According to the Chicago Tribune, gospel icon Inez Andrews was the last of her kind, a towering figure from a golden age when giants such as Mahalia Jackson, Albertina Walker and DeLois Barrett Campbell still toured the world.
Andrews’ throaty contralto made her low notes thunder, while the enormous range of her instrument enabled her to reach stratospheric pitches without falsetto. Her dramatic delivery made her a charismatic presence in church and on stage.
“There’s no one left from that era,” said author Anthony Heilbut, whose book “The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times” is a standard text on the subject. “She was famous for this immense range. She would start soft and then she would zoom up and with tremendous volume hit these piercing notes in natural voice.”
“She would build in such a clever way,” Heilbut added. “Her voice would lift, and she would become a preacher. She had a great sense of theater.”
The music she made reflected the woman she was, those who knew Andrews said.
“Her music was like her: Strong,” said longtime gospel impresario and radio broadcaster Pam Morris. “Her music was strong and always with a message. And it was moving. Electrifying.”
Indeed, Andrews lit up the Chicago Gospel Music Festival in Grant Park in 1998, drawing ovations for her signature anthem, “Lord Don’t Move That Mountain.” The majesty, stateliness and imploring quality of her singing reaffirmed her stature alongside the other legends that night: Albertina Walker and the Barrett Sisters.
But Andrews’ gifts extended beyond her regal performance style. She helped popularize gospel with songs she wrote and/or arranged, such as the aforementioned “Lord Don’t Move That Mountain,” which became “that rare thing: a gospel song that’s a crossover hit,” said Heilbut.
And Andrews’ arrangement of “Mary, Don’t You Weep” influenced Aretha Franklin’s version of the tune on Franklin’s classic 1972 album “Amazing Grace.”
“Aretha used to tell Inez that she loved her tops (high notes) and that wailing,” Heilbut said.
But Andrews’ achievements were hard won. Born in Birmingham, Ala., on April 14, 1929, she traveled a tough road to gospel stardom.
“A lot of people don’t know this, but when I wrote my first song, in Birmingham, I was working as a domestic,” she told the Tribune in 1994. “I have to look at (young) people nowadays when they say, ‘That’s not enough money.’ Well, try working six days a week, 10 hours a day, for $18 a week, doing (the) washing, ironing, cooking, keep up with the kids.”
Even so, at one point in her youth, she had an epiphany:
“One day, I was cooking some rice and brown beets, and I felt: ‘This wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life, this wasn’t what I wanted to be.’ I felt there was something else, something better. And I said to myself, ‘Is this all God planned for me?’ And as I began to say that, I got a pencil and brown paper bag, and I wrote.”
Thus began her songwriting career. Andrews became widely known as a member of the Chicago-based Caravans, one of the most popular gospel groups of the 1950s and early ’60s, while her solo work and songwriting ensconced her in the gospel pantheon. Her songs were recorded by many artists, including the Mighty Clouds of Joy.
“I’d like to be remembered as a person who lived the life they sang about,” Andrews said in the Tribune interview. “And I would hope that my conduct in life would be such that someone would want to see me again on the other side.”
Andrews is survived by seven children, 19 grandchildren and 12 great grandchildren, said her granddaughter Moultry. Funeral arrangements are pending.