Where Gospel Meets Soul: 1952-1962
Acrobat Music (release date: September 9, 2022)
By Robert M. Marovich
Despite their massive popularity over three decades, the Caravans have lacked a proper CD retrospective. Selections have been reissued here and there, and Savoy put out a two-album set featuring most of their hits, but there has been nothing approaching a serious survey of their musical canon. That’s why it was a delight to learn about Acrobat’s Where Gospel Meets Soul, a two-disc, 49-track exploration of one of gospel’s greatest groups.
The Acrobat collection provides nearly all the singles, both the A and B sides, in order of release from the ladies’ first issue for States in 1952 through their final single for Savoy / Gospel in 1962, before joining Vee-Jay later that year. Hearing the selections in lockstep order allows the listener to experience the group as it evolved from tight-harmonizing background singers into an all-star troupe of the era’s most electrifying vocalists.
As one might imagine, the two-CD set provides quality reproductions of the Chicago ensemble’s hits, such as “Mary, Don’t You Weep,” “Lord Keep Me Day by Day,” “What Kind of Man is This,” “I Won’t Be Back,” “I’m Not Tired Yet,” and “You Can’t Beat God Giving.” More important are overlooked gems, such as 1953’s “God Is Good To Me,” a song Albertina Walker likely brought to the Caravans from her tenure with the Willie Webb Singers, who recorded it for Parrot that same year. The haunting “Hallelujah It’s Done,” from 1961, showcases the ladies’ church-honed harmonies. Inez Andrews is at her explosive best on “Your Friend,” the flipside to “Lord Keep Me Day by Day.” In many ways, she’s the star of the collection.
In addition to gospels, the Caravans showed a predisposition for delivering hymnbook staples like “Blessed Assurance,” “Old Time Religion,” “Onward Christian Soldiers,” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” the latter a remarkable solo by soprano Nellie Grace Daniels.
Originally known as the Good Shepherd Singers, the Caravans were background vocalists for Robert Anderson, original member of the Roberta Martin Singers turned solo star. The singer and his group parted ways under uncertain circumstances during an April 1952 Anderson recording session. In his album notes, Paul Watts cites an interview in which Albertina Walker claimed that Leonard Allen of States Records wanted to record her as a soloist but she didn’t have a group, so she asked the Robert Anderson Singers, which Anderson was presumably going to disband because he was retiring, to support her in the studio. She came up with the name after the session. Things didn’t go down quite like that. After Irma Gwynn left, Walker had been voted into what was known as the Caravans, no longer called the Robert Anderson Singers, by her fellow vocalists prior to the April 1952 recording session. It was not her group; if anything, eldest member Elyse Yancey called the shots. The group was already named by 1952; “Caravans” wasn’t invented on the spot. And Anderson didn’t retire. He reappeared as a soloist on Specialty (1952) then on Apollo (1954), probably thanks to some string pulling by his mentor and Apollo Records star Roberta Martin.
This is not meant to take anything away from Ms. Walker. She was the reason the Caravans didn’t fade away after its early successes required a travel schedule that the original members, with growing families, couldn’t sustain. As its new manager, Walker replaced the originals with stellar soloists like Inez Andrews, Shirley Caesar, Dorothy Norwood, Delores Washington, Cassietta George, Bessie Griffin, James Cleveland, James Herndon, Loleatta Holloway, W. J. McPhatter, and so on—transforming the ensemble into a national treasure. She gave each singer a chance to shine in the spotlight while demonstrating her own vocal power, in ample evidence on this collection. In recognition, Albertina Walker was crowned Queen of Gospel after Mahalia Jackson’s passing in 1972. She was a delightful spirit that kept singing until she was called home.
Another reaction when listening to the 49 selections all together is how much better, how much rawer, the States sides are when compared to the Savoy sides. While Savoy cranked out the ladies’ most enduring hits, the States product is consistently electrifying church fare. It’s also a treat to hear a twenty-something Rev. James Cleveland accompanying and singing with the group, developing his own style that would one day make him King of Gospel. It is one more confirmation of my theory that an artist’s most genuine, honest work comes in the salad years.
For those unfamiliar with the Caravans, Where Gospel Meets Soul will be an ear-opener, an example of when gospel was gospel. Longtime enthusiasts will be pleased to have so many wonderful selections in one convenient jewel case.
Five of Five Stars
Picks: “Lord Keep Me Day By Day,” “Mary Don’t You Weep,” “God is Good to Me”