The Pilgrim Travelers organized in Houston, Texas, in the 1930s. An early lineup that was associated with the Pleasant Grove Baptist Church included Joe Johnson, born in San Jacinto County, and brothers Willy and Johnny Davis, from Livingston, who met and began singing together. Joe (lead), Willy (tenor), and Johnny (baritone) invited Rayfield Taylor from Jefferson to join the group. Other early members were Kylo Turner and Keith Barber. The group began to sing and follow their pastor Rev. L. H. Simpson wherever he preached.
The Pilgrim Travelers became very popular, and, after winning a talent contest, the group was invited by R. H. Harris and the Soul Stirrers to join them on a national tour. After forty-two weeks with the Soul Stirrers, the group continued to tour through the South, East, and Midwest, and finally California. By the mid-1940s the Pilgrim Travelers had moved to Los Angeles, where they recorded with Specialty Records. Their percussive foot-tapping style, dubbed “walking rhythm,” proved to be unique and popular with listeners, and the group’s tightly-choreographed shows were a hit with audiences. The Pilgrim Travelers issued a number of strong singles into the early 1950s, including the gospel standard, “The Old Rugged Cross,” and their popular track “Jesus Met the Woman at the Well.”
From the late 1940s to the early 1950s numerous changes occurred in the original group. Willy returned to Houston; Johnny went into the service; Joe stopped singing, but continued to manage the group into the mid-1950s. Rayfield Taylor, another original Texas member, was replaced in 1954. A later version of the group, called the Travelers, included singer Lou Rawls. They disbanded in 1959. The group is in the International Gospel Music Hall of Fame.
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All Music Guide (www.allmusic.com), accessed July 1, 2011. Colin Larkin, ed., Encyclopedia of Popular Music (New York: Grove’s Dictionaries, 1998).
Upper Gulf Coast
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
Clayton T. Shorkey,
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed May 24, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
June 11, 2013
Most Recent Revision Date:
July 26, 2020
This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: