With over 150 concerts a year, 25 hours a week helping the poor in her Outreach Ministries, several Grammies, and 30 record albums to her credit, Shirley Caesar may seem to be a whole army of gospel singers instead of just one . The “Queen of Gospel” packs a lot of wallop in her small frame.
Backed by her choir, rocking like a tempest, she is a bundle of fireworks. 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.”
Caesar has barreled through 50 years of touring and preaching, starting at age 10, and she continues to bring the house down every time she performs.
On Saturday, November 8, Caesar will bring her ministry to the Church on The Queensway, located at 1536 The Queensway, in Toronto. She will be joined by another stalwart in gospel music, two-time Grammy nominated artist, James Fortune. This will be Fortune’s first visit to Toronto.
Also appearing, from the United States, will be Gabrielle Goldson and Khalea Gordon; and Toronto’s own Roxanne Robinson, O’Neil Watson, and For The Master.
The “Queen of Gospel” was born 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, Just Came Four. Caesar began singing with the group at age 10.
When she was 12, her father died, and she began touring 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, Caesar toured throughout the Carolinas.
This was a time when Jim Crow laws were still in effect in North Carolina, and 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 state. 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 and Caesar turned to the young woman next to her and asked if she had spoken. To which she answered in the negative.
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, she heard Chicago’s female gospel group, the Caravans, and she saw an opportunity to answer the call. The young Caesar 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 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 a 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, the Caesar Singers, in 1966, but she would reunite with the Caravans and the Reverend Cleveland occasionally throughout the years.
In 1971, she won her first Grammy, for the popular song, “Put Your Hand in the Hand of the Man from Galilee.” It was the first Grammy for a Black female gospel singer since Mahalia Jackson. She went on to win the award in 1980, 1984, 1985, 1992 and 1994 — for an astonishing total of seven Grammys.
Among her numerous honors are eight Dove awards, the Gospel Music Association’s highest tribute, and 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 moved into other media, making several videos: Live in Memphis, I Remember Mama, and He Will Come. Broadway found out that the gospel singer could conquer a big city when Caesar packed them in for the musical, Mama I Want to Sing (1994). Her second Broadway musical in 1995 was titled ‘Sing: Mama 2’ and her third in 1996 was titled ‘Born to Sing Mama 3’.
Perhaps her proudest achievement was the creation of a ministry, the Shirley Caesar Outreach Ministries, in Durham, to provide emergency funds, food and shelter for the needy. 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.
Recently, Caesar went into the studio to help recording artist, Bishop T.D. Jakes, with his album, “Woman, Thou Art Loosed.” The album, recorded live at Jakes’ national conference in New Orleans, was released in the summer of 1997.
Her biggest fan, the Rev. Harold I. Williams, whom Shirley has called “my pastor, my best friend, my husband,” assessed his wife’s character in the 1995 video ‘He Will Come’. “After 12 years, I’m going to say the same thing I said after the first year I was married to Shirley — exciting! 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.”
Most who have seen her perform would agree. With so much musical hits throughout her long career most people will know Caesar for her global anthem “No Charge”
As a two-time Grammy nominee, three-time Stellar Award winner and six-time ASCAP Award winner, James Fortune is a living testimony to God’s goodness and grace. His music has reflected the seasons of his life, with probably none more poignant than “I Trust You” from his 2008 sophomore release, The Transformation.
Crafted during a time when his back was against the wall, Fortune recalls, of the longest running #1 gospel single: “(my music) allows me to encourage other people who are going through (tough times). I’ve been there and know what it’s like to not be able to provide for your family, or have a place to stay. It was a season because you never know how God is going to work through this trial.”
As the trials provided the foundation for growth, Fortune reveals, “It’s not just about the success, but the sacrifice that allows me to have songs that connect with people, right where they are.”
The past two years have been exceptional for Fortune to connect with his fans and family alike. After releasing his third album, ‘Identity’, and a holiday set, ‘Grace Gift’ in 2012, Fortune headlined the six-week United As One Tour, featuring Kierra Sheard, VaShawn Mitchell and Zacardi Cortez.
With family as a top priority, Fortune and his wife, Cheryl, with whom he often collaborates on songwriting duties, also join forces in managing family responsibilities. With Fortune’s schedule, and four children, ages 7 – 16, “we know about the cost and the calling of being in ministry and our family understands it, so they sacrifice to ensure everything is covered.”
Provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to stay closer to home, he embarked on a new adventure in radio. The James Fortune Show, his nationally-syndicated evening radio show, began May 2013, and can be heard weekdays from 6-10 pm CST and online at TheJamesFortuneShow.com.
“The Queen of Gospel Music, Shirley Caesar” gospel concert, presented by Ebony Nile Production, will probably be the greatest praise and worship celebration to hit the city this year.
For more information and tickets, contact: (905) 887-3297 or (647) 994-5831; or online at TicketGateway.com. Venue doors will open at 6:00pm, with the concert starting at 7:00pm.