For many people, just getting out of bed on a Sunday morning -- never mind all of the people dragging their weary souls to church -- is enough of an uplifting achievement. But for Madame Andrews, simply getting to church is a sinfully easy task compared to her weekly ritual of the past two decades. Each Sunday she rises out of her bed before dawn -- hours before the pulpit at most local churches is dusted off -- and leaves her Thornton home for the Boulder studios of KGNU/88.5 FM. There she settles in behind a microphone and kicks off "Gospel Chime," the 7-to-9 a.m. gospel program that she's been hosting since 1980. It's one of the longest-running radio shows in the state -- and the country. It's also an almost Moses-like achievement in these days of targeted, risk-free radio, especially when you consider that Andrews's effort is a volunteer one. But for Andrews, the show is simply a labor of love, a musical ministry for her unseen congregation.
"I have a lot of listeners who can't get out and go to church," says Andrews, a quick-with-a-hug woman who radiates positive vibes and warmth like a radio tower emits microwaves. "I have people call me up and say, 'Your program is all the church we have.' In the winter some call me and say, 'I can't go to church today, but I got church right here on the radio.'"
If Andrews's DJ slot didn't make her enough of a force in the area's gospel circle, her own singing voice does. Andrews -- who has been singing gospel in Denver for as long as she's been on the air -- claims a title of divine origin: "Gospel Queen," a rarely awarded ranking given to a handful of gospel singers called upon by God. She was ordained with the handle in 1970 during a service in the City of Refuge Tabernacle, a full gospel church in Park Hill, which she still attends. A parishioner in the throes of the Holy Spirit revealed a "divine prophecy" from God. "She stood up and said God told her that I should be addressed as 'Gospel Queen' from now on," Andrews recalls. "I was standing there thinking, 'What's going on here? Why is this all coming at me?' That's the highest level you can go in the Pentecostal church in gospel singing. And it scared me to death at first, because it means you have to live the life and set yourself apart from a lot of things."
Andrews has upheld her part of the holy bargain with her work both on and off the air. But long before she was sanctified royalty, she was a kid growing up in rural Texas, where her mother taught her songs of faith at a very early age. Andrews's earliest memories involve her skipping hand-in-hand with her mom, the pair singing church numbers. The songs would soon become a particular comfort for Andrews; her mom died when Andrews was just five years old. "She taught me a song, 'Farther Along,'" Andrews recalls, singing, "'Farther along, we'll know all about it, farther along we'll understand why.' It gave me a lot of comfort. I sang that song at her funeral, though I didn't understand why she was lying there like she was."
A few years later, Andrews's father died and she was orphaned. An aunt raised her and continued Andrews's gospel education with in-depth sessions at the piano. Andrews sang her way through school and later married and moved to northern California with her now-ex-husband. There she honed her singing skills with the region's other rock-and-rejoicers, including brothers Walter and Edwin Hawkins of "Oh Happy Day" fame. In the late '60s, she moved to Denver and began using her voice in broadcasting. She began her radio career as an announcer on the gospel programs of Mack Craft, whose "Old Ship of Zion" program first aired on the now-defunct KDEN and later moved to KDKO/1510 AM. Andrews says Craft's taskmaster approach was tough, but his encouragement led her to earn her broadcaster's license through the station's training program. "He really taught me radio," Andrews says. "He made me do it right." She then left to work with Cosmo Harris, who broadcast his "Morning Meditation" hour on KBPI/106.7 FM (long before it was a modern rock station). Andrews went on to work at a number of area radio stations over the next ten years, doing her own gospel specialty shows. She landed at KGNU in 1980, where she's carried out the last two decades of her nearly forty-year volunteer radio campaign.
Today her program moves listeners with 120 minutes of rousing saving grace each Sunday morning. Her playlist includes a wealth of black groups stretching from Bible-beltin', recorded-live old-school groups to contemporary-flavored acts that bend the genre into more modern shapes. A typical rotation includes Fred Hammond, Rev. James Cleveland, Mahalia Jackson, the Pilgrim Jubilees, the Jesus Gang, the Williams Brothers and other time-tested legends as well as current musical missionaries. Andrews's uplifted personality and candid spirituality permeate the program, giving it a refreshing down-home feel. Her selections feature an equally spirited stamp of steadfast faith, emotional intensity and sometimes howling testimonials of God-blessed bliss. It's arguably the most emotion-packed two hours on the local airwaves. It's also the same type of fervent material Andrews performs as part of the Heavenly Echoes, the Denver-based group she belongs to. The beauty of such give-it-up-for-the-Lord salvation is simple, Andrews says. "You can feel the presence of the Lord, and you go with it. You feel like clapping your hands, you clap your hands. You feel like dancing, it's okay. You're praising the Lord, and He loves that."
