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Gospel greats send off Inez Andrews in song

The Caravans left right Pastor Shirley Caesar Delores WashingtDorothy Norwood during funeral gospel legend Inez Andrews Apostolic Church God Friday

The Caravans, left to right, Pastor Shirley Caesar, Delores Washington and Dorothy Norwood during funeral of gospel legend Inez Andrews at Apostolic Church of God, Friday, December 28, 2012. | John H. White~Sun-Times

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Updated: January 30, 2013 6:10AM

The Caravans sat close to­gether behind the pulpit of the Apostolic Church of God, 6320 S. Dorchester. Shirley Caesar, Delores Washington and Dorothy Norwood came together Friday to say goodbye to their friend Inez Andrews, whose songbird contralto blessed the Chicago gospel group between 1957 and 1962.

Mrs. Andrews died Dec. 19 of complications from cancer. She was 83.

The Caravans are bound by time. Since the group’s founding in the late ’40s, its members had the glow of lanterns on rough seas. And they always will.

Billed as a “home-going celebration,” the 2½-hour service Friday for Mrs. Andrews was a sendoff fit for a queen. Texas gospel star-radio host Yolanda Adams brought the audience to its feet with a rousing version of her hit, “The Battle Is Not Yours,” backed by five vocalists and a house band.

Legendary Chess Records arranger-producer Gene Barge, who produced Mrs. Andrews’ 1970 crossover hit “Lord, Don’t Move the Mountain,” contributed a tender instrumental version of “Wind Beneath My Wings,” which was particularly poignant as Mrs. Andrews’ son, Richard Gibbs, filled in on keyboards. Gibbs is the pianist for Aretha Franklin, who had been rumored to appear at the service. (Earlier in the day, Franklin canceled a concert scheduled for Saturday at the Horseshoe Casino.)

The gathering of more than 300 included members of the Chicago Police Department and Chicago soul icon Otis Clay. The body of Mrs. Andrews was transported to Oak Woods Cemetery, 1035 E. 67th St., in a white, early 1900s replica open-hearse carriage, led by a jet-black horse.

On Friday, the Caravans were driven by a joyous spirit. Their musical tribute wound down the service with Washington soloing on “Jesus Is the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me,” the gospel spinoff of the 1974 Gladys Knight and the Pips hit, and a diminutive Norwood leading loud and strong with the Caravans’ 1958 anthem “Lord Keep Me Day by Day.”

Like bolts of lightning from some higher power, the 74-year-old Caesar raced back and forth across the stage. She threw her fist in the air and stopped to pound her palm on the podium.

The 11-time Grammy winner sang her remarks, pointing out that with the holiday season passing of her friend, “Jesus stopped at Inez’s house.”

In a conversation before the service, Caesar paid tribute to Mrs. Andrews.

“One time me, Inez, Delores and Albertina [Walker, the Caravans’ founder] sang in Hartford, Conn.,” she recalled. “We all sat down on this pew. We were rockin’ and singing. We were singing ‘Lord Keep Me Day by Day.’ Inez stood up and shouted, ‘YES!’ and knocked over Albertina.

“Delores goes over to Albertina with a white handkerchief. Albertina was stuck between the wall and the pew. I told Albertina to keep the handkerchief over her face to get out. We had a wonderful time.”

Mrs. Andrews was a native of Birmingham, Ala. In his remarks to the audience, the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. paid tribute to the rough roads the Caravans traveled in the 1960s.

“When you grew up in the Deep South, there were no skating rinks for blacks,” Jackson said. “You couldn’t vote. No black police. No black firemen. And the Caravans would come to town. They would come to town!

“They brought life, they brought hope, they brought joy.”

When Mrs. Andrews came to Chicago from Alabama, she stayed at Norwood’s apartment on Stony Island Avenue. Before the service, Norwood said, “Eddie Williams [pianist, circa late 1950s] was with us in Virginia. We stopped to get some gas. He dropped a piece of paper by the gas tank. The man told Eddie to pick up the paper. Eddie said he wouldn’t pick it up.

“Inez, me and Albertina were in the car. The man aimed a shotgun at [us]. Everybody ducked. Then Inez rolled down the window and said, ‘I’ll pick it up.’ She humbled herself. As we pulled away, she said, ‘I’m from the South. They’ll kill you down here.’ ”

With the deaths of Mrs. Andrews, Walker, the Rev. James Cleveland and other early members, “it seems the Caravans are kind of waning now,” Caesar said.

Caesar once dubbed Mrs. Andrews “The High Priestess” for her ability to hit high notes.

The High Priestess is now closer to a peaceful heaven.

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