In the 1950’s, the Caravans lacked the Clara Ward Singers‘ flashy costumes and stage clowning, but they more than made up for it with the quality of their many classic hits such as “Mary, Don’t You Weep,” “I Won’t Be Back,” and Sweeping Through the City.” Even more so, the group was esteemed for the number of gospel legends it birthed, including Shirley Caesar Inez Andrews, Bessie Griffin, James Cleveland, and its founder, Albertina Walker.
Walker formed the Caravans in Chicago in 1952 with the original roster of Ora Lee Hopkins, Elyse Yancy, and Nellie Grace Daniels. The personnel changed regularly. Walker, a shrewd leader, recognized that her voice wasn’t always the best fit for every song and she routinely showcased the talents of others. At various times over the next five years, the group included Bessie Griffin, Dorothy Norwood, and their pianist, James Cleveland. However, the 1958 aggregation of Inez Andrews, Shirley Caesar, Walker, and Delores Washington was the most successful grouping. The combination of Caesar’s youthful energy and squalling soprano, Andrew’s shrieking high C’s, Washington’s sweet high notes, and Walker’s crusty rasp made for a delicious listening experience.
By the 1960’s, the Ward Singers had tailored their performances to the supper-club crowd in Las Vegas. Instead of proclaiming the gospel, they served up a pop-styled message of love and brotherhood. The Caravans stole the Wards’ previous position as the No. 1 female gospel group with their music, which remained church-based and thoroughly gospel. Personnel such as Josephine Howard, Delores Washington, and pianist James Herndon had replaced those who left for solo careers, as Andrews did in 1962. Aside from the aforementioned hits, they continued to enjoy hits into the sixties with cuts such as “Make It In” (1961), “I Won’t Go Back” (1962), “No Coward Soilder” (1963), and “Walk Around heaven” (1964) for the Vee-Jay Records Label.
In 1966, Caesar, who had become the star attraction left the group, and within months only Walker remained. She recruited a new set of Caravans that included teenager Loleatta Holloway, who would have disco hits such as “Run Way” and “Love Sensation” a decade later. After a few good but uneventful LP’s for Savoy Records through 1971, Walker finally retires the group. In the years since, there have been numerous Caravans reunions with Caesar, Andrews, Walker, Washington, Norwood, and Cassietta George.