When Joseph ‘Jo Jo’ Wallace was a young boy, he would stand between the knees of his brother, Johnny, and watch him try to figure out how to play an acoustic guitar. Jo Jo focused on his brother’s fingers as they were distorted and configured to make chords, paying no mind to the strumming.
When Johnny finished practicing, he put the guitar away and warned his little brother: “Jo Jo, don’t you bother my guitar. Don’t you touch it.”
“OK, OK,” Jo Jo said. “And by the time he got on his bicycle and got around the curb to the print shop, I had run and grabbed it. I put my hand right where I saw his. I was just a little boy.”
Every time Johnny practiced on the guitar — which he had borrowed from a friend — Jo Jo was right there watching. And every time his older brother left, Jo Jo would sneak out the guitar to practice on his own. He thought no else knew.
But one day, after his brother returned home from work, his mother said, “Johnny, have you heard Jo Jo play that guitar?”
“He played my guitar?” Johnny asked angrily.
Jo Jo’s mother told him to run and get the guitar, which he did. He came back and played for his brother and mother. Jo Jo, a much younger child with no guitar lessons, was better than his brother. So much better that, a few years after that, Johnny invited Jo Jo to join his band in Philadelphia.
Today, Jo Jo Wallace is the lone surviving original member of the Sensational Nightingales, a gospel group that gained decades of fame and fans touring churches in the U.S., Europe, and other areas of the world. Jo Jo sang tenor and played guitar.
“Chuck Berry learned from me,” he said with a laugh. Jo Jo will celebrate his 95th birthday Oct. 4. He performed with and later managed the Sensational Nightingales for 79 years. On Sept. 11, at 1 p.m., a birthday celebration will be held at the Temple of Truth United Holy Church in Hillsborough. Jo Jo’s good friend, Ida Louise Turner Lawson is organizing the event.
Jo Jo now lives in Durham. He was born on Oct. 4, 1926 in Williamston, N.C. His mother, Annie Belle, played a pump organ and sang gospel duets with his sister, Augusta. Once brother Johnny joined in, the family had a musical trio. Jo Jo was destined for a future in music, and he joined his family members to make it a quartet of musicians.
Jo Jo’s time in Williamston was brief and difficult. One afternoon, when he went downtown with his brother, Jo Jo darted into the road and was hit by a car. The impact sent him flying. He was bleeding badly from his head and mouth. Jo Jo received stitches and still has a noticeable scar on top of his head.
In 1934, Jo Jo’s mother and older siblings moved to Philadelphia, leaving him to finish school in Williamston. Eventually, once established in Philly, Jo Jo’s family sent for him. A note with directions and were he needed to go was pinned to his shirt, and he was placed on a bus for Philadelphia.
Music was still front and center for young Jo Jo and his older brother. They formed a quartet called the Silveraires, performing around town and nearby cities. They had a reputation for being well-dressed in matching outfits. Their popularity grew and the Silveraires became regulars for radio shows on WCAU in Philadelphia.
The quartet were signed to a contract with Gotham Records in 1949, producing seven singles. Jo Jo would soon leave the Silveraires to join the Sensational Nightingales, a sort of supergroup composed of popular gospel musicians of the time.
The Sensational Nightingales were signed to Peacock Records, and lit up churches everywhere, playing before packed audiences. Haunting vocals and harmonies, and ‘Golden Gate’-style is what the group became known for. “In other words, our song carried the message,” Jo Jo said. “We weren’t just singing. We were teaching the word through some ministry.”
Along the way, Jo Jo found time to court Inez, who later became his wife. Part of his courtship was inviting her to a performance. She was seated near the back of the venue and Jo Jo played to her, showing off his guitar skills and dance moves. Inez, who was used to less energetic and animated gospel music, wasn’t impressed with Jo Jo’s musicianship.
Still, Jo Jo persisted. The two married and he credits her with helping him to accepting Christ, and devoting his life to delivering the gospel. The two were married for 55 years before she passed away about 15 years ago.
The Sensational Nightingales, over the years, changed recording labels and members. The one consistent was Jo Jo Wallace. Some of its most well-known songs were “New Burying Ground,” “Morning Train,” “Somewhere to Lay My Head,” and “See How They Done My Lord.” The group’s popularity led them to be invited to perform at Catholic churches in Europe.
“The Catholic Priest was sitting right there, clapping his hands,” Jo Jo said. “I never seen that before.”
In 2018, the Sensational Nightingales were inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame.