At 79, Brother James Thomas is considered a youngster in the Raleigh gospel group Capitol City Five. “I’ve only been with the group for 50 years,” he laughs. “The boy that started the group, he’s 80. They’ve been organized 60, and when I got with ’em they’d been singing 10 years.”
Thomas had been involved with gospel music even before that. For 44 years, he was the voice of gospel on radio station WLLE in Raleigh. It was not a gospel station. Its mainstay was Rhythm & Blues represented on the air by the rough and tumble DJ Dr. Jocko, whose jivey, original commercials for the wine vendors that sponsored his program were as interesting as the raucous, raw music he started playing in the ’60s.
But somebody (or a lot of somebodies) was listening to Thomas. His on-air hours moved around according to the whims of various owners, but at one time he was broadcasting five hours a day. Rival station WRAL had J.D Lewis, who was doing a little gospel early in the morning, but Lewis finally threw in the towel, telling Thomas, “I can’t stand this. You have to do it because there ain’t nobody listening to me.”
One thing that Thomas did that destroyed the competition was to host live national gospel acts in the studio. “I brought some of the big name groups into here the first time they ever came into Raleigh,” Thomas says, “like Slim and the Supreme Angels and The Violinaires.” He was also responsible for bringing the Dixie Hummingbirds, famous for backing Paul Simon on “She Loves Me Like A Rock,” back to the area.
But Thomas wanted to participate in the music he was promoting, and eventually he joined the Capitol City Five. The group performs gospel music and spirituals. The terms are often used interchangeably, but Thomas says there is a difference. “Gospel is just like they get down, almost like preaching. A spiritual is just almost like a jubilee.” Thomas defines jubilee as “just a little kind of rhythm step, not exactly rhythm, but it’s just a little bit faster than a gospel.” The style may have originated earlier, he says, but was prevalent in the ’30s ’40s. It’s a style Clarence Fountain and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama use on a number of their songs. “But gospel is just getting on down into it.”
The way he gets down in song has many people thinking Thomas is a man of the cloth. “I just do the songs,” he chuckles. “Everybody calls me a preacher. But I don’t. I get into the songs. The spirit gets in there and I go off a little bit talking. I get into it and I get to feeling real good and I guess everybody thinks I’m a preacher.”
The Capitol City Five patterned themselves after the Harmonizing Four of Richmond, Virginia, because they had a real good deep bass singer. “We used to sing with music,” Thomas says, “but we stopped that, and now we sing a cappella style.” In a group of his generation, that has a different meaning than in most of today’s music, gospel or secular. There are no vocal gymnastics here. The lead singer hits a note and holds it, not swinging back and forth on it by his tonsils. The lack of accompaniment also helps them get their message over more clearly. “Because there are so many groups that have so much music that’s the way we sing now, if we get up before an audience that has maybe five or six groups to sing, and all of ’em are singing just about the same way and we get up there and sing our style, we also get over on the rest of the groups all the time for the way we sing, because you can hear the voices of everybody and hear the words of what we’re singing clearly.”
The group used a guitarist up until about 10 years ago, but the singers decided to do away with the position. “They wanted to be some little hallelujah guys and just play so loud ’til you couldn’t even hardly hear what the guys were singing,” Thomas says.
Except for that problem, there’s been no dissention in the ranks over the years. “I think what kept the group together is because we were just sincere, and we just loved it and just kept right on doing it. That was the main thing. We were just true to what we were doing.” If the band promised to go somewhere, they went. “And if the money wasn’t there, we didn’t say, ‘well, we can’t sing.’ We sang, if there weren’t but five people there,” Thomas says proudly, before adding somewhat sheepishly, “we might not have sung as long as if there’d have been a housefull, but we sung.”
The group and Thomas have stayed true to their genre as well. Thomas never sang rock ‘n’ roll or even played it on the radio. “I sat in for somebody when they were a few minutes late coming, but I would never say anything,” laughs Thomas. “I would just play music. I dedicated my whole life to gospel music.”
Thomas continues that dedication with the Capitol City Five, as well as on the air, but now no owner decides his time slot. He now owns WXKL 1290 AM, an independent radio station in Sanford. Asked what he does to combat the pressures of the bigger outfits, he reveals an old-fashioned solution. “I do the same thing that I do about the singing. I just do my own thing,” he laughs. “As long as the Lord gives us the voice and the strength to go,” Brother Thomas promises, “we’ll keep doing it.”
The Capitol City Five Appear at the Garner Historic Auditorium Sunday, Nov. 16 from 3-4 p.m.