Spencer Taylor & the Highway QC’s
For over 70 years, the Highway QC’s have been one of the top gospel groups in the classic “quartet” tradition. Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls, and Johnnie Taylor began their careers in the QC’s, each taking their turn as bandleader, before crossing over to become R&B stars. But under the direction of their fourth and current leader, Spencer Taylor, Jr., the QC’s stayed the course, recording groundbreaking male-harmony records and singing the sacred sounds of gospel all over the world.
The roots of the QC’s style reach back to the “jubilee” gospel choirs that emerged in the 1870s at African American colleges like Fisk University. Early jubilee singers were noted for their close harmonies and formal arrangements of spirituals; jubilee “quartets” employed four-part harmony—even when there were more than four singers. In the early 20th century, gospel quartets embraced a more expressive style, reflecting the spirit-filled services of the Holiness church. Although they have added musical accompaniment—most notably, a hard-driving rhythm section—the Highway QC’s continue the vocal traditions that characterize the “golden age” of jubilee quartet singing in the 1930s and ’40s.
Spencer Taylor, Jr. began singing professionally at five years old in The Taylor Family—an ensemble led by his mother, Amanda Taylor—and performed at black churches throughout his home state of Mississippi. As a teen in Chicago, he sang in the Holy Wonders with Lou Rawls. Then in 1956, in his late 20s, he was recruited to join the Highway QC’s, which had been founded a decade earlier by a group of teenage singers including Sam Cooke. (When Cooke famously crossed into secular music in 1951, Rawls took the reins.) In 1957, Spencer Taylor, Jr. became the QC’s director, replacing Johnnie Taylor, who had been the group’s leader since Rawls left for R&B stardom in 1953. Sixty years later, he’s still belting out lead vocals in a group that now includes two of his sons, Lynn and Spencer Taylor III. In 2003 the QC’s were inducted into the International Gospel Music Hall of Fame, and just this year, Taylor’s inspired leadership of the QC’s won him the James Cleveland Lifetime Achievement Award from the Stellar Awards, gospel music’s equivalent of the Grammys.
The QC’s have been asked to cross over to R&B, but Spencer Taylor refuses. “We’re not going,” he says, “not as long as I live…. I don’t have any hang-ups about music. We’ve worked with everybody that has a name. We were the first group that worked with the [Edwin] Hawkins Singers. We were on Broadway in ‘Gospel at Colonus.’ We were one of the groups that worked with Mahalia Jackson. If they sing, then we’ve been with them…. We’ve been highly blessed.” Audiences, both secular and religious, feel the same way when the Highway QC’s come to the stage and minister in song.