Since leaving the Caravans, the hottest gospel-singing group in the land, and striking out on her own a little over 40 years ago, Shirley Caesar has been sweeping across America and the world, delivering her Christian messages in electrifying song and sermon, picking up 11 Grammy Awards, 18 Dove Awards, 14 Stellar Awards, and numerous other honors along her path. She has been a standard-bearer for traditional African-American gospel music, yet at the same time has been unafraid to challenge convention and take the genre in daring new directions.
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Born October 13, 1938, in Durham, North Carolina, Caesar was greatly inspired by her father, Big Jim Caesar, a tobacco farmer who sang with an a cappella quartet called the Just Come Four. He died of a brain seizure when she was 10, and to help support her semi-invalid mother, Hallie Caesar, and a dozen brothers and sisters, she hit the road as a gospel soloist with a one-legged evangelist named Leroy Johnson. Billed as “Baby Shirley,” she cut her first single, “I’d Rather Have Jesus” backed with “I Know Jesus Will Save,” for Federal Records in November 1951. The label on the 78 RPM disc described her as a “12-year-old lass”, although she was actually 13 at the time of the recording.
“I got my call to the ministry when I was in college in 1957,” says Caesar, who was majoring in business education at North Carolina State School. She had put her studies and her plans on becoming an evangelist on hold when the Caravans, a fast-rising gospel group from Chicago, passed through Durham the following year. They were minus a member. Caesar convinced leader Albertina Walker that she knew all the parts. Walker was so impressed with what she heard she invited the teenager to join the group. Caesar moved to Chicago and sang with the Caravans for the next eight years.
During her tenure, the group boasted other dynamic lead singers, most notably Inez Andrews and Cassietta George, but the diminutive Caesar’s emotionally galvanizing delivery and highly animated stage demeanor were central in making the Caravans the most popular female gospel group since the Ward Singers. Caesar’s intense leads were featured on such Caravans’ hits as “I Won’t Be Back,” “No Coward Soldiers,” “Holy Boldness,” and “Choose Ye This Day.”
Caesar preached her first sermon in Chicago while a member of the Caravans, but on record and in concert her spoken testimony was limited to sermonettes within the bodies of a song such as “Halleluiah It’s Done.” By the early ‘60s, during breaks in the group’s schedule, she began getting offers to sing and preach apart from the Caravans. Sometimes, however, last-minute engagements would come along for the group, and Walker would ask Caesar to cancel her own.
“I did not like disappointing people,” Caesar says. “Tina would give me time off, and then dates would come in, but my first allegiance was to the Caravans. I knew that something would have to give.”
Caesar finally left the Caravans in 1966, signed with Hob Records, and began appearing as “Evangelist Shirley Caesar.” During her first few months as a solo artist, she made more money than she had in her entire eight years with the Caravans. “It went so well,” she recalls, “that I called my mom and asked her to send Ann.” Ann Belle Caesar became a charter member of her sister’s new backing group, the Caesar Singers.
Shirley Caesar’s solo saga has been a series of one triumph after another. In 1975, her gospel version of “No Charge,” originally a No.1 country hit for Melba Montgomery, crossed over to both the R&B and pop charts. Three years later, First Lady, her debut for the United Artists-distributed by Roadshow label, sold so well that it reached No. 36 on Billboard’s R&B album chart. Some in the Christian community objected to the album, which utilized state-of-the-art production and disco-style rhythms.
“It was ahead of its time,” she says of First Lady. “They were used to me singing old hymns. They are more open-minded now. Today, I can say and do all these things. People know my life, and they know that I’m not gonna fool around and miss heaven because of a song.”
Over the past three decades, Caesar has become easily the most visible gospel singer in the world. She has collaborated on disc with such artists as Al Green, Whitney Houston, Michelle Williams, Patti LaBelle, Gladys Knight, Faith Evans, Kirk Franklin, Dottie Peoples, Christian rapper Tonex, and producer and singer, J. Moss. She also has appeared on television in the series “Good News,” “Soulfood,” and “The Parkers,” on Broadway in This Is My Song and Born to Sing, and in the motion pictures Gospel, The Preacher’s Wife, Rosewood, Why Do Fools Fall In Love, The Fight Temptations, and The Unseen.
Caesar’s plans of completing her education and becoming minister, interrupted by her stint with the Caravans, eventually reached fruition. In 1984, she earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Shaw University. In 1990, she was ordained as a pastor by her husband, Bishop Harold Ivory Williams, head of the (Mount Calvary Churches across the United States) Raleigh-based Mount Calvary Holy Church of America. She has since taken over as the Senior Pastor of Mount Calvary Word of Faith in Raleigh, NC.
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