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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,157

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This is the grave of Ollie Hoskins.

Born in 1936 in Batesville, Tennessee, Hoskins served in the military during the Korean War, but was far more interested in singing than in staying in the military. In 1958, now in Memphis, he formed a group initially called The Gospel Writer Juniors but which soon renamed itself The Dixie Nightingales. This was modern Black gospel music for modern Black gospel audiences. Hoskins was the lead singer. The rest of the band included Willie Neal, Nelson Lesure, Bill Davis, and Rochester Neal. It did not take the band long to rise into the stratosphere of this genre. Hoskins was a truly great singer, one of the best male voices in gospel history. Outside of Hoskins, the band had a good bit of turnover, as such things did during these years. Why this matters for this post is that Hoskins was able to hire and then mentor a young kid named David Ruffin, who would later be the lead singer of The Temptations. That alone makes Hoskins worthy of a brief grave post. He also became well known in Memphis through his Saturday morning show on WDIA.

The Dixie Nightingales floated around on some of the small labels of the period, but it was when they joined Stax in 1965 that they really hit their stride. But you know, the gospel market was in the end pretty limited. It was stable, yes. There was always going to be a market for this kind of music from Black churchgoers and that remains true to the present. But the late 60s was also a secular moment in American life. Lots of gospel acts had to ask themselves the question of whether they were going to turn their messages to secular music. No one did this with more grace and consistency to their original message than The Staples Family, who became gigantic stars based on moving toward secular music. Hoskins and his band ended up making the same choice. No, they didn’t have the same success as the Staples, but from a business perspective it was still a solid move. They now were known as Ollie & The Nightingales.

The new band had moderate success. They recorded a Booker T. Jones song titled “I Know I’ve Got a Sure Thing”, in 1968 that hit #18 on the Black Singles Chart. They released a full album the next year but it didn’t do a whole lot. By 1970, Hoskins decided a better move would be a full solo career and the band broke up after trying to replace him. Hoskins’ solo career, under the name of Ollie Nighingale, didn’t do a whole lot either. He had a few minor charting singles. He eventually ended up back in Memphis, mostly playing the blues now. He recorded a few albums from time to time. They didn’t necessarily do a lot, but by this time, Hoskins was an old-timer, a lifer who recorded for the love of the music, and of course the hope to make some money. One interesting thing is that when Hoskins turned secular, he really turned secular and a lot of his later songs are more than a little dirty.

Hoskins did get some attention as a legend. By the 1980s, nostalgia for the 50s and 60s was a real thing and a lot of cultural productions wanted to include some reference to that time. So Hoskins got a job where he appeared in The Firm, the Tom Cruise vehicle that adapted the John Grisham novel by the same time. It wasn’t a huge role or anything, but he got paid and what is better than that?

Hoskins died of a heart attack in Memphis in 1997. He was 61 years old. That’s a real shame, he might have done well as part of the roots revival of the late 90s and into the 2000s. In fact, he had gotten some attention for some recent singles that did tap into that growing market.

Let’s listen to some of Hoskins’ work.

Ollie Hoskins is buried in West Tennessee State Veterans Cemetery, Memphis, Tennessee.

If you would like this series to visit other Stax artists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Isaac Hayes is also in Memphis and Albert King is in Edmondson, Arkansas. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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