From Belstone to Broadclyst, Buckfastleigh to Burnley, The Hummingbirds’ reputation as one of the UK’s foremost close harmony singing trios is spreading fast and wide.
The Burnley in question is not a remote Dartmoor village but is indeed the famous Lancashire mill town which, during the Industrial Revolution, became one of the country’s most prominent cotton centres.
The now sold-out Festive Christmas Tea in mid-December is being hosted at Burnley Mechanics, a modern, multipurpose venue with state-of-the-art sound facilities and lighting, which was opened by Her Majesty the Queen in 1986.
Founder and business manager of The Hummingbirds, Gemma Rich, who performs under the stage name ‘Grace’, was astonished when she was first contacted by the organisers after they had viewed the trio’s show-reel on their website. “I was a little surprised by that particular approach if I’m honest,” she admitted. “To be asked to perform over 300 miles away from our own back yard at such a highly respected and established theatre proves we are getting known!”
“We have wings and will fly.” added Jessica Squire, aka ‘Clara’, implying that The Hummingbirds are prepared to travel the length and breadth of the country to spread the word. For just over two years Gemma, Jessica and Morwenna Millership – the third member of the trio who has adopted the stage name of Bettie – have been performing throughout the county’s village halls, private residences, county shows, hotels, vintage fairs, Christmas fairs and numerous charity events, which in turn has led to several private commissions. Next year’s diary is already filling up fast with six VE Day events crammed into just two days in May alone.
For those readers of The Moorlander who have yet to be enthralled by one of their amazing sets, The Hummingbirds are a professional, close harmony trio, who perform classic style arrangements with a modern twist.
Their extensive repertoire embraces the sounds of jazz, ragtime and blues, which evolved in the rebellious roaring 20s, while their stunning
interpretation of jive, big band and swing reflects the hits of the 30s and 40s along with World War II tributes to Glenn Miller and in particular The Andrew’s Sisters, upon whom their act is modelled.
Traditional pop, which began to rule the charts during the 50s, also plays a key part of The Hummingbirds’ lively sets with a sprinkling of ‘modern vintage’ (more recent songs performed with a vintage treatment) added for good measure.
I was delighted to have been present for two of their exceptionally vibrant performances during the summer – The Hatherleigh Festival of Arts and Music in June and again at the Okehampton Show in August.
Their brilliantly choreographed rendition of a couple of Andrews Sisters numbers, Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy plus Rum and Coca Cola, saw the audience bopping along to the infectious rhythm, while at the Oke Show a micro-trio of three and four year olds emulated every move. The crowd, and The Hummingbirds themselves, clearly enjoyed every minute of the ‘mini-me’ fringe routine.
While striving for perfection, their professional standards will never allow for complacency. To the un-initiated, The Hummingbirds’ sets at both events were faultless. They were slick yet relaxed, musically they were note and pitch perfect, while their almost synchronistic choreography allows for a little ‘freestyling’ (a technical term for going off-piste apparently) but even more revealing and amazing was when I discovered that the trio has only been performing for two years.
Gemma, who is classically trained, has a wealth of experience with an array of professional bands, duos and performing arts groups spanning her musical lifetime. She revealed the ‘light-bulb moment’ which led to the trio’s formation as the four of us gathered for the group’s rehearsal evening in the cosy little music room at her home in Okehampton. “It was something I really wanted to do,” she said, “I was looking to do something different musically, something a little more challenging and interesting and was actually at a friend’s wedding when she asked me to sing the first dance. She had booked this close-harmony trio and they were just fantastic and that’s when I decided that’s what I want to be doing.”
‘I’d also been influenced by events such as the Goodwood Revival, so I did some research and asked around within the local musical circles and that’s how I got in touch with ‘Wenna’. We discovered that we liked the same kind of music and I thought ‘that’s fabulous, let’s go.’ That was just over two years ago and after six months’ rehearsing we were getting ready to hit the road but not before Jess had completed the trio.”
‘It turned out that Gemma and I had a mutual friend,” explains Jess, ‘and she drew my attention to an advertisement for a third member of what we now know to be The Hummingbirds and that she said she knew Gemm and would be happy to make the introduction. I thought this is awesome, how many harmony trios would you expect to find in Okehampton?”
Jess has been singing, acting and dancing throughout her life from as early as three years old when she substituted for a real baby bear which had fallen ill just before a show.
Since then she has trained as a professional dancer and performed in various shows both nationally and internationally. With her credentials fitting the bill, literally, the trio quickly gelled and The Hummingbirds fledged. The three decided on their stage names, Clara (Jessie), Bettie (Morwenna) and Grace (Gemma) being popular names from the era around which their music and act would revolve.
It was not long before the trio became a ‘foursome’ after Herman
arrived on the scene. Morwenna’s family, who already had a collection of vintage vehicles including tractors and commercials, decided there was room for one more when her husband spontaneously announced that he was “going up to Yorkshire to pick up a lorry,” Morwenna recalls. “It turned out to be a little further north, as it was actually the Scottish borders, but when this trailer trundled up with Herman on the back we all just fell in love with him.
‘Herman is an authentic, Commer Superpoise flatbed lorry first registered in 1954.” Morwenna continued, “He hasn’t had a respray because we love him just the way he is. He was sitting at home in the yard really and then we had the idea of making him into a stage he really is part of the team now.”
“We have to be careful when it’s a bit slippery as Herman is very bouncy and we move quite a lot and we’re quite animated when we are on stage, our choreography is quite dynamic, which we do deliberately,” added Gemma.
Although the trio regard themselves as professionals, life does go on outside of The Hummingbirds.Gemma is a para planner in the financial services industry offering administration support to financial advisors with research and report writing and case packaging. Morwenna eats, sleeps and breathes music, she too is classically trained and is a multi-instrumentalist.
She passes on her love of music to others through teaching at a local primary school and has a wealth of performance experience in radio, stage and screen. She also teaches the violin and offers private tuition for both singing and the violin. When not performing with The Hummingbirds, Jess spends most of her time as a dance teacher at different primary schools across Devon.
Although their music is paramount, it is the choreography and costumes too, which make The Hummingbirds such a marvellous spectacle.
“For me the choroegraphy was always going to be an important part of it,” said Gemma, “I didn’t want it just to be about the singing. Obviously we want the singing to be really tight, the harmonies to be beautiful and the tones of voices to work well together and not be too static, but it’s a show, it’s a spectacle and we work extremely hard to co-ordinate all the little sections of dance and mime for each number so it fits the song.”
Finding the right costumes and accessories to match the era concert by concert has been a real challenge too. “We have a lot of contacts with various companies,” explains Gemma, “fortunately, Jesse’s mum is a seamstress and has done some modifications for us, there’s a shop in Exeter called Frocks in Swing Time, which we frequent and there’s a growing number of online companies too. We religiously research the styles to match the music and we are very careful to match it as closely as possible with a little bit of a twist and flair.”
While still looking for an authentic WWII service uniforms to complement their 1940s sets, the trio has adopted a ‘land army’ look for the moment with their dungarees and ‘victory rolls’ hair do, but frankly whatever they wear, they always look stunning.
If you want to find out more about The Hummingbirds, see when they’re next appearing at a venue near you, or would like to buy their CD or an mp3 as a special Christmas present, visit thehummingbirdstrio.co.uk
As they enter their third year on the ‘vintage revival circuit’, what’s next for The Hummingbirds? Goodwood? Certainly! Vegas? Who knows!