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|The Davis Sisters|
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|This article is written like a personal reflection or essay rather than an encyclopedic description of the subject. (November 2010)|
|The Davis Sisters|
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The Davis Sisters was an American gospel group founded by Ruth ("Baby Sis") Davis and featuring her sisters Thelma, Audrey and Alfreda. Imogene Greene joined the group in 1950, and was later replaced by Jackie Verdell when Greene left to join the Caravans.
Raised in the Fire-Baptized Holiness Church in Philadelphia, the Davis Sisters were one of the first female groups to sing "hard gospel" of the sort being pioneered by the Dixie Hummingbirds and other male quartets of the day. They achieved a big sound, managing to sound like a choir behind the lead singer by positioning themselves several steps behind the microphone.
The Famous Davis Sisters of Philadelphia was founded by Ruth Davis in 1945 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Ruth had enlisted in the Women's Air Corp during World War II to fulfill her patriotic aspirations. During this time her musical and creative instincts came to the forefront of her personality and the nurturing of her artistic side conflicted with the strict military discipline required of WAC's. While she wanted to do her part to rid the world of the Axis evil and minimize Holocaust casualties, she was discharged by the military to Philadelphia in 1945 before the untimely demise of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Germany's capitulation. The end of the war was definitely in sight but Ruth was left with the task of carving out her place in the world as a young Afro-American woman in a world dominated by men. Ruth had been continually inspired by music and had heard the Wings Over Jordan Choir in the military, the old Southern-style male quartets on the radio, and heard the newly developing gospel sound in churches and on programs.
One day in Philadelphia it was raining, visibility was poor and as she was crossing a cobblestone street, she slipped on a trolley track in front of an oncoming trolley. She felt someone lift her up and assist her to the sidewalk underneath a store awning. When she turned around to thank them, no one was there. This experience initially startled her as she thought she was dreaming or in a daze like someone intoxicated, but then the Holy Spirit fell on her and made her realize that this was the answer to her prayer—to have a new purpose in life: to spread the Good News of salvation through Jesus Christ in song. She later realized what a blessing her discharge had been as she was given a headstart on her new career and unknown to her at the time, soon hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of military people would be discharged and sent home looking for new careers. She felt God had really laid His hand on her. Ruth stated to her family that her two musical inspirations, that encouraged her to become a singer, were Ira Tucker and Dinah Washington.
In 1945, immediately after the rain incident, Ruth rushed home and formed all her sisters into a religious singing group with her playing the piano. Alfreda was only 10 years old! Ruth was the spiritual motivator behind the group and had strong religious convictions and her faith fired the faith of her sisters even at their young ages. The girls used the old Baptist Hymnal, sheet music, and songs from the radio and practiced, practiced and practiced. The Davis Sisters finally made their debut at their parents' home in Philadelphia, PA. in 1946.
In Philadelphia the Davis Sisters lived on 8th Street at Susquehanna for many years. Later they moved to Cambria Street near 13th street. They started singing in churches and on programs and became popular. Ruth developed their stage positions around a central microphone to achieve a depth to their combined voices. Their first recording contract was signed in 1947.
Many local concerts were given at the "Met" Theatre in Philadelphia. The Sisters always packed the house and were always late arriving. People would wait at the door for them to arrive. They would look for Alfreda because she always led them in their march to the stage to begin singing. Their live performances were awesome and they would "tear the house down". Ruth Davis had such a powerful voice that she could just start up a song without any introduction or gimmicks. When she would sing "Shine On Me", she would throw her handkerchief in the air: the crowd would be ecstatic and many people were slain under the Spirit. When Thelma would sing "Jesus", the crowd really responded enthusiastically. The Davis Sisters' attire was usually plain choir robes and in the early days they were only accompanied by piano played by Curtis Dubin. The Famous Davis Sisters were involved in the evolvement of the a'capella quartet sound into female group singing with instrumental accompaniment.
Their fellow artists typically praised their singing as spirit-filled. Ruth Davis' solos were also overpowering in their own way; her recordings of songs such as "Jesus Steps Right In" and "Too Close to Heaven" disclose the glory of her instrument, a huge,wide ranging metallic contralto of great beauty and extraordinary power and force in squalling. The Davis Sisters attracted two great singers in their most fruitful periods to help fill out their sound: Imogene Green, who possessed a husky alto of great sensuous beauty and the phenomenal Jackie Verdell who replaced Green in 1955. She brought a mezzo-soprano of intense brightness and clarity to the group; few singers could match her in the mournful "gospel blues" genre; she would demolish churches with her renditions of "Lord Don't Leave Me" and "Following Him". The Davis Sisters also accompanied their singing with the rhythmic and sometimes spontaneous spirited choreography that other singers, such as Dorothy Love Coates and the Ward Singers later made famous; the Davis Sisters were heavily influenced at this time by Gertrude Ward, the organizing spirit behind the Ward Singers and a guiding light for gospel music in America. Ray Charles also modeled the sound of his backup group, the Raelettes, on groups such as the Davis Sisters and the Caravans.
