Document's six-part survey covering the first 15 years of recording activity by the Golden Gate Quartet opens with a 23-track volume centered upon the years 1937 and 1938. This world-famous unit literally started out as a barbershop quartet and was formed in Berkley, just across the Elizabeth River from Norfolk, Virginia, in 1934. A.C. "Eddie" Griffin, who owned and operated the barbershop in question, sang tenor, and his friend Robert "Peg" Ford, whose nickname referred to a prosthetic leg, sang bass. The two younger members of the original quartet, baritone Willie Johnson and tenor Henry Owens, were recruited from the glee club at Booker T. Washington High School. For the first six years of its existence, the group was known as the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet. The ancient word "Jubilee," which traces back to the Book of Leviticus, resonated strongly during the post-Civil War era as it connoted liberation and the freeing of slaves. During the 1870s, a group of singers from Nashville's Fisk University took "Jubilee" as part of their name, and so established an African-American vocal tradition that was more than 60 years old when the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet took shape in the middle 1930s. In 1935, as the quartet took to traveling throughout Virginia and into the Carolinas, Griffin returned to full-time work as a barber and was replaced by versatile tenor William Langford. The following year Ford bowed out to make way for 16-year-old basso Orlandus Wilson, a precocious fellow whose arrangements would serve to greatly enhance the sound of the group.
Jazz was the magic ingredient that had made the Norfolk Jazz & Jubilee Quartet stand out from their contemporaries as early as 1923. With that precedent in place, the Gates were influenced by two jazz-inspired vocal groups that emerged during the early '30s: the Mills Brothers and the Three Keys -- one could also cite Leo Watson's group the Spirits of Rhythm. By the mid-‘30s the public was more than ready for a snappy, creative approach to tradition as presented by the Golden Gates, who gained a following through radio broadcasts at WIS in Columbia, South Carolina and WBT in Charlotte, North Carolina. Their first recording date took place in Charlotte on August 4, 1937, resulting in 14 religious titles (including the humorous "Preacher and the Bear") that were released on Victor's Bluebird series and sold quite well. Vol. 1 in Document's history of the Golden Gate Quartet closes with the first nine of 14 sides they cut for Bluebird on January 24, 1938. What is notable about their second recording session is the inclusion of secular titles like Larry Clinton's swing novelty "Dipsy Doodle," which is done up à la Mills Brothers right down to the "hand trumpet" solo. They also deliver a beautifully relaxed interpretation of Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn's Tin Pan Alley masterpiece "Carolina in the Morning" and dutifully revisit Stephen Foster's minstrel song "Swanee River," which was published in 1851 as "Old Folks at Home." The fact that this was still fundamentally a religious vocal group is strongly evidenced by the Gates' handling of "John, the Revelator," a traditional air strongly associated with gospel blues man Blind Willie Johnson.