Local music performer, producer and promoter Dan Garner remembers an ‘aha’ kind of moment when in the car, listening to National Public Radio. It was a report produced in Chicago about a style of gospel music that was dying out along with a generation of its original performers.

The style was Southland gospel, characterized by four part harmonies, with vocals at once blended and distinctive. It was essentially a Capella but backed up with hand slaps and foot stomps and sometimes a “rapping” guitar. The lyrics of Southland gospel were also distinctive—typically derived from traditional spirituals that dated back to the 1700 and 1800’s, and yet also influenced the development of secular rhythm and blues (R&B).

Mr. Garner’s knowledge of local music history and a mindset for preservation kicked in, and he set about producing an archival CD Union of the World in 1997 to record some of the oldest existing performers of this musical style, Shreveport-Bossier’s own the Ever Ready Gospel Singers. His ‘epiphany’ was fortunate for us all, because after about 65 years as a musical group, the elderly yet still-powerful singers have since all passed away.

Fascinatingly this group actually had its start at Barksdale Field in 1944 when Charles Graves from Waco TX and Elbert Green from Menifee AR met while serving at Barksdale Field, just four years before President Truman issued an executive order to integrate the United States Armed Forces. When other servicemen joined with Graves and Green the group called themselves The Barksdale Melody Singers. After they were discharged Graves and Green remained in Shreveport and decided to form another singing group that included Willlie Caston a neighbor of Green’s who later was responsible for promoting much of Shreveport’s gospel music. Roy Simms joined the group and in 1946 The Ever Ready Gospel Singers was born. Reverend Eddie Giles later played guitar.

Caspiana, Louisiana native Fortune Stephenson joined the group in 1948 and after Caston promised Frank Edwards’ mother that if she would allow him to sing tenor with the group he would treat Edwards like his own. Edwards joined in 1951 at the age of 14.

Shortly after their first public performance at a church in Texas they became the first black group to appear on KWKH radio where their continued performances on KWKH radio built a large following and led to busy touring schedules for them.

Caston stopped touring with The Ever Ready Gospel Singers in 1954 to become a DJ on KANV, Shreveport’s first black radio station a position in which he could promote the group to contacts in the record business. That same year brought their first recording contract with Abbot Records in Hollywood. Their first recorded songs were “I Claim Jesus (First)” and “When the Moon Goes Down (In the Valley of Time).”

By 1957 the members of the group were still recording but were working at other jobs as well. 1959 saw them recording for Sitting In Records out of New York City, a label on which Mahalia Jackson also recorded. In 1961 they were one of the first black groups to appear on KSLA television.

Bossier Parish Library Historical Center has the CD Union of the World, as Dan Garner made sure to place it in archives across the state.

In recognizing this historical power and musical richness of gospel music the BPLHC and Central Library will be showing the documentary “Rejoice and Shout” on Sunday
February 28 in the Historical Center meeting room at 2:30 pm, 2206 Beckett Street, 318-746-7717.

This documentary uses rare audio and video footage with lengthy clips which allow the music to ‘sing’ for itself. ‘Talking heads,’ common in many documentaries, are fewer, permitting the viewer to hopefully experience what gospel music does best—expresses emotions from sorrow and joy, regret and soaring hope. It is a ‘must see’ so join us in celebrating gospel music and the singers who have made it great.

If anyone knows about the group who became The Ever Ready Gospel Singers when they were stationed at Barksdale, we would love to hear from you.

Ann Middleton is Director of the Bossier Parish Library Historical Center. She can be reached at (318) 746-7717 or amiddlet@state.lib.la.us

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