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Celebrating Shirley Caesar:
The First Lady of Gospel Music

In 1997, We had the honor of interviewing gospel legend Rev. Shirley Caesar for the Our Time Press special Women’s History Month issue. Known as the “First Lady of Gospel Music” and “The Queen of Gospel Music,” Rev. Caesar was in New York performing in Vy Higginsen’s “Born to Sing! Mama 3,” part of the “Mama, I Want to Sing” gospel theatre series. In “Mama 3,” performed at the Paramount Theater at Madison Square Garden, Rev. Caesar co-starred with CeCe Winans as Doris and she was Mama.
Caesar’s performance was praised as “an earthy old-time gospel delivery” by The New York Times. In the OTP interview, she recalled her dynamic mother, her “greatest inspiration,” revealed where her drive comes from; and shared a message about peace with Our Time Press readers.
During her stellar career, Rev. Caesar has picked up 12 Grammy Awards, 18 Dove Awards, 14 Stellar Awards, a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and honors including a NEA folklore grant.
Today at age 83, she remains Senior Pastor of the Mount Calvary Word of Faith Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, and continues to tour. In recent years, Rev. Caesar has tapped into a new generation by going viral with the U Name It challenge of her song lyrics ‘beans, greens, potatoes, tomatoes;’ the sale of her home with a Star Wars screening room; and this past February’s NPR Tiny Desk Concert. Here are highlights of the Our Time Press 1997 inspirational interview with Rev. Shirley Caesar.

Our Time Press: You arouse so much emotion. Where does that come from? Where do you find the energy to do all of this?
Shirley Caesar: From inside. I have been singing since eight years old. I committed my life to the Lord at 12. I didn’t even go to my junior/senior prom. While the other kids were (there), I was at church. I come from a singing background, a preaching and missionary background and because I am totally committed to what I am doing, it comes from the soul, from the inside.
I think it’s that drive, that love for the Lord. That’s it. Plus, nothing comes easy to me. I find myself giving everything that I do, my whole heart and my whole soul. When the Lord blessed me to go back to college, I traveled and sang. This was in ‘83, ‘84. I would travel and sing and I would fly in on Monday. My car was parked at the airport. I would fly in and get in my car at the airport and drive straight to college, go straight to school. Nothing has come easy. This is why I know how to appreciate it. This is why I don’t have time to become bigheaded because I know that the same people who put you up will also bring you down.

OTP: This interview is for OUR TIME PRESS’ March (1997) Women’s Month issue. I was wondering about the role of your mother and other women – what kind of roles did they play in your life?
SC: My mother was my greatest inspiration. On her deathbed, I remember mama saying to me, “People are depending on you. God is depending on you. And I am depending on you. Don’t let us down.” I know that at all times, I’ve got to be on my P’s and Q’s. I cannot allow the enemy to pull me down to his or her level not because I made my mom that promise, but because I made God a promise: “Lord you can depend on me.”

OTP: How did you begin your gospel career?
SC: For me, years ago when I first started out singing as Baby Shirley – I come from a long line of poor folk, that’s the first thing – and you know we did not have a lot. My mother was a semi-invalid. My father was in heaven. (There was) a lot of us.
In my singing, I knew that one God was going to let me use my singing talents out of all my other sisters and brothers – and all of them could sing. The Lord blessed me to buy my mother a house. I find myself teaching and telling other young people that “You don’t know how blessed you are to have a living mother. And this is why I find it easy -even though I have never birthed any children, biologically so – to play this role in “Born to Sing! Mama 3”. My mother didn’t take no foolishness!

OTP: What do you say to folks who are coming to the understanding later that they have to make a contribution to humanity?
SC: I would say it’s never too late. It’s never too late. I want to say to all of your readers that whatever you can do to help to bring about peace and harmony and to make this world a better place to live in, to help our sons and our daughters and to show them the right way to go, do it!


For more of Shirley Caesar:
1996 Grammy Awards with Whitney and CeCe

2022 NPR Tiny Desk Concert

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