Tony Cummings chronicles the important musical career of gospel singer INEZ ANDREWS
In 1965 some pioneering promoters, encouraged by the groundswell of interest in the music of African Americans, began to fly in blues artists to tour European concert halls. As well as individual tours for bluesmen such as John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters, batches of artists were assembled to play all over Europe in events such as Lippman & Rau's American Folk Blues Festival. And it didn't stop with secular bluesmen. In 1967 the Spiritual And Gospel Festival featuring among others Bishop Kelsey, Sister Leena Philips Jones and the Five Blind Boys Of Mississippi, toured Europe. In Baden Baden, Germany, SWR TV filmed this festival rather incongruously presenting it in an empty church in the Black Forest where the artists were asked to whip up Holy Spirit fervour before rows of empty pews. Some succeeded better than others, none more so than Inez Andrews And The Andrewettes. These righteous sisters' stunning performance has just been issued as part of a DVD package, 'Legends Of Spiritual & Gospel, Folk & Country' on Tropical Music. As a reviewer in the Red Lick mail order catalogue recently enthused, "[Inez Andrews And The Andrewettes] get in the spirit immediately, warming the cool atmosphere with their fevered attack on holiness-filled songs like 'What Love'."
Inez may have been a musical revelation to white Europeans but by 1965 she had already achieved huge popularity among black American church goers. She was the lead singer on some of the biggest hits for the legendary Caravans, including "Mary Don't You Weep", "I'm Not Tired Yet", "Make It In" and "He Won't Deny Me". 40 plus years on, Inez today features in a reformed version of the Caravans (Albertina Walker, Dorothy Norwood, Delores Washington and Inez) performing occasional reunion concerts. So who knows, we may yet hear more from one of the most exciting singers in Christendom who once quipped, "They don't pay me to sing, they like to hear me holler."
Inez McConic was born in 1929 in the Alabama city which produced another gospel legend, Dorothy Love Coates, Birmingham. Inez' father was a Baptist preacher and her mother a gospel singer (though she died when Inez was just two years old). Inez received her education in Birmingham public schools and sang in the junior choir of her father's church. Inez' upbringing was hard. Married and divorced while still in her teens, she had to take on domestic work to support her children. As she told author Anthony Heilbut, "I'd make $18 a week. I thought I was saving something. Then I'd spend seven for baby-sitting and two on the bus." She sang locally as a soloist and joined the Carter Choral Ensemble, which travelled around the Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia region. She also sang for a short period with the Raymond Rasberry Singers and intermittently substituted in Dorothy Love Coates' Original Gospel Harmonettes. In 1956 James Cleveland - who was eventually to become one of the biggest figures in post-war gospel - was serving as pianist and arranger for the Caravans, the group formed in 1951 as Robert Anderson And His Gospel Caravan. By the mid-'50s, fronted by the bluesy-voiced matriarch Albertina Walker, the Caravans were tireless travellers on the Gospel Highway. Cleveland persuaded Andrews to join the Caravans, replacing Imogene Greene.
Inez' astonishing vocal armoury immediately impressed with the Caravans, Anthony Heilbut describing the singer's voice as "a demure contralto bottom, a middle that when clear exhibits mezzo-soprano colouration but usually stays hoarse and funky. . .and a thrilling top that defies the hoarseness below and zooms above the staff." By 1958 another church-upsetting singer, Shirley Caesar, had also joined the Caravans and with a stream of singles coming out on Gospel Records the Caravans were being recognised as one of gospel's greatest. It was the Caravans' Inez-led version of the old spiritual "Mary Don't You Weep" (released in two parts) which is now considered one of the most memorable gospel performances of the era. Heilbut described it thus: "At the end of 'Mary Don't You Weep' she hollers, 'Mary,' then adds, 'I believe I'll call her a bit louder' and keeps her word. Finally she observes, 'Aw, God's been good to me. I believe I can call her a bit louder' and tweaks at the air as if plucking a note for dogs' ears, then ambles offstage, having given up all she intends to. As remarkable as the range was her affinity for sorrow songs; for a young woman, she was notably stern and melancholy. Descending to her knees while the other Caravans chanted 'We've got to hold up the blood-stained banner,' she'd list the obstacles to holding on, 'Whah, mother's gone, whah, father's gone, whah, sister's gone, whah, brother's gone, whah, I'm outdoors, whah, can't find a friend.' Each 'whah' was a shrieking glissando, the notes smearing across her history. Not pretty sounds but they comprehended the cry of the motherless child, abandoned wife, betrayed friend."
