Birmingham-born vocalist Inez Andrews was known as “the High Priestess” of gospel music. Shirley Caesar (who sang alongside her in the Caravans during the late ’50s and early to mid-’60s) gave her the title because of the chilling high notes and spirit-filled sermonettes she frequently interjected into her songs.
“Andrews’ throaty contralto made her low notes thunder, while the enormous range of her instrument enabled her to reach stratospheric pitches without falsetto,” Chicago Tribune arts critic Howard Reich observed. “Her dramatic delivery made her a charismatic presence in church and on stage.”
“Beginning in a demure, almost school-marmish contralto, Inez will zoom, with dramatically calibrated focus, higher and yet higher,” gospel historian Anthony Heilbut wrote. “Sometimes as the church folk stared back at her astonished, she would appear to pluck notes out of the air.”
She was born Inez McConico in 1929. From the age of two, when her mother died, her coal-miner father and other relatives raised her. Inez married Robert Andrews at age 18 and worked as a domestic six days a week, ten hours a day, for a weekly total of $18 to help support their two young daughters. She was soon singing with Carter’s Choral Ensemble, the Raymond Rasberry Singers and the Gospel Harmonettes, with whom she occasionally filled in for the lead singer Dorothy Love Coates. James Cleveland, pianist for the Caravans, heard her with the Harmonettes in Nashville and recommended her to the Chicago group.
Andrews moved to Chicago after joining the Caravans and gave the group its first major hit in 1958 with her intense, six-minute-plus treatment of the church standard Mary Don’t You Weep on Savoy Records. It became her signature song. Other Caravans recordings for Savoy that featured her leads include He Won’t Deny Me, I’m Willing, I’m Not Tired Yet and Your Friend.
She left the Caravans in 1962 and formed her own group, the Andrewettes. They signed with the Song Bird label, a division of Duke/Peacock in Houston, and made three albums, the third of which was recorded live in concert in Germany in 1965 but not released until 1974.
Andrews returned briefly to the Caravans in 1966 before becoming a solo artist and continuing her association with Song Bird. She scored her biggest hit in 1973 with Lord, Don’t Move That Mountain. Recorded in Chicago by veteran R&B and gospel producer Gene Barge, her rousing rendition of the Doris Akers composition sold so well that it placed on Billboard’s Best Selling Soul Singles chart, peaking at No. 48. Subsequent Andrews favorites on Song Bird included Headline News and More Church in the Home.
After the demise of Song Bird in the late ’70s, the singer jumped from label to label including Jewel, Savoy, Miracle, Word and Shanachie. Her live 1980 Savoy album A Sinner’s Prayer included a reprise of Mary Don’t You Weep, as did the 2006 Malaco CD Paved the Way, a Caravans reunion recording that also featured Albertina Walker, Dorothy Norwood and Delores Washington.
Andrews’ son, Richard Gibbs Jr., frequently served as her accompanist on piano or organ from 1972 onward and also worked in that capacity for Aretha Franklin, Smokie Norful, Mavis Staples and many others. His father, a baritone singer with the Soul Stirrers during the 1960s, was Andrews’ second husband. Her third was Wendell Edingburg, who ran a flower shop with his wife during the waning years of her career. Both spouses preceded her in death. Andrews herself succumbed to cancer at her Chicago home on December 19, 2012.