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Innovation and versatility are two necessary ingredients essential to a successful endeavor. In 1961, two of the most innovative and versatile groups in gospel music put their thinking caps together to form one of the finest entertainment packages in the history of the gospel music industry. The Gospel Singing Caravan incorporated great artists in a package that filled auditoriums throughout the country.
Elmo Fagg, manager of the Blue Ridge Quartet, received a telephone call from a disc jockey in Fernandina Beach, Florida that got the ball rolling for the Caravan. The DJ wanted to promote a gospel concert with four groups that were all quite different in their styles and presentations. The idea was to appeal to a vast audience.
During their discussion with Elmo Fagg, the name of several groups emerged. The promoters decided that the optimal talent for the program would be the Blue Ridge Quartet, the LeFevres, the Rangers Trio, and the Johnson Sisters. All of these groups had good professional relationships with each other, so it was a natural fit for this concert. The group managers agreed upon a date, and the first concert was held in Elberton, Georgia.
One of the gentlemen involved in the production of the concert was an old circus promoter, so he had some wonderful ideas to bring a great crowd to the singing. They didn’t want to use commonplace wordage such as “All Night Singing”, “Gospel Music Concert”, or “Battle of the Songs” but wanted to come up with something new and inventive. After discussing several ideas, they decided to call their concert “The Gospel Singing Caravan”.
The advertising campaign for this first concert was quite extensive including promotion via television, radio, newspapers, and posters throughout the area. The stadium was packed, and the concert was a tremendous success. There was a great deal of money poured into the program advertisement, so the promoters didn’t make a huge profit . . .but money wasn’t their motive. They wanted to present a great concert and have a good time in the process.
The success of this event was so encouraging that the promoters then decided to book the same talent in Anderson, South Carolina at the Civic Center. The Rangers Trio booked another engagement at the last minute, so the LeFevres, Blue Ridge Quartet, and Johnson Sisters decided to play that date. Again, the building was filled to capacity and Caravan began to roll along.
After two successful programs, the promoters decided to move on to other ventures, yet the Caravan continued to roll along. Urias LeFevre and Elmo Fagg called their groups together to discuss the success of those two concerts and decided that the Gospel Singing Caravan idea was too good to abandon. With the blessings of the original promoters, they continued with the name of the “Gospel Singing Caravan”. The groups thought that a fourth group should be added to the organization to add even more versatility to the show. The Prophets were a new and energetic quartet in the business, so they were invited to join the Caravan.
At this time, the Caravan featured “The South’s Most Versatile Singers and Musicians”, “The Sweetest Singing This Side of Heaven”, “The Sweethearts of Gospel Music”, and “The Most Unique Sound in Gospel Music.” With all four of these groups on a program, you never knew exactly what to expect. . . other than the finest in gospel music.
Elmo Fagg was the stage director for the Caravan. At this time, gospel singings were often all night affairs. He and Pierce LeFevre put their heads together to make the Gospel Singing Caravan a great experience for the fans. Instead of a tiring all night program, the Caravan
program lasted about three hours. Each group would sing 30-40 minutes, there would be a short intermission, and the Caravan choir closed the program. There was little or no advertising during the program. The program started on time, ended at a decent hour, and always left the audience wanting more. This attitude filled auditoriums for all of the Caravan programs. “Sold Out” performances became the norm for the Caravan.
The Gospel Singing Caravan appealed to all types of gospel music fans. The LeFevres and the Blue Ridge Quartet both had television programs in their respective markets, so television was the next logical step for the Caravan. Martha White Flour was the primary sponsor for the Gospel Singing Caravan television program. A.O. Stinson produced the hour long syndicated program. In a very innovative tactic, Eva Mae LeFevre was chosen to emcee the television program. This was undoubtedly a first for a female in gospel music. Her charisma and charm became an integral part of the Caravan show. It soon became one of the most popular programs in their respective markets. The majority of these recordings were taped at the WBTV studios in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The television program would begin with the choir singing the Vep Ellis classic, “This Great Caravan Keeps on Rolling Along.” During the course of the show, each of the Caravan groups was featured singing their latest hits. In keeping with the versatility of the groups, many other segments became fixtures on the program. Each telecast featured an instrumental number. The LeFevres were quite proficient on several instruments, and announcer Tom Hipps was often featured playing the organ.
One of the most popular segments of the program was “Poetry Corner.” George Younce, bass singer with the Blue Ridge Quartet, originated this segment. He would sit in a rocking chair and read and inspirational poem or present an encouraging recitation. It generated more mail than any other feature on the program. A typical week would generate more than two hundred cards and letters in response to Poetry Corner. When George left the Blue Ridge Quartet to join the Cathedral Quartet, Jimmy Jones moved to the rocking chair and the great response to Poetry Corner continued to the point that the Caravan released two books of poetry used on the program.
In addition to the Poetry Corner books, the Caravan also sold Caravan songbooks and other printed material.
Each week, Elmo Fagg led the Caravan Choir in a great old convention song. During this segment, the audience would be invited to turn in their Caravan Song Book and sing along with the choir. The Gospel Singing Caravan sold a lot of song books through this innovative marketing. Kenny Gates always provided the piano accompaniment for the choir. His piano skills were essential to the success of the Caravan, for he accompanied the Blue Ridge Quartet, the Caravan Choir, the Johnson Sisters and even filled in for the LeFevres when necessary.
The members of the Gospel Singing Caravan did a great job promoting their books, recordings, and record company. In addition to their television programs and concert appearances, the Caravan also produced “SING Magazine.” Each month, the magazine would feature articles about each Caravan group. The newest recordings by the artists would be promoted, as would any interesting news about the Caravan members as well as other interesting tidbits about the leading groups in gospel music. Other groups recording on the SING label were prominently featured in this magazine. Several interesting Caravan personalities had their own monthly columns discussing industry issues or just a light-hearted look at life.
Each Caravan artist recorded for SING records. In addition to their individual albums, the members released five Caravan albums on the SING label. Three of these recordings featured popular recordings by each of the Caravan groups and a few songs by the Caravan Choir. They also released two special recordings. One was an album of Christmas songs that was discussed at length in the December 2005 article. The other was a complete album by the Gospel Singing Caravan Choir. The choir segments were so popular that the Caravan fans demanded that they do an
entire album of choir favorites. It quickly became one of their best-selling albums.
The Caravan continued for quite a few years. As Eva Mae often said, “We were coast to coast and border to border.” At the apex of their popularity, the Gospel Singing Caravan was heard on more than forty television stations. Each of the Caravan groups has been featured on the Grand Ole Gospel History site, so feel free to peruse the site for more information about the Blue Ridge Quartet, the LeFevres, the Prophets Quartet, and the Johnson Sisters. Several former members of the Caravan have said that the saddest day in their professional history came when the Caravan dissolved.
Unfortunately, very little remains of the original Caravan television recordings. Video tape was very expensive, and the producers of the Caravan programs erased these tapes when they were returned to the station and recorded the next batch of programs over them. Several years ago, one master tape was located and Memory Lane Gospel released this show in its entirety both on audio and video. It is now out of print and difficult to obtain. A few audio recordings of the Caravan remain in the hands of gospel music collectors, but these are also hard to locate.