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Christian Music - Reviews, News, Interviews

Shirley Caesar & Friends

  • reviewed by LaTonya Taylor Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Sep
Shirley Caesar & Friends
Sounds like … the First Lady of gospel music joins her testimonial delivery and storytelling flair with some of the best names in gospel, soul and R&BAt a glance … while the collaborations featuring Caesar's distinctive sound work well on this album, a few cuts leave the listener wanting more substance.

In the 40-plus years since Shirley Caesar began singing in public as "Baby Shirley," she's gained a reputation as one of the most respected, most prolific artists in gospel music. Her distinctive style merges her powerful voice with traditional-sounding preaching and emotive storytelling. Since starting a solo career in 1966, Caesar has been featured on almost 40 albums, earning a reputation as gospel music's first lady.

Shirley Caesar & Friends is a collection of duets performed with gospel all-stars Oleta Adams, Kim Burrell, Kirk Franklin, Dottie Peoples and Desmond Pringle, plus classic soul singers Gladys Knight and Patti LaBelle, and R&B diva Faith Evans.

The album opens with "Starting All Over Again," a gentle, mid-tempo song penned by Caesar and featuring Adams' depth and agility. It has a contemporary gospel feel, building through a key change and vamp, during which the chorus changes from "I'm starting over" to "You can start over."

One of the album's best songs is "Just a Closer Walk," in which balladeer Pringle joins Caesar to bring life to Michael Mathis' exceptional arrangement of this traditional hymn, featuring a nice interplay between piano and guitar and sleek background vocals. Caesar and Pringle seem to share a mother-son familiarity, allowing them to comfortably showcase Caesar's confidence and Pringle's upper range.

"I'm Gonna Wait," featuring the Caesar Singers and The Greater Grace Temple Community Church Choir, has an instructional, Sunday-morning feel, reminding the listener that God is in control of each situation. A dramatic vamp, solid horn arrangements and assertive guitar back Caesar's trademark ad-libs throughout.

In "I'm Blessed," gospel diva Peoples joins Caesar in another highlight. Peoples, one of Caesar's early protégés, shares many of Caesar's influences, but there's a perceptible difference between the two. Peoples' strong, throaty growl contrasts with Caesar's forceful phrasing. They both hold their own in a sensitive, collaborative balance. It's classic Caesar, blending warm organ, punchy choir, Caesar's ad-libbing and a spoken word segment. It ends with a girlish giggle between the longtime friends.

"We Praise You Lord" is a satisfying praise chorus showcasing Burrell's vocal and emotive range. As Caesar encourages the listener to praise God within an extended sermonic section, Burrell ad-libs, changing from deep, growly, raspy tones to soft, gentle and jazzy ones.

"I Know It Was the Blood," featuring soul legends Knight and LaBelle, was recorded before an enthusiastic live audience. Knight begins with a dramatic rendition of this church classic, then LaBelle comes in with a soulful wail, and Caesar accents her friends after a key change. It's enjoyable, reminiscent of an old-time, organ-backed church song. At the end, the choir comes in, but unnecessarily. Hearing these three stars play on one another is satisfying enough.

The album's final song, "Home," serves as an altar call. Caesar is alone, her voice pleasant, soft, and almost breathless over ethereal strings. It's a softer, sweeter Caesar than most listeners have heard, and a nice demonstration of her emotional range.

"I'm Ready," collaboration with Franklin, begins with Latin guitar riffs and fun horns. The song evokes memories of vintage Kirk Franklin and the Family, but it doesn't work as well as the Caesar-Franklin duo "Caught Up" on 2002's The Rebirth of Kirk Franklin. Lyrically, there's just not much going on here, and the repetitive chorus doesn't play to Caesar's strengths. Despite the strong vocals, a traditional section-splitting vamp and some nice riffs, it's almost comical to hear the two shouting "Pastor Caesar, y'all," and "Kirk Franklin, y'all," toward the end.

LaBelle appears a second time to cover her own "You Are My Friend." It begins with Caesar singing "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" over organ and piano, with Labelle ad-libbing gently in the background. It then segues into an up-tempo version of LaBelle's song, then back into "What a Friend." Though it's pleasing, it's not clear whether it's a horizontal celebration of their friendship or a vertical thanks to a Heavenly Friend.

If one track doesn't fit, it's "Hurting Woman," about a wife's struggles with her husband's choices. Evans sings with rich R&B vulnerability, while Caesar joins her as the older voice of wisdom. Unfortunately (and uncharacteristic for a Caesar story-song), there's no resolution—just the wife's commitment to persevere.

Shirley Caesar & Friends is a mixed bag. While it's not the best introduction to Caesar's work (try Hold My Mule—Live in Memphis or Jesus I Love Calling Your Name), it's a treat to hear her branching out stylistically as she collaborates with other industry greats.