Gospel radio hits continued for the Caravans while their live concerts were hugely exciting. In his book Uncloudy Days: The Gospel Music Encyclopedia Bil Carpenter wrote, "While the group was always good, the buzz was around seeing Andrews and Caesar trade vocal licks that sent their audiences into hysterics. By 1960 Andrews was a household name in gospel circles. Her high notes coupled with her preaching style of singing earned her the title of the High Priestess."
In 1961 Inez shook the gospel world by leaving the Caravans and formed her own group, the Andrewettes (Elaine Davis, Mildred Span, Elizabeth Dargan). In 1963 Songbird Records (a subsidiary of Houston's Duke/Peacock company) released Inez Andrews And The Andrewettes' 'The Need Of Prayer' album and the following year 'Letter To Jesus'. The albums were excellent yet times were hard for the group. Said another one-time Andrewette, Josephine Howard, "Inez and me liked sausages. We were so poor we'd have to split halves; she'd like hers boiled, I'd like mine fried." After the group's tour of Europe in 1965 the Andrewettes struggled on for a period before disintegrating.
Inez briefly returned to the Caravans before going solo in 1967. Her 1968 album for Songbird, 'Close To Thee', didn't attract much interest but in 1970 Inez enjoyed an unexpected smash hit. Her producer, Gene Barge (who pop historians remember best as "Daddy G", the sax-playing contributor to Gary US Bonds million-sellers), was producing Inez for Songbird/ABC when he told Inez that she needed another song to complete the album she was working on. She later recounted to Black Stars magazine, "I said, 'I don't have time to learn anything new, so we'll sing what I know.' After we went over, I don't think he particularly liked it, but I did, and I was the artist so I took advantage of it." The song that she came up with was a gospel oldie penned by Doris Akers, "Lord, Don't Move That Mountain". After its release as a single, the song topped gospel playlists everywhere and crossed over to the R&B singles charts where it peaked at number 48 in 1973. Reportedly the song eventually sold a million copies and temporarily made Andrews the hottest gospel singer in the country. Throughout the 1970s Andrews turned out well received gospel albums, 'More Church In The Home' ('71), 'The Munich Gospel Festival' ('74), 'This Is Not The First Time I've Been Last' ('75), 'War On Sin' ('76) and 'Chapter Five' ('78).
Gradually though Inez' popularity was waning. As Bil Carpenter wrote, "For several years Andrews continued to perform off her name until the mid '80s when she began to record for Jewel Records. The label was a shell of its former self and the records were poorly produced and hardly promoted. She also recorded for Savoy Records without much success. The LP 'If Jesus Came To Your Town Today' on Miracle Records finally put Andrews back in the groove when it reached number 31 on the gospel chart in 1988. A one-off CD with Word Records in 1992 resulted in the fine 'Raise Up A Nation' (backed by the Thompson Community Choir) album, which reached number 30 on the gospel chart. She then recorded a stunning grassroots album for Shanachie Records, 'Two Sides Of Inez Andrews' (1996), which reunited her with Eddie Williams, her pianist from the Caravans."
The 2006 Caravans album 'Paved The Way' for Malaco Records was very much coming full circle for Inez. Recorded at Chicago's West Point Baptist Church, where Albertina Walker had made her debut at age four, the album featured six new songs and seven Caravans classics including a searing new version of "Mary Don't You Weep". Speaking at the time of the album's release, Albertina Walker told Billboard about the Caravans' years on the Gospel Highway. "On the road, we couldn't go into white hotels or white restaurants. We couldn't do none of that then. We had to go to the back door to get food. That's why [we recorded] that song 'Paved The Way'. We paved the way for these young folks to be eating and going to the front door of these restaurants and staying in these white hotels and being able to fly. We drove in cars during that time, six of us going all across the country. The Lord has really blessed us, and this is harvest time."
Aside from the occasional Caravans concert, Inez seldom performs today. She assisted her third husband Wendell Idingburg, a mortician, with running a flower shop until his death in the summer of 2004. Inez Andrews may not be a name recognised by today's fans of Mary Mary, CeCe Winans and Kierra Sheard but as any music historian will tell you, her contribution to the development of gospel music has been vast.