When it comes to longevity stakes the Zimria is up there with the best of them. This year the international Jewish choral umbrella organization celebrates its 70th anniversary. But The Golden Gate Quartet has it beat, by a long way. Next year the fabled American singing group marks its 90th birthday with, naturally, some personnel changes taking place over the course of its long history. Fittingly it will be around to contribute to the Zimria milestone.
The American foursome’s gigging backdrop also includes quite a few forays to this part of the world, and now they are returning for a two-date visit which includes an appearance at the Opera House in Tel Aviv (June 27, 8 pm), winding up with a show at the Zimria gathering in Akko on the morrow (9 pm).
Who are the Golden Gate Quartet?
The current leader of the singing pack is 73 years young Paul Brembly, who has a lifelong musical and very personal bond with the group. Back in 1934, his great-uncle Orlandus Wilson was one of its founding members.
“Yes, he was my grandfather’s little brother,” Brembly chuckles.
“We had all their records at home, and I grew up with their music.”
Brembly became a fully-fledged member of The Golden Gate in 1971 at the tender age of 21. Over the ensuing half century, he has crisscrossed the globe with the band as other singers left and new ones joined and the quartet just kept on doing its thing – delighting audiences young and old with all kinds of musical leanings.
The group’s discography encompasses dozens of releases, spanning an eclectic spectrum of styles and genres, from negro spirituals to gospel and jazz through to rock. The hundreds of numbers that make up the repertoire include time-honored staples such as “Joshua Fit The Battle of Jericho”, “Swing Down Chariot” and “When The Saints Go Marching In”, to nuggets from musicals like “Old Man River” and venerable folk song “Sixteen Tons.”
But there is far more to the Golden Gate oeuvre as evidenced, for example, by an appearance at the Vienna Jazz Festival in 2015.
While the quartet rolled out plenty of tried-and-tested crowd pleasers from its extensive back catalog of standards, there were some nods to more contemporary commercial sentiments, including a rendition – in the group’s inimitable close harmony style – of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” from smash hit 1982 album Thriller. Elvis Presley’s “Blue Suede Shoes” also gets the polished a cappella treatment on the group’s most recent record, Music Is, from 2018.
Brembly says he has always taken an accommodating approach to the group’s offerings.
“Of course, there is the variety. That is music. Music is that way.”
That may seem like a philosophical, unrealistic line to take, particularly in an industry with marketing professionals intent on breaking sounds and styles down to ever narrower definitive tags so they can target specific audiences and get them to shell out their hard-earned cash on the goods they are pushing.
That is anathema to the Golden Gate ethos.
“That’s the business side of it,” Brembly observes.
“We are not in this for the business. We do this because we love the music and we love what we’re doing.”
Judging by the crowds they draw wherever they roam and the tumultuous applause they elicit, they are lots more out there who appreciate what Brembly and his velvety-voiced pals have to offer on stage.
There was never a doubt about where Brembly’s career path was going to lead. Mind you, he did have to take a stand at an early age to prove his worth. And while he may have been doing sterling vocal work for over half a century, his initial musical steps were on the hands-on side of the sonic tracks.
“I first started with the guitar,” he recalls. “That was my first love.”
Brembly had to go the extra mile to make that happen.
“I made my first guitar myself. My parents thought I wasn’t serious, and guitars were quite expensive at the time.”
The youngster persevered and eventually got his hands on a bona fide version of the instrument. Today, he joins in the instrumental backing to the group’s vocals, betwixt the a-cappella numbers.
He had his role models, such as Elvis and blues titans the likes of BB King and Freddie King. But, for Brembly, it has always been “just music.”
“It all comes from the root of the same music,” he says.
Indeed, the western commercial music tree is rooted in the blues which begat jazz, country, rock and just about everything around in that musical universe today.
The Golden Gate has been mining all the seams that run through that multistratified substratum since its inception – performing the material in a style that has been its signal trademark ever since Wilson and his pals first got together in Norfolk, Virginia.
Presley has been an important reference point for the quartet for many years, and he even became an avid follower of the group’s work.
“Elvis always admired gospel music, and especially the male quartet singing,” Brembly notes. “When he first heard the Golden Gate Quartet he fell in love with that, and it influenced him musically, his style and the way he interpreted his songs.”
It seems the seminal hip-shaking rocker was not just in love with the group’s output, he was a starry-eyed diehard fan. When he was stationed in Germany, in the US Army, he managed to get some time off and caught a train over to France to catch the quartet in action.
“He went to the Casino de Paris, where the group was playing, and watched the whole show,” says Brembly.
“He also booked into the same hotel where they were staying.”
The rocker took the Golden Gate musical message on board and ran with it. “He brought out a gospel album and, if you listened to that and the group’s music, it is hard to tell who is who,” Brembly laughs.
The quartet’s reading of “Blue Suede Shoes” was recognition of the mutual appreciation and respect that existed between the two acts.
During the course of his long service with the band, Brembly has seen plenty of singers come and go. Rather than upset the artistic momentum he says that has served to keep things fresh and offer opportunities for new stylistic departures.
“Everybody in the group brings something special. You have to know how to put that all together in our style, and use it as a force that works well.”
At the end of the day, the individual members’ personal and professional baggage combines to spreading a feel-good vibe to one and all. That also informs the recruiting process.
“We don’t just look at how they sing, and how that fits us, we also look at their character, what kind of person they are. We all have to get on.”
There is the audience to take into consideration too.
“Since our music is always talking about love and positive things, even though we’re doing spirituals, gospel, pop, r&b, rock and roll, it’s always with a positive message.”
We could certainly do with as much of that as we can grab.
“You know I open the newspaper [and see the negativity] and I say this is exactly what the world needs. If only people would open themselves up [to positive things],” Brembly says.
“We do what we can. We do it musically and for the time we are on the stage we try to bring some happiness and positive thought to the audience.”
And get us on board the smiling love bandwagon.
“Music is always an involvement if you’re doing it correctly. If you’re getting to the people they should tap their feet, clap their hands and move their head. It’s full participation.”
Prepare to tap, clap and groove.
For tickets and more information: Tel Aviv *9066, (03) 692-7777, eventim.co.il/golden and israel-opera.co.il. Akko (04) 995-6333, *3221, htacco.co.il and bravo.org.il