Any given Sunday morning in 1938, 13-year-old Thomas Spann gathered with friends around a single neighborhood window eager to hear the weekly broadcast.
“There was a choir called the Wings Over Jordan. They came on the radio every Sunday morning at 10 a.m.,” Spann said. “Everyone lined up. In 1938, there was only one radio in the neighborhood. The lady put her radio in the window on Sunday morning.”
The group started in 1935 under the direction of Glenn Settle, but the Wings Over Jordan Choir made broadcast history three years later with the first independently produced radio program created by African-Americans — and every week, they had a faithful childhood listener in Spann.
As Spann listened to the powerful voices and meaningful lyrics, he developed a love for music. And, inspired by the Wings Over Jordan Choir, Spann started singing.
“The more I did it, the more I enjoyed it,” Spann said.
In 1950, quartet singer and furniture entrepreneur Charlie Storey formed the Brooklyn All Stars in New York. Spann, Johnny Moore and Jesse Veloton also were members.
The group quickly got its first taste of success, thanks to a relationship with gospel promoter Joe Bostic, who helped land the All Stars a regular spot on his weekly radio broadcast. The quartet also appeared on gospel music programs hosted by Thurman Ruth and Professor Alfred Miller.
Only Spann, now 93, remains. And he will be performing with the All Stars on Saturday night during a gospel music event at Greater Love Ministries in Martinsville that will celebrate his 94th birthday and his long career.
Things really took off for the All Stars in 1955, when they found themselves on stage in New York City. “It was a big boost,” Spann said.
So big, in fact, that in 1956, Storey found it difficult to manage the Brooklyn All Stars and his furniture business at the same time. He turned the rights of the All Stars name over to Spann, who then added new members. The group started recording professionally two years later.
Their record sold so well that the Brooklyn All Stars landed a national touring spot alongside gospel household names such as the Dixie Hummingbirds, Soul Stirrers and Sensational Nightingales.
The quartet’s popularity continued to grow and between 1971 and 1978, while recording for Nashboro and Jewel, the All Stars consistently were voted the No. 1 gospel group in the United States, winning two gold albums and numerous awards.
The All Stars recorded for a number of labels in the 1980s, including Atlanta International Records, and took their music on tour around the world. The Brooklyn All Stars performed in Portugal, Italy, Spain, Germany and Switzerland.
Just as quickly as the fame began, it fizzled out.
“There was a lull between 1985 and 1990,” Spann said. “We didn’t do any traveling. I thought, ‘It’s all over.’”
Being booked everywhere from Yankee Stadium to the Robert Kennedy Center and in all 50 states at their prime, it seemed the group’s heyday came and went by the end of their third decade of performing.
Much to Spann’s surprise, the ‘90s saw a resurgence of popularity for the Brooklyn All Stars.
“I have no idea” what happened, Spann said. “People started playing our records again. We got calls from promoters all over the country.”
In his mid-’60s — a time when many people consider retirement — Spann started touring again with the Brooklyn All Stars.
Seven decades after the group formed, Spann, now 93, hasn’t slowed down and said he doesn’t plan to do so any time soon.
Spann said he plans to sing “as long as the Lord lets me.”
Other original members of the group have passed away, but Spann’s bass voice still resonates throughout performance halls. He plays an active role in the group’s signature sound, selecting new members from time to time.
“You’ve got to have voices that match,” Spann said. “I’m working on the third generation of singers.”