Shirley Caesar is a multi-award-winning artist, pastor and humanitarian. With a career that has spanned over six decades, the “First Lady of Gospel Music” has recorded over 40 albums and shares her faith wherever she goes. Her contributions continue to reverberate throughout the gospel music industry. In an interview with EBONY.com, Caesar reflects on this year’s Gospelfest and why she will never retire.
EBONY: We are very excited that you will be performing at Gospelfest “Women Who Worship.” What can fans expect from you at this year’s event? What does it mean to be sharing the stage with other popular female gospel artists, many of whom you have paved the way for them?
SHIRLEY CAESAR: Well, it means a whole lot. I’m hoping and praying that they’ll take it easy on the old girl. [Laughs] I’ve been coming to Newark, New Jersey since I was 22 years old. When I do get there, I’m hoping and praying that the listeners would jam the place out. I’m expecting the Lord to do the unexpected. I want the Lord to move in such a way, for young men and women whose lives are messed up from drugs and things of that nature. I pray that, because we have a lot of anointed women that’s coming to sing and I’m hoping and praying that the Lord will move in that place until children, daughters will go home and beg Momma’s pardon, and that father and son will come together. I’m praying that this Mother’s Day weekend will bring about such miracles in the home, that the sick will get well, and that bodies and hearts be lifted and encouraged. I am expecting God to do great things.
I am going to sing a song from my new CD, God Will Make a Way. And then I’m going to go back and sing some of my old stuff. I want to sing “I Remember Momma” because it is during this time of year when my heart goes to where my mom is. I know she is not in the ground, so she’s got to be in the presence of the Lord. So I’m going to sing songs in memory of my mother. I might even do a little bit of “No Charge” and “Faded Rose.” And I am going to sing something that I can dance on, praise God on, because the Lord has been so good to me.
EBONY: It’s so fitting that Gospelfest is on Mother’s Day weekend. You speak a lot about your mom and how much she influenced your career. Was she your biggest supporter?
SC: My mother was my greatest supporter. I have an outreach ministry where I go on the road and I sing and fifty percent of monies made I give it back to the Lord by helping people, helping folk. My mom did the same thing. In fact, I learned by observation. I learned by watching my mother. My mother would go down in the deep freeze and take out food and feed the hungry. We would gather clothes for children, for families that had nothing. This particular weekend, the mother’s day weekend, is going to bring back a lot of wonderful memories. Shed your tears maybe before you get there, because I’m going to shed some. I miss my mom and I loved my mother.
EBONY: You mentioned your own outreach ministry, started in 1969, where you support the local communities of Durham and Raleigh, North Carolina. Why do you continue to be passionate about helping people?
SC: Because somebody helped me. I’ve come from a long line of poor folk. And yet, everybody in my community was just like me. But I do it because somebody reached back and took a hand and pulled me up. Albertina Walker saw a teenage girl with a gift, with a talent and reached back and said “I want that little girl.” So she pulled me up and pulled me out. As she was doing that, I was looking at other young gifted singers and I was pulling them out.
This is why I’m like that. And He’s not through with me yet. Somebody said to me, “You mean to tell me, you still singing?” I said “Yes I am. God’s not through with me yet, honey.”
EBONY: So I guess “the First Lady of Gospel Music” will never retire?
SC: No. God does not retire. And even if your body lets you down, you can still have a song in your heart. I just came through a storm, but let me tell you something, I am going to keep on keepin’ on. It has not been easy, but I’m telling you, God is good. I’m going to dance and I’m going to praise God, in spite of all that. He has been so good to me. I want all the young singers to look behind them because you’re going to see me.
EBONY: You state in your 1998 autobiography that “even as a teenager, you would not, could not, compromise your beliefs.” How have you been able to stand fast to your faith and commitment to working in the kingdom for over six decades?
SC: I had a lot of people to encourage me. We are helpers, one to the other. I had those mothers in the church, along with my mother, my brothers, my sisters, aunts and uncles, thousands of people, that told me, “You could make it.” And so here I am.
EBONY: With all your accolades and awards and having sung in front of presidents, how have you remained so humble in spite of being labeled “not likely to succeed” as a young girl?
SC: We didn’t have much, but I’m so grateful for my family and I’m so grateful for my upbringing. I remember moments, I remember those wonderful things. No matter how much you may have, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could go back to those years, go back to those days, remembering how it used to be? It is not me when it comes to humility; it is Jesus.
EBONY: What is the legacy of Shirley Caesar, the person—is it the music, the awards, your humanitarian efforts, or something more?
SC: I’d want somebody to remember I was a giver. And that no matter what a person may have done, I see them as innocent until proven guilty. I believe that everybody ought to be given a chance. Not a second chance, because we have used up all those chances. Now it’s called another chance.
For more on Gospelfest 2014, visit this website.