The loss of Curtis Dublin was a crushing blow to the group but they were spiritually resilient and continued their mission to spread the gospel of Christ in song. No one could play like Curtis, with his unique style, speed and timing. The Hammond B-3 organ was more in use in gospel venues and helped fill in the gaps, even when another talented pianist accompanied the group. One by one, over the years, the Sisters themselves passed on to their Greater Reward, but the same Spirit that started the Davis Sisters also kept them going for four decades. Their determined spirit was typified by the title of one of their albums on the Savoy label: "Undaunted". The Famous Davis Sisters of Philadelphia have been unfairly characterized as being an unlucky group because some of their star members died during the group's tenure. The truth of the matter is they have fared about the same as other gospel groups. Very few of the gospel singing stars from the 1950s lived to be 60 years old, including Mahalia Jackson. The Davis Sisters started out during World War II and kept their group together with its original sound and recorded for four decades while maintaining the highest level of popularity on the gospel circuit.
In the 1970s, after Ruth, who was affectionately called Baby Sis, had passed, their agent booked the group into Washington Temple COGIC in Brooklyn, New York for a concert. This is the church home of the famed gospel pioneer Madame Ernestine Washington. They were late as usual and the driver was speeding on the New Jersey Turnpike heading towards NYC. Their car was stopped by a New Jersey State Trooper. The driver explained to the trooper that she was driving the Famous Davis Sisters to a concert and they were late. No other excuses or explanations were given. Then a miraculous intervention occurred: not only were they not ticketed, but the State Troopers escorted their car into New York City to the concert location in Brooklyn! They were still a little late but everything worked out fine. Everyone present felt that Baby Sis was still looking out after her group from beyond the grave!
The core of the group were biological sisters but over the decades some were replaced by non-related performers.
The Davis Sisters' first professional recordings were made for the Apex label in 1947 and issued on 78 rpm records. In Philadelphia they came under the tutelage of Madame Gertrude Ward, the manager of the Famous Ward Singers, and they added "Famous" to their name at this time. Mother Ward had been recording the Ward Singers on Irvin Ballen's Gotham label since it had moved to Philadelphia in 1948. She introduced the Davis Sisters to him and he loved them and signed them immediately to the Gotham label. In 1949 they recorded Gotham #702, "In The Morning When I Rise". A later issue, Gotham #736 "Jesus Steps In", was covered by Mahalia Jackson on the Apollo label, and the flip side of #736, "Too Close To Heaven", was covered by Alex Bradford on Specialty Records and became a big seller for him. Another notable recording on Gotham was "Get Away Jordan" in which Curtis Dublin sings lead vocal and plays piano.
In 1955 changes took place at Gotham Record Company and Ballen Enterprises, which had their own record pressing plant in Philadelphia. Their continued existence was threatened by a copyright lawsuit over a rock and roll song. Mother Ward had met with great success on the Savoy label where her group was awarded a gold record for "Surely God Is Able" and it was not long before she convinced Ruth and the Sisters to sign with Savoy also. The Davis Sisters' perpetual hit and theme song: "Twelve Gates To The City", the title of their first album issued on Savoy as MG-14000, still sells today. Savoy issued many singles and albums of studio work by the Davis Sisters. Many people who had not seen them in a live concert got to know them and their music by listening to their Savoy albums on the radio or at home. The Davis Sisters were so popular around the world that Savoy continued to market and sell their old recordings even after they had left the label.
In the 1950s and 60's the Famous Davis Sisters continued to record and tour, using their Philadelphia home as a base of operations. In 1962 the Sisters got into some disagreements with each other and Baby Sis decided she needed more breathing space. She moved to New York City, got her own apartment and formed her own singing group named: "The Ruth Davis Specials of New York City". Herman Lubinsky, their record producer at Savoy, caught wind of this breech and smelled an opportunity to take advantage of this family spat. He signed the New York group to a recording contract and issued the album as "Ruth Davis and the Davis Sisters - On The Right Road", Savoy MG-14072, thinking an enthusiastic but unsophisticated record-buying public would not notice the discrepancy in the product despite its misleading billing. However, this little bit of treachery did not endear Lubinsky to the Sisters and they all left his label the next year for good.
Ruth made up with her sisters and they began touring together again as a family, just like in the old days. In 1964 their concert in Hot Springs, Arkansas was recorded by the prestigious RCA label, which had only recorded a few Afro-American gospel artists before, like Doris Akers and Clara Ward. The RCA album was their first recording in stereo because Savoy's studio did not have the technical capability at that time to engineer dual-channel stereo products. The album was issued as "The Davis Sisters Sing Authentic Southern Style Gospel - Recorded In Live Performance", RCA Victor LSP-2851, and had a color photograph on the cover of the Famous Davis Sisters in their choir robes singing around a microphone, reminiscent of the format of Savoy MG-14000, their first album which was issued almost ten years previously with much less professional photography and graphics.
Personnel changes occurred in the group in the 1960s also and all later recordings were made on regional labels about every five years up until around 1985: sometimes a single 45 rpm and sometimes an entire album, and sometimes not with the full group. Several sides were recorded for Ozzie Cadena's start-up label Choice Records in New Jersey after he, too, left Savoy Record Company. Their last full album in the 1980s was so popular that they re-pressed it to meet demand but they issued it with a different cover: one shows the group standing under a rainbow; the other album cover is a photograph of the Davis Sisters in front of a grand piano. Several television appearances are still available to the public on video websites and some older recordings are now reissued on compact disc. As of 2007, all of the Davis Sisters, their parents and siblings are deceased: only children and grandchildren and three inlaws survive.
"An Afternoon With the Famous Davis Sisters of Philadelphia", live broadcast, WNAP - Gospel Highway Eleven, 2311 Old Arch Road, Norristown, PA 19401; Precious Memories Program.