Shirley Caesar is the first lady of gospel singing, the possessor of two gold albums and two gold singles and the winner of an astonishing five Grammys. She is also, one might safely assume, the only person ever to hear from God while taking a typing test. It happened back in 1958, and it changed her life.
“I was sitting in typing class and I heard someone call my name,” recalls Caesar, then attending North Carolina Central College. “I asked the girl next to me if she had called me, but she said no. I heard it twice more, so I went home and lay down on the bed and the Lord gave me his first message. He said, ‘Behold, I have called you from your mother’s womb, and I have anointed your lips to preach the gospel.’ That’s how I knew He had laid His hand on me. He had special work for me to do.”
Caesar, 49, has been taking her orders directly from heaven ever since, and so far she hasn’t been steered wrong. For nearly three decades Caesar’s fervent, pop-influenced renditions of gospel ballads like Satan, You’re a Liar have had fans by the thousands shouting and swaying in church and concert hall aisles. She has recorded 25 albums and been nominated for 10 Grammys. Not content to spread God’s word through song alone, she began an outreach ministry in her hometown of Durham, N.C., several years ago, providing food and shelter for people in need, for which she received the NAACP’s 1985 Image Award. She is also co-pastor with her husband of a Pentecostal church in Winston-Salem. And this week the diminutive dynamo—”I’m 5’1¾” and I want that¾” “—hopes to see her frantic schedule grow busier still. She is running for a city council seat in Durham and chances are good that she will win. “I think the Lord wants me to take some of this fervor, this intensity and this love into the political arena,” she says.
Though Caesar’s do-good impulses began even before that fateful typing class, she insists she hasn’t always been completely virtuous. The 10th of 12 children born to a housewife and a tobacco factory worker, Shirley spent her early years making mischief with her older sister Ann, who now sings backup for her. “Mama told us to wash dishes and we’d just scoot out and play,” she remembers. “She told us to sweep and we’d scoot out.” A touch of the rod set them straight. “Finally,” Shirley says, “Mama switched us sooo bad, and after that I went to church.”
It was there that she discovered her vocal abilities. By the time she reached college she was considering singing professionally, though experience had taught her that the world could be a tough place for a black person. “I went to school in the days when all the white kids got things better,” she says without bitterness. “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. When restaurants saw us coming, they turned the sign around to say CLOSED. But my mama always told me, ‘You’re somebody, don’t let anybody put you down.’ And I knew inside of me that I was.” Hearing from God was the clincher, and at 19 she quit school to join the Caravans, a gospel group.
In the years that followed, Caesar was wooed by rock ‘n’ roll producers eager to put her throaty, rafter-shaking alto to more commercial use. She wasn’t interested: “I wanted to be in full-time service for the Lord.” She left the Caravans to sing and preach on her own in 1966, and began her Durham ministry after hearing another unexpected directive from God in 1970. “The Lord told me, ‘Feed my sheep,’ ” she remembers. “I said, ‘Lord, I don’t understand.’ ‘Feed my sheep,’ He said. I said, ‘I am feeding your sheep, I’m preaching and singing.’ He just said it again: ‘Feed my sheep.’ ” She got the message, and the Shirley Caesar Outreach Ministries, Inc., was born to help out Durham’s needy.
What with preaching and singing (her first Grammy, for Put Your Hand in the Hand of the Man From Galilee, came in 1971), Caesar had limited time for a social life. But Bishop Harold Williams, who got to know her at a 1983 revival meeting in Durham, refused to let her devotion get in his way. Two weeks after their meeting Williams, 66, a longtime fan, proposed in short order—over the phone. “She turned me down,” he says. “I called five nights in a row.” His persistence won her over. They were married six months later, without having exchanged so much as a premarital kiss.
“It was a meeting of minds and spirits,” explains Shirley. “I just knew when my husband showed up I would know him. And here I am today, first lady of gospel and first lady in his ministry.”
And, if all goes well this week, a city council member to boot. Without political experience, Caesar placed third out of nine candidates in the October Democratic primary. If she is one of three election-day winners, as expected, she hopes to improve programs for Durham’s elderly and crack down on the city’s drug traffic. Then will she relax a bit, deferring new projects to spend some quiet time at home in Durham? Not a chance. “I know the Lord has something more for me to do,” Caesar says. “Who knows where He’ll take me next? ”