With 150 concerts a year, 25 hours a week helping the poor in her Outreach Ministries, eleven Grammys, and more than 30 albums to her credit, Shirley Caesar may seem to be a whole army of gospel singers instead of just one diminutive woman. The "Queen of Gospel" packs a lot of wallop in her small frame. Backed by a 60-person choir, rocking like a tempest, she is a bundle of fireworks on the Fourth of July. The gospel style of song and sermonette, singing that involves both the spoken word and dramatic acting, was developed primarily by Caesar. She journeys all over the world, sometimes traveling all night to return to her pulpit in Durham, North Carolina, the town where she was born. "It is not easy," said Shirley in her 1995 video He Will Come (Word Records). "In fact, sometimes it is downright mind-boggling. But, somehow, even though I'm wearing all of these hats, the Lord helps me to just barrel through it." Shirley has barreled through over 50 years of touring and preaching, starting at age ten, and she continues to bring the house down every time she performs.
The tenth of 12 children, Caesar was born on October 13, 1938. Her father James was a tobacco worker who was well-known in the Carolinas as the lead singer in a gospel quartet, the Just Came Four. Caesar began singing with the group at age ten. When she was eight, her father died, and she began touring several years later with an evangelist named LeRoy Johnson, who also had a television show in Portsmouth, Virginia. In 1951, at 13, she recorded her first song "I'd Rather Have Jesus." While still in high school, she toured throughout the Carolinas.
This was a time when Jim Crow laws were still in effect in North Carolina. Caesar remembers restaurants putting up the "CLOSED" sign when she would arrive. "I went to school in the days when all the white kids got things better," she told People. "I remember once when a lady gave cookies to all the kids in the school. The white kids got the fresh ones; we got the stale ones." Despite these obstacles, her beloved mother Hannah taught her to respect herself and to persevere.
Her determination took her to North Carolina Central College where she studied business education. She has said that she got the call to God's work in the middle of a typing test. According to Kim Hubbard of People, she heard someone call out her name. Caesar turned to the young woman next to her and asked if she had spoken. When Caesar went home, she lay on the bed, and heard the same voice: "Behold, I have called you from your mother's womb and I have anointed your lips to preach the gospel." Caesar believed that this was a message that foretold special work for her in spreading the Gospel. Around the same time, Caesar heard Chicago's female gospel group, the Caravans, and she saw an opportunity to answer the call. She sought an audition with the group, was immediately hired, and left school for a life of singing and ministry. The Caravans had several members who became famous in the history of gospel music: Albertina Walker, Inez Andrews, and Sarah McKissick. Each woman had a different style, and Caesar's contribution was an energetic and dramatic approach where she would act out the songs and walk among the congregation, engaging the members directly. On the song "I Won't Be Back," she would run through the hall searching for an exit, then leave for a brief period. Her forte was the sermon in the middle of songs that addressed the subject of the song and expounded on its theme. She exhorted the listeners to reach out to God and to take the example of Jesus. On the subject of motherhood, she was particularly effective. Her song "Don't Drive Your Mama Away" tells of a son who is shamed for putting his mother in the rest home.
Along the way, Caesar found a male counterpart in the singer James Cleveland and they made several records together. They became known as the "King and Queen of Gospel." Caesar formed her own group in 1966 called the Caesar Singers, but she would reunite with the Caravans and the Reverend Cleveland occasionally throughout the years. In 1971, she won her first Grammyor the popular song "Put Your Hand in the Hand of the Man from Galilee." On the night of the awards, she had returned very late from an engagement in Homer, Louisiana. People began banging on her door, and when she eventually answered, her sister Ann, one of her backup singers, shouted "You won!" It was the first Grammy for a black female gospel singer since Mahalia Jackson won the award in 1962.
