Shirley Caesar
The Queen Of Gospel


With numerous concerts a year, countless hours a week helping the poor in her Outreach Ministries, several Grammies and honorary awards, and over forty record albums, Shirley Caesar has embodied a whole army of gospel singers into one. The “Queen of Gospel” packs a lot of wallop in her small frame. Backed by a sixty-person choir, she is not a force to be reckoned with. Shirley Caesar was the first to introduce the gospel style of singing that involves spoken word and dramatic acting to the musical persona. She journeys all over the world, singing and preaching the Gospel. Shirley has barreled through fifty years of touring and preaching, starting at age ten, and she continues to change lives and save souls every time she performs. 


The tenth of 12 children, Shirley Ann Caesar was born October 13, 1938 in Durham, North Carolina to Hannah Caesar and James Caesar. James Caesar was well known as the lead singer in a gospel quartet, the Just Came Four. Shirley began singing with the group at age ten. When she was twelve, she began touring with an evangelist named LeRoy Johnson, who also had a television show in Portsmouth, Virginia. In 1951, at thirteen, she recorded her first song “I’d Rather Have Jesus.” Her determination took her to Shaw University 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. Shirley turned to the young woman sitting next to her and asked if she had called her name. When Shirley went home, she lay on the bed, and heard the same voice. Shirley believed that this was a message that foretold special work for her in spreading the Gospel.


Around the same time, Shirley heard Chicago’s female gospel group, the Caravans, and she saw an opportunity to answer the call. She auditioned to sing with the group, and was immediately hired. Shirley left school for a life of singing and ministry. 

The Caravans were well known and 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 but Shirley’s contribution was energetic and dramatic, she would act out the songs and walk among the congregation and engage the members directly. Her Specialty was the sermon in the middle of songs that addressed the subject of the song and expounded on its theme. She exhorted the listeners to reach out to God and to take the example of Jesus. 



Along the way, Shirley joined with the singer James Cleveland and made several records together. Shirley formed her own group in 1966 called the Caesar Singers. Although she had her own group she never forgot where she came from. Shirley 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”. She was the first Grammy award winner as a black female gospel singer since Mahalia Jackson. Shirley went on to win many more awards, along with other astounding achievements throughout her career. 

Among her numerous honors are eighteen Dove Awards, the Gospel Music Association’s highest tribute and fourteen Stellar Awards. She was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1982. A year after being inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, Shirley married the late bishop Harold I. Williams in 1983. She was the first female gospel artist to perform at Harvard university. In recent years, Shirley Caesar expanded and moved into other media, making several videos: Live in Memphis, I Remember Mama, and He Will Come. Broadway found that Shirley Caesar could conquer a big city when Shirley 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 titled Born to Sing! Mama 3. One of her proudest achievements was the creation of the Shirley Caesar Outreach Ministries, a ministry in Durham that provides emergency funds, food and shelter for the needy. 


Shirley had a special touch when it came to the idea of motherhood. Her song “Don’t Drive Your Momma Away” tells of a son who is shamed for putting his mother in the nursing home. 


Shirley Caesar has influenced and contributed to the world in so many ways. Shirley made a huge impact on the younger crowds of today with the #UNameItChallenge.  Men, women, boys and girls all over the world were singing and dancing to Shirley’s sermon from years ago. Although the message was concerning food, younger people who never heard of the seasoned Shirley Caesar were made aware of the reputation that precedes her. With her influential spirit and persona Shirley has recorded hit songs with artists of the R&B genre such as Anthony Hamilton.

One of her favorite quotes is “I cannot sweeten the Atlantic Ocean, but I can take a pitcher and sweeten that”. Shirley has indeed sweetened many pitchers in over six decades of pure dedication to God, herself and the people of this world. Shirley Caesar is now continuing to preach the gospel at Mt. Calvary Word of Faith Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, the church she and her late husband founded. Shirley is  pushing her outreach ministry forward while continuing to perform worldwide. 



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Copyright © 2017 Audria Strickland 

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