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The Davis Sisters Sang Gospel the Philadelphia Way

There actually were two groups called The Davis Sisters performing at about the same time. They weren’t hard to keep separate, however: One was a white country act and the other was a group of African-American gospel singers from Philadelphia. Imagine the surprise of somebody expecting to see one Davis Sisters and getting the other.

Some of the most effective writing is done by folks who aren’t pros. It is more likely to come from the heart. That probably is the story of this Wikipedia entry, which does a nice job of conveying the spirit of the women:

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. (Continue Reading…)

A gentleman by the name of Tony Cummings fondly recalls The Davis Singers at Cross Currents:

Long before Philadelphia became synonymous with teenage dance crazes in the ’50s and sophisticated soul music in the ’70s the City of Brotherly Love was a hotbed of gospel talent. In the late ’40s and ’50s The Angelic Gospel Singers, the Spiritual Echoes, Mary Johnson Davis and the Famous Ward Singers all rose to prominence in Philly. And it was there that Ruth ‘Baby Sis’ Davis (born 1927), Thelma Davis (1930), Audrey Davis (1932) and Alfreda Davis (1935) were raised in the Fire Baptized Pentecostal/Holiness denomination, known for its fire-and-brimstone messages and athletic worship services where the congregation tarried until the Holy Ghost came. At there home church in Philadelphia, Mount Zion, the pastor often called the Davis Sisters to sing before the congregation as children. Even during their teens, the Davis Sisters‘ stage presence was so assured and their vocals so mature and powerful that they developed a reputation throughout the city as “house rockers”.

Above is “We’ll Understand It Better By and By” and below is “I Believe I’ll Go Back Home.” The man who introduces them is terrific, except that he has to ask what they are going to sing in both cases.

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David Dodd's exhaustive study tells the story, song by song. Click here or on the image.