Among her numerous honors are 17 Dove Awards, the Gospel Music Association's highest tribute. She was inducted into the Gospel Hall of Fame in 1982. She was the first female gospel artist to perform at Harvard University. In recent years, Caesar has moved into other media, making several videos: Live in Memphis, I Remember Mama, and He Will Come. Broadway found that the gospel singer could conquer a big city when Caesar packed them in for the musical Mama, I Want to Sing in 1994. Her second Broadway musical in 1995 was titled Sing: Mama 2. Born to Sing: Mama 3 followed soon after. Perhaps her proudest achievement was the creation of a ministry in Durham to provide emergency funds, food and shelter for the needy, called the Shirley Caesar Outreach Ministries, Inc. When Caesar ran for public office and was elected to the Durham City Council in 1987, she concentrated her efforts on housing and care for the poor and elderly. She told Ebony magazine, "My main objective is to make sure we focus on the needy and not the greedy."
Her biggest fan, the Reverend Harold I. Williams, whom Caesar has called "my pastor, my best friend, my husband," assessed his wife's character in the 1995 video He Will Come: "After twelve years, I'm going to say the same thing I said after the first year I was married to Shirleyxciting! You never know what is coming next. I mean it is exciting. It is from one thing to another. She's an exciting person. She's a joy to be around." Williams and Caesar were married in an elaborate wedding in 1983 that had 140 people in the wedding party alone. Soon after their marriage, they became co-pastors at the Mt. Calvary Holy Church in North Carolina.
Caesar released a number of albums before the end of the decade. A Miracle in Harlem, a live album released in 1997, was recorded at the First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem, New York, and featured backup vocals from the Love Fellowship Church Choir. Caesar's autobiography, Shirley Caesar: The Lady, the Melody, the Word, was published at the same time. She released You Can Make It in 2000, an energetic collection of songs that covered a range of styles from traditional gospel to soul to R&B. Her next album, the simply titled Hymns, featured a number of guest vocalists, including Michelle Williams of pop group Destiny's Child. Once again, the recording was widely praised. A reviewer in Ebony remarked, "No one delivers down-home gospel with the conviction, depth, and earthiness of Shirley Caesar."
Over the years, Caesar has tried out many different styles of music, while keeping her message of faith and worship consistent. But while her catalog is varied, there is a consistency to it that ensures her fans will almost always be pleased by any new recordings. Drew Dawson, the manager of KHVN, a gospel music radio station in Dallas, Texas, remarked in Billboard, "There's always something that is signature Shirley Caesar, with a traditional church feel and [a] serious, deep message. It's what [her] audiences have come to depend on." Caesar knows where her popularity is coming from. "I believe God is using gospel to grab the hearts of the people," she stated in Billboard. "It's a world within itself, and my prayer is that the Lord will just continue to let it grow."
The Best of Shirley Caesar with the Caravans, Savoy, 1966.
Rejoice, Word/Epic, 1980.
Jesus, I Love Calling Your Name, Word/Epic, 1982.
Sailin', Word/Epic, 1984.
Go, Word/Epic/Myrrh, 1984.
Celebration, Word/Epic/Myrrh, 1986.
Her Very Best, Word/Epic, 1987.
Liven Chicago, Word/Epic, 1988.
I Remember Mama, Word/Epic, 1989.
He's Working It Out For You, Word/Epic, 1991.
Stand Still, Word/Epic, 1993.
Why Me Lord, HOB, 1993.
He Touched Me, HOB, 1994.
Shirley Caesar LiveHe Will Come, Word/Epic, 1995.
Just a Word, Word, 1996.
Lord Will Make a Way, AMW, 1997.
A Miracle in Harlem, Word, 1997.
Christmas with Shirley Caesar, Sony, 1998; reissued, Myrrh, 2000.
You Can Make It, Myrrh, 2000.
Hymns, Sony, 2001.
He Will Come to You, Word, 2002.
Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 19, Gale Research, 1998.
Cusic, Don, The Sound of Light: A History of Gospel Music, 1993.
Heilbut, Anthony, The Gospel Sound, 1985.
American Gospel, March/April 1992.
Billboard, March 29, 1997.
Ebony, December 1988; March 1994; February 1996; January 2002.
Essence, October 1990.
Jet, January 8, 1990; August 26, 1991; March 9, 1992.
Journal of American Folklore, Summer 1991.
People, November 9, 1987.
Shirley Caesar Official Website, http://www.shirleycaesar.com (November 5, 2002).
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