Ground. As near as I can figure, Peacock released at least eighteen singles and five LP’s on the Sensational Nightingales on which Julius Cheeks sang lead. Not long ago, attempting to engage me in conversation, a person volunteered the opinion that Graham Nash was the “greatest harmony singer of all time”. Hey, I like the Hollies a little, and I like the Beach Boys and the Byrds a lot, but when people tell me that those groups are “great harmony singers”, I just want to laugh. They’re good singers, sure, and they made some great records, no doubt. But if you want to hear great harmony singing. I mean great, as in as good as it could possibly get– listen to Carl Coates’ bass parts on the above discs, then listen to the subtle, restrained introduction on Blood Of Jesus, and listen to the way they build the intensity to the screaming finale of Burying Ground.
Few “rock’n’roll” records have rocked this hard. Just listen. Then try and talk to me about Graham Nash being “great”. You will know why I’m laughing. And why I don’t like to talk about music with many people anymore. Opinions are like assholes, everyone has one, and they all stink of shit. I include myself in that summation, heck, I still listen to Mott The Hoople on occassion (to say nothing of Menster Phips and the Phipsters).
June Cheeks left the the Sensational Nightingales in late 1959, put in a year with the Mighty Clouds Of Joy (who later went on to record a tribute LP to Cheeks), then began a solo career, releasing at least nine singles on Peacock, a few of these billed his backing group as the Sensational Knights, I assume to purposefully confuse matters. Of these solo discs, my favorite is the bluesy Holy Wine, a Cheeks original which puts the anti-booze faction of church folk in their place, since, sighting two episodes in the New Testament where Christ himself made and served wine (first at the wedding and again at the Sermon On The Mount). Good enough for Jesus, good enough for June. Cheeks admits on the road he “had myself a time”, and that he liked to drink. The flipside of Holy Wine– Tomorrow’s Sun, was a screaming rocker with a pounding boogie piano part that could have off of a Jerry Lee Lewis Sun record. Cheeks kept up his solo career, as well as preaching, until the end. Of all the 60’s soul singers he inspired, only Wilson Pickett admitted publicly just how much he had taken from this man. Toward his final days his voice was a hoarse rasp, he had literally shredded his vocal chords screaming night after night. He had worn himself out, when he died in 1981 in Newark, N.J., he was only 51 years old. To this day, no one has ever sang harder, or left a greater legacy.
A video clip (its embedding disabled) from his solo career backed by the Sensational Nights can be found here.