Aside from Happy Birthday and Amazing Grace, Dry Bones may be one of the most well-known songs in the western world.
You may have heard it first on the series Blood Drive or Pretty Little Liars, the movie Rain Man, the 1960’s TV program The Prisoner, from Herman Munster, in kindergarten, or at Sunday school.
The Dry Bones theme, and style, runs deep.
Is it the hypnotic melody?
Perhaps it’s lyrics like “Your leg bone connected to your knee bone.”
Whatever it is, once Dry Bones enters your mind it stays forever, creeping through your memories, the perfect ear worm.
And of famous songs, Dry Bones performed by the Delta Rhythm Boys may be the most famous.
With it they grew an international audience which would propel founder Lee Gaines and the Deltas from obscure college quartet to the heights of Broadway and Hollywood.
The harmonic vocal styles the Delta Rhythm Boys perfected would directly influence the Doo Wop sound that later permeated rock and funk.
The trajectory of the Delta Rhythm Boys, and what they represented, in a small way, matches the vision Ezekiel had in the Old Testament.
It tells the story of how the prophet Ezekiel came upon a valley cluttered with dry human bones.
Overcome with a vision, Ezekiel witnesses the scattered bones mystically collecting themselves into an army of skeletons who grow flesh and team with human life.
God tells Ezekiel that the congregation before him are the exiled people of a lost nation who will one day be led back to the Promised Land.
This promise of being led to freedom is a recurring theme in traditional gospel music.
It was in the 1920’s during the Harlem Renaissance that poet and musician James Weldon Johnson was inspired enough by the parable the he originally composed Dry Bones in the 1920’s. He envisioned it as the perfect allegory for a struggling people.
Like the Israelites, African Americans whose identity had been decimated yearned to reclaim control of their destiny. This was the vision Weldon aspired for in his song.
A decade later, college bass vocalist Lee Gaines brings together a singing quartet that grabs local excitement around Langston University.
Heeding the call, Gaines and his band relocated to Dillard University in New Orleans, honing their style with performances at universities and venues around the South in the mid-1930’s.
It wasn’t too long before the Deltas caught the eye of an Argentine talent scout who recruited them for a yearlong tour of South America.
On the crest of a wave, Lee Gaines and the Delta Rhythm Boys returned to the States, settling in Harlem, where they quickly found work in a hit Broadway play.
Gaines soon got in with the Cotton Club crowd, which included the likes of Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, and Billy Strayhorn.
Even his wife Mabel Gaines had performed regularly at the Cotton Club.
It was around this time that Lee Gaines wrote the first version of lyrics for Billy Strayhorn’s Take the A Train, one of Duke’s signature songs. Though Joya Sherrill would later rewrite the lyrics for Duke’s version, Strayhorn originally intended the song for the Deltas.
The quartet’s popularity eventually led to daily radio a show on CBS from which they gained national attention.
Within a few years, the Delta Rhythm Boys were recording for Decca Records and signed on with Universal Pictures, leading them to appear in at least 15 Hollywood films.
Despite having a contract in Hollywood, Lee Gaines and the Deltas refused to be yes-men.
In an interview with Jason Gross on furious.com, Delta Rhythm Boys member Carl Jones recalls,
“They wanted them to do a song … instead of doing it in a night club, they put them in a run-down shack …. like share-croppers …”
“The war was going on at the time so they asked, ‘Why can’t we be G.I.’s?’”
“So the studio said, ‘OK, but if you’re too particular, we can nullify your contract after one year.’”
“They said, ‘Great, OK, no big deal, but we had some pride.’”
In 1944, they had scored a gig with Count Basie in LA.
But the Deltas suddenly found themselves without a singer.
“His wife told him that he was too good for the group and that he didn’t need them.”
That’s when singer Carl Jones was brought on.
Reluctant at first, Jones soon came around.
“When they said Count Basie, that was one of the bands that I loved.”
“So I said, ‘Well, I’ll do that.’”
The Count Basie show went off so well Lee Gaines and the Deltas invited Jones to permanently join the band.
Breaking more ground, the Delta Rhythm Boys were one of the first black acts to book recurring gigs in Las Vegas.
“We were the first entertainment of color there except for the Nicholas Brothers, at the Frontier Hotel.”
But it wasn’t without having to stand up against the arrogantly ignorant who thought they could push the Deltas around.
“There were only two hotels on the strip at the time. They put us in a little shack downtown that had been the Red Light district …”
“So we told them ‘if we can’t get accommodations at the hotel, then we can’t work.’”
“So the lady in charge said ‘I guess you won’t work then.”
But the El Rancho was also interested in hiring them.
“So we stayed there with no problem.”
“The next year, the Frontier called us again and the money was rising each time.”
“They said, ‘You can stay here now.’”
“We said, ‘No, that’s OK’.”
When Carl Jones was brought on, he added a new finesse to the quartet’s arrangements.
“I put the top on the lead, rather than having the traditional quartet with the tenor over the top and baritone and bass underneath.”
As the Delta’s popularity in the US waned in the late 1950’s, they found a new and welcoming audience in Europe, especially in Scandinavia, where they would go on to record Swedish and Finnish folk songs like Domarendansen in their unique, swinging way.
In the mid-1950’s, Lee Gaines and the Deltas were given a 9-month residency in Paris performing at the famed Moulin Rouge, leading to new record deals with two French record labels.
As personnel changed, with Herb Coleman replacing Carl Jones, who left to spend more time with his family, and Hugh Bryant replacing original member Kelsey Pharr who died unexpectedly, Paris became the Delta’s main hub when touring Europe in the 1960’s and 70’s.
It was in Paris in 1974 when tragedy struck. Herb Coleman was fatally shot by an unknown assailant. He died in Lee Gaines’ arms.
Thirteen years later in Helsinki, Finland, the place where the Delta Rhythm Boys rose a second time to establish a new worldwide audience with their authentic, iconic harmonies, Lee Gaines finally passed on.
Dramatically, at his funeral, Delta’s baritone Hugh Bryant performed a song to honor Lee Gaines with such heartfelt soul he collapsed and died after finishing it.
The Delta Rhythm Boys performed for over 50 years, and from them the legacy of a distinct vocal style would continue to evolve.
The Delta’s vocal innovations, which had been heard by millions of listeners nationwide, in movies, on radio, and on TV, would greatly influence the next generation of singers who would spinoff these vocal styles in doo-wop.
Stylistically, it is interwoven into some of the most popular music known today.
You can hear it in the call and response of James Brown’s “Please, Please, Please.”
It’s the background music in Martin Scorsese classics like Goodfellas and Mean Streets.
Whether the impetus behind the Brian Wilson and Beach Boys’ surf pop or satirized by David Bowie in songs like Golden Years, the echoes of doo-wop are ubiquitous.
George Clinton’s Parliament was originally a Doo-wop group called The Parliaments, and delightfully complex vocal arrangement permeate virtually all of his compositions.
It’s no mistake that Parliament’s Dr. Funkenstein riffs off of Dry Bones when George Clinton raps,
Hip bone connected to my thigh bone
My thigh bone connected to my leg bone
My leg bone connected to my ankle bone
I get so hung up on bones
You can hear its resonance unmistakably in The Coasters, The Four Seasons, The Ramones, Prince, The Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa, Sun Ra, Curtis Mayfield, Zapp!, Billy Joel, Michael Jackson, Bruno Mars, Kelly Clarkson, Haim, Leon Bridges, and many more.
In the end, like Ezekiel’s vision, it can be said, from the voice of the Delta Rhythm Boys arose a harmonic movement that still has a lasting resonance on the most popular music heard even today.