Ira Tucker Sr. performs at Spartanburg's Barnet Park Zimmerli Amphitheater in his South Carolina home town in June 2006. (Spartanburg Herald Journal/ Alex C. Hicks Jr./Associated Press)

Ira Tucker Sr., longtime lead singer of the gospel group the Dixie Hummingbirds, which influenced performers such as the Temptations, James Brown and Stevie Wonder, has died. He was 83.

Tucker and the Dixie Hummingbirds gained Top 40 attention when they backed up Paul Simon on his hit  Loves Me Like a Rock.

Tucker had severe heart problems and died Tuesday in Philadelphia, where the group was based for many years, according to his son, Ira Tucker Jr.

The National Endowment for the Arts, which honoured the Hummingbirds in 2000, said that black quartets like the Hummingbirds were a foundation for black music in America.   

Their harmonies, combined with a driving "urban" sound backed by guitar and drums, influenced artists such as Wonder, Al Green, Bobby Blue Bland and Shirley Caesar, the arts group said.

In 1973, Simon's Loves Me Like a Rock, with the Dixie Hummingbirds providing backup, reached No. 2 on the Billboard chart.  They also produced their own version, which won a Grammy for best soul gospel performance.   

In 2007, the group's Still Keeping It Real was nominated for the Grammy for best traditional gospel album.   

The Dixie Hummingbirds traces its history to 1928, when founder James B. Davis formed it as a student quartet in Greenville, S.C. Davis died last year.

Tucker, born in 1925 in Spartanburg, S.C., was still in his teens when he auditioned for Davis in the late 1930s.   

He was the band's lead singer for decades, bringing a mixture of gospel and blues to the group's style, and adding an energy and versatility to their performances, according to the Vocal Group Hall of Fame, which inducted the group in 2000.

"Tucker, in particular, wowed audiences with his flamboyant theatrics, rejecting the long tradition of 'flat-footed' singers rooted in place on stage in favour of running up the aisles and rocking prayerfully on his knees," the hall says on its website.

"By 1944, he was even regularly jumping off stages."   

After the Second World War, as the sound of gospel changed, the Hummingbirds added guitar, bass and drums.

"He was an extraordinary performer," Tucker Jr. said. "I recognized that from the time I was little. Having his name didn't help me, because I couldn't sing."