When she first started her "Gospel Chime" program, Andrews says, her audience was small, but it's been growing steadily over the past two decades. It's a reflection, she says, of the nationwide increase in popularity of religious music. "We gospel people used to be treated like stepchildren, but not now," Andrews says. "People are hungry for something different, something real, and a coming back to basics. Plus, it something you can enjoy that never gets old and is always refreshing. You can hear 'Amazing Grace' eleven-dozen times and you'll enjoy it every time."
E.C. Erb is the music director at KGNU. She's been with the station since 1984, first as a volunteer and now as the station's paid MD. She says Andrews's show has loyal listeners who wake up early each Sunday to hear "Chime" ring and describes Andrews's show as an asset to the station and its quest "to bring music to people that they might not be hearing in a regular setting."
"Yeah," adds Erb, "we know we're here in Boulder and we know what color of skin most people have in this town. But we don't want that to limit what we're doing. Her show brings a different audience than what we have for the rest of our programs."
In addition to reaching audiences through her radio program and her Echoes gigs, Andrews, a retired caregiver who worked with senior citizens, has another audience. Each month she performs a solo show at Total Longterm Care, a daycare center for Denver seniors. On a recent overcast Thursday morning, Andrews brought a thermal dose of sonic sunshine into the west-Denver facility. As she sat down at her electric piano in the center of the facility's meeting room, about thirty seniors gathered around in chairs and wheelchairs, songbooks before them. Some in the audience were chipper and eager for the show, while others sat quietly and dozed in their own reveries, oxygen tanks by their sides. Andrews -- replete in a flame-red jacket and a knot of black curls bouncing behind her head -- launched into her first number, "I'm Travelin' On," a vintage gospel number. She laid down a competent blues-based foundation on her piano as her sweet-in-conversation voice transformed into a dynamic force, floating from lilting tenderness to a muscular holler.
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For the next hour, she rained down a saving set of holy sound, from "Leaning on the Everlasting Love" and "The Old Rugged Cross" to "I'm Going Home Soon to Be With Jesus," a tune with extra immediacy to the crowd of twilight-years seniors. At one point, the group slipped into an a cappella version of "Yes, Jesus Loves Me" before Andrews could turn in her book to read the song's chords. Throughout the hour, the Gospel Queen punctuated her songs with praise for her singing charges. "Oooh, that sounds good," Andrews giggled. "Wonderful, wonderful!" Underneath the tables where the silver singers were seated, slippers, tennis shoes and various styles of orthopedic footwear rose and fell in time with Andrews's playing. She ended with "When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder," and when she finished, a participant offered a testimonial to Andrews's spiritual powers. "Every time you come and sing," the woman said, "we feel happy." Andrews accepted the comment with a smile and polite graciousness. She had a ball, too. "They give me something," Andrews says, "that no one can give me."
Of course, Andrews's radio fans seem to feel the same way about her. "We see a lot of people come through the door that might be interested in doing something," Erb says, "but they don't always follow through. But Madame Andrews is dedicated to getting up here every morning and doing her show." KGNU staffers point out that Andrews was once locked out of the building one Sunday morning but climbed in through a window to reach the controls. During a recent fundraiser, a gospel group Andrews had booked to perform on the air failed to show. Andrews took over the station's piano and filled the slot herself with an hour of song. "For us," Erb says, "it's really nice to have somebody that's so passionate about what she does and who really knows music -- and who is respected in the gospel community. And not just locally -- I get calls from record companies: 'Madame Andrews is still on, right?'"
That she is, with no plans of ending her radio run any time soon. Not with her invisible flock counting on her each Sunday. "I have people call me up," Andrews says, "and they tell me, 'Madame, I'm on my way to church, but you got me going so much I just had to cut me a few steps around the house.' People call up, 'Girl, I'm all fired up and ready for church.' Some of them have even called me on their cell phones and told me, 'I'm on my way out the door, but, honey, I'm still listening to you.' It's been a real joy for me," Andrews says, "and it doesn't seem at all like I've been doing this for twenty years.
"Each Sunday is like a sweet reward from God," she adds, "and I feel like I've done just what he expects me to do."