Christian Music - Reviews, News, Interviews


  • 1999 11 Feb
by Mike Nappa

"Whites Only." The sign in the Alabama restaurant meant two things for young {{Shirley Caesar}}. First, she wasn't welcome there. Second, that gnawing hunger in her stomach would have to go unsatisfied a while longer.

It was during the 1960s, and Shirley was on a road trip with the African-American singing group, the Caravans, making her way to Birmingham for a live radio concert. They'd hoped to stop for dinner somewhere along the way, but restaurant after restaurant had the same foreboding sign: "Whites Only."

"We were not allowed to eat in some of the other restaurants owned by whites," Shirley recalls. Finally they spotted a "juke joint" that would serve them. Shirley got a pork sandwich to go, and everyone piled back in the car to continue the journey. Unfortunately, that "juke joint" didn't put a lot of effort into cooking for its non-white customers.

"I had food poisoning [from eating half-cooked meat]," sighs Shirley, the memory still vivid. And then to make sure her point is understood, she uses that mesmerizing voice better known for wailing out a gospel chorus, and says with emphasis "In the wee hours of the morning, two or three in the morning, I was sick unto death. Sick, sick, sick!"

Decades later, the idea that anyone would tell Shirley Caesar she's not welcome for dinner is nearly impossible to believe. A long, distinguished career and ministry have opened the doors and hearts of millions to the woman now called The First Lady of Gospel.

Consider just a few of her many accomplishments. She's recorded 30 albums in the past 30 years, with a handful of those reaching Gold status (selling over 500,000 copies). She's been nominated for 16 Grammy awards-the most of any gospel artist in history-and has won that award an astounding nine times. She's starred in sold-out runs on Broadway, won a cabinet full of Dove and Stellar awards, and even contributed to motion picture soundtracks like Whitney Houston's ==The Preacher's Wife==.

In fact, Whitney Houston is one of many lifelong Shirley Caesar fans, and was thrilled to have Shirley involved in ==The Preacher's Wife==. Says Houston, "If you want anyone to sing gospel on a record, you've got to have Shirley because she knows how to deliver. She's anointed with a power and force that runs through her."

With this kind of talent, it's no surprise that early in her career Shirley was offered what many Christian artists today clamor for: an opportunity to take her music to mainstream radio and audiences.

Shirley dismisses the experience, saying, "They claimed they could make me a big star. They said I had soul. They said that what I had, they could take it and make it far greater than Sam Cooke and Mahalia Jackson, and all them. [But] they wanted me to sing R&B."

So, Shirley turned it down flat. Asked if that was a difficult decision to make, Shirley laughs out emphatically, "NO! No! I believe gospel music is the music God honors, because gospel music is the music that speaks of Him. What would I look like being a preacher singing R&B? No, no, no! My love for the Lord would not let me do that."

Which brings out another of Shirley's many talents, that of preaching and pastoring. For the past six years, she has served as the pastor of Mount Calvary Word of Faith Church in North Carolina. Her husband, Harold Williams also serves there as Bishop.

Combining a vibrant pastoral ministry with a lifelong career in music is sometimes difficult and often tiring. But Shirley's love for people and her certainty of God's calling are more than enough to keep her right where she is.

An excitement enters Shirley's voice as she talks about her church. "I want to be able to have a ministry that's going to give us a drug ministry, singles ministry, teen ministry...I'd like to see alcoholics saved. I'd like to have a children's church second to none. I'd like to have a huge, gigantic youth department for the church. I want to touch the hurting and help people where they are."

To help accomplish this vision, Pastor Caesar takes no money from the church. She prefers instead for the church to put what would be her salary toward the building of a larger facility so they can reach out to more people.

This great concern for people isn't limited to Shirley's pastoral ministry. It expresses itself during concert performances as well.

"Whenever I sing or minister, I'm all over the place!" Shirley reveals. "I try to sing and minister to the people. I like to touch people-literally touch them with my hands. If I'm not shaking their hands, I'm embracing them. I want them to feel as though the Lord is speaking directly through me [to them]."

Recently thousands gathered to experience Shirley Caesar's touch at a free concert in Harlem. "A lot of people there had never seen me because they had never had money to come in. So we just opened the doors and let everybody in free! It was just awesome, awesome, awesome. There were so many people there who were so grateful."

The resulting album, ==A Miracle in Harlem== (Word Gospel), brings almost as much excitement to Shirley's voice as she has when talking about her church. Filled with energetic praise, worshipful medleys, and powerful preaching in song, this traditional gospel feast is sure to be devoured by fans hungry for yet another taste of Caesar's music and ministry.
One of Shirley's favorite songs on the album is "Strong Man." "Nobody's every recorded a song like that before," she states proudly. "I was looking for new material-looking through tapes and came upon this song. It gives the devil a warning. It lets the devil know he's walking on private property, [and it reminds us that] if we are not strong, the enemy is going to get the best of us."

She was also glad to re-record her classic, "Don't Drive Your Mama Away" on this new album. She explains, "My mom played such a major role in my singing ministry. One thing she said to me early in my career was, 'The people are depending on you, God is depending on you, and I'm depending on you. Don't let us down.' What the Lord did, he blessed me and helped me to live out these things that my mom had said.
"I'm singing to a brand new generation of people [now], and I want them to know--do all you can for your mother while you can."

In a special thrill for Shirley, {{Hezekiah Walker}} lent part of that new generation in the form of his choir singing backup for ==A Miracle in Harlem==. "I thoroughly enjoyed singing with Hezekiah's choir!" she raves. "[They are] fantastic, with a capital F! [And] not a one of them is over 20. All of them are teenagers!"

Which brings to mind the picture of {{Shirley Caesar}} from days gone by- a talented young woman who was able to look past "Whites Only" signs, walk away from a promising career in mainstream music, and whose life continues to share a slice of eternity with people today.