Shirley Caesar has created forty-one albums over the years and is legendary in music circles. Her music and her character have positively shaped the lives of everyone from today’s singers to as she would say common folk. In 2005 Oprah Winfrey acknowledged Shirley’s efforts with and invitation to the Legends Ball which honors those who have made significant contributions to the arts and entertain-
She has drawn the praise of people such as Blind Boys of Alabama’s Ricky McKinnie who says, “Shirley Caesar is one of the greatest female gospel singers of all time. No wonder her last name is Caesar.”
When contacted gospel singing dynamo CeCe Winans said, “Shirley Caesar is without a doubt one of my musical heroes. She praises God with power, beauty, and grace. I love her!”
Despite her accomplishments (11 Grammys and 18 Dove Awards) and the accolades of others Caesar protests when I tell her that some would say she is the greatest gospel singer of all time. Before I could finish making that remark she was already protesting, “No, no, no, I just love the Lord and I love singing. There are far better singers on the back rows of choirs than me. If anyone would have ever told me years ago that my career would have expanded and mushroomed as it did I would not have believed them. I think that the difference is many of them (who have not received the same attention) have not been through what I have been through so I probably have a greater anointing. When it comes to being a great singer no.”
Now entering her twenty-third year of marriage to Bishop Harold Williams Caesar pastors the Mount Calvary Word of Faith church in North Carolina where she was born. She takes delight and expresses amazement at the people she has met. Sounding much like the girl who would say I will never wash this hand again she marvels that John Travolta kissed her hand. She says of fellow singer Patti Labelle, “I am grateful for Patti Labelle. I had the privilege of working with her on my Shirley Caesar and Friends CD. She was an awesome blessing.” She also counts herself as privileged to have worked with Gladys Knight.
She took acting pointers from Cuba Gooding Junior when she appeared in “The Fighting Temptations” with Gooding Junior and Beyonce Knowles. She also acted in the movie “Why Do Fools Fall In Love”. She appeared in Broadway’s “Born to Sing” and collaborated with Cissy Houston and Tramaine Hawkins for the gospel musical “This Is My Song”. Her soundtrack credits include the movies, “Preacher’s Wife” and “Rosewood”.
Life however has not always been easy for the girl who grew up in a home with a semi-invalid mother, no father and one of twelve children. “I knew what it was in the early years of my career that while I was singing the promoter was running off with the money. I still had to come up with something for my group members to get them back home. I knew what it was to be in a city and couldn’t even get out of the hotel. I know what it was to be run by a pitchfork with rednecks trying to kill me. God spared my life,” she says.
It was her humble beginnings and her mother’s encouraging words and advice that have fueled Caesar’s career. “Mom often made it very clear to me that the people were depending on me and she said, ‘I am depending on you and God is depending on you. Don’t let us down. Don’t you ever go out and sing one thing and live something else.’ That stayed with me not because momma said it but because when you get the greater one who is the Lord Jesus in your life then He makes a difference. Just the very fact that momma would always say that to me made a great impact upon my life.”
One might think that a gospel singer in her late sixties would have become set in her ways. One might even think that she could be afforded the luxury of being stubborn about singing only a particular style of music but such is not the case with Caesar. As a matter of fact on her most recent CD “I Know The Truth” she does a duet with rapper Toné¸ She describes for me how it wasn’t that big a change for her as she walks through her house picking up inanimate objects and uses them as imaginary microphones. Still talking to me she breaks into an impromptu rap.
Dove Award winning artist Toné¸ comments on performing the title track with Caesar, “Working with Pastor Caesar was nothing short of amazing”, said Toné¸ “Not only is she young and hip, she wanted to do the hard stuff in hip-hop that I didn’t expect to happen.”
Caesar tells me how she hooked up with Toné¸¬ “We were looking for something different and I ran into this song. Tonex sent it to me. Toné¸ is doing all of the parts in the background. He is a genius. Toné¸ is not only a singer but one of the most powerful preachers?” her voice trails off and then she comes to life wanting to know if I have heard him preach. “You have got to hear him (she says twice for emphasis). He is anointed. He preaches like an old school preacher. It was just a joy. He said anytime you need me I want to be there with you. He feels that my life has blessed him but oh no his life has really blessed mine.”
During my conversation with Shirley Caesar I couldn’t help but think if she ever had to consider her singing as just a career she would have quit long ago. She leaves no room for doubt concerning how she views this part of her life. “I love gospel music and I love ministry. I love touching the people. I love getting right down where they are so whatever songs I choose to sing I want it to really minister to them.”
Given her statements it should come as no surprise that she counts Dorothy Norwood as one of the people in the music industry that she is fond of. “Dorothy Norwood reminds me a lot of myself. (When she sings) she goes at it with all of her heart. She doesn’t just sing for fashion.
That is me every step of the way. This is not something that she copied from me. When I met her that is the kind of singer she was.”
Knowing that Caesar and I both shared a common theme as advocates for more women in leadership roles in the Christian church I asked what she thought needed to happen to change the perception in those more narrow thinking circles that still have a bias against women in these roles. She thoughtfully responded, “Necessity is going to change it for a lot of people. Some people will not be able to call anybody but that female preacher or that female pastor. People want to know that there is somebody who can get a prayer through. They will call whoever they feel can get their prayer through. They know that women have that kid glove soft touch. They are looking at (people such as) Joyce Meyers. They are seeing how God is moving through their lives. Some of those brothers who will not allow women in their pulpits after awhile will find themselves slapping an approval on their (women’s) ministry because they know that we are now in the big club. We will be here when they come and we will be here when they go. (She then recites the cliché© if you can’t beat them join them.”
Just like the title of her most recent album “I Know the Truth” suggests, Shirley and husband Harold know prayer is still the balm that gets them through difficult times. “I go to my rock. I go to my prayer closet and say Lord I don’t know what to do about this situation. Then I will speak to some people who have already walked that way. They have already gone through it and will help me to get through it.”
About Harold she says, “Number one I think he is the most wonderful man, let me just change that, he is the most wonderful human being that I have ever met in my life. He is a very prayerful man. He walks the floor in the wee hours of the morning just praying for our members and praying for other things.”
Copyright © 2006 Joe Montague, exclusive rights reserved. This material may not be redistributed without prior written permission from Joe Montague.
Joe Montague is an internationally published freelance journalist / photographer.