Mama always said, "you can't sing one thing and live something else." And Shirley Caesar has definitely taken her mother's words to heart. In a career that has spanned four decades, this gospel music dynamo has collected as many kudos for her selfless church work as she has for her mesmerizing musical talents. Ten Grammys, 17 Doves, 12 Stellar awards and numerous others nods and honors have made Shirley Caesar a standout in the world of entertainment. But it's her work outside the recording studio that has made her one of the most beloved names in gospel music.
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As Pastor to a growing church and the leader of a thriving ministry, Caesar still took time out of her daunting schedule to create her latest album, You Can Make It, the 35th in a stunning discography that began back in 1967. The album is a jubilant jaunt through gospel, soul and a little R&B-a musical encouragement that is as electric as the woman performing it. In fact, Caesar points out that even though this is not a live album, she recorded it just as if it was.
"Of course, when you're live," she explains, "you have the audience to motivate you. They make you really just let go and let God have His way. I wanted to do that in the studio, too. And I think this album has a lot of spiritual electricity." Helping to provide the spark was Caesar's own choir backing her on several numbers including, "Under The Blood," "Nicodemus" and "Reign, Jesus, Reign." "I told them in the studio," she recalls of the recording session, "that I wanted them to feel what they were doing, because if you can feel it, then the people can feel it!"
Her song selection process for the album, and in fact, for all her albums, is simple-"It has to minister to the needs of the people," she says emphatically. "If it's not saying anything to the people, I don't want it!" You Can Make It is a testimony to her commitment. The passionate performances are equally matched by the passionate lyrics of the songs. This is the music of revival, of hope and of celebration-classic Shirley Caesar.
Joining in on all the raucous fun of You Can Make It is gospel music stalwart Bobby Jones and his Nashville Super Cast Choir for "Armor of God," "What Joy" (a song that Jones also takes credit for as co-writer), and the inspiring title track. And as an answer to Shirley's desire to "bring in the young people" with the recording of this project, the multi-talented Myrrh Records gospel youth choir New Direction lend their vocal energy to the uplifting "Rejoice." Of her musical collaborators Caesar has two words: "wonderful!" and "professional!" Her respect is evident as she glowingly recalls the days in the studio with these "wonderful young people" who won her admiration with their unquestionable talents and heart for a project close to her own.
Also close to Pastor Shirley Caesar's heart, though, is another calling. Her gift of music has brought her much acclaim, but it is the gift of herself she gives to others that has truly fulfilled her mother's desires.
"Mama always told me," she says, "that she was depending on me, the family was depending on me and the people were depending on me-don't let them down."
Hardly. This busy pastor barely has time to sit down! From preparing sermons for her weekly Sunday worship to providing leadership for her Outreach Ministries' annual conference, to helping a homeless woman find a livable apartment, no two days are ever alike for Shirley Caesar. And she wouldn't trade it for anything in the world. Shirley Caesar Outreach Ministries daily makes the gospel a living, breathing witness to her home city. In fact, even Caesar's musical successes help feed the ministry. . .literally. A sizable portion of all concert proceeds are donated to the furthering of the ministry, bringing hands and feet of help to the needy, both in her own community and anywhere a need arises.
"I cannot sweeten the Atlantic Ocean," she explains of mission, "but I can take a pitcher of water out of the ocean and sweeten that." Her philosophy is lived out daily. The smallest chance to bless another does not go unheeded by Caesar and her Outreach Ministries.
"I never dreamed that the Lord would bring my ministry to where it is," she says excitedly, "and I feel that I have not yet reached the zenith, because we've got such wonderful things planned!"
According to plan, however, is far from the way Shirley Caesar has led her remarkable life. At the tender age of eight after the death of her father, Shirley found herself heading a family of siblings along with caring for her semi-invalid mother. Struggling through school, her teachers told her "not to waste her mother's money by going to college, because you're not college material." Fortunately, Caesar didn't listen to them. She graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Business Marketing (and has since gone on to receive numerous honorary doctorates from other colleges).
Meanwhile, a stunning musical talent was emerging and soon the young Shirley Caesar was performing her powerful, inspiring style of music inside and outside of church walls. Within a decade she even became only the second African American woman to win the coveted Grammy Award for a gospel performance, following in the footsteps of the legendary Mahalia Jackson. It didn't take long for such accomplishments to become a regular feature of this colorful songstress' musical career, but for Caesar, the road to the top still had some dark memories.
Forty years ago, Caesar remembers a world where sitting in the back of the bus wasn't an option, but a requirement.
"I grew up with 'white only' signs at water fountains," she remembers, "and I know what it's like to sit on the 'colored' side because of racism." Through such poignant pictures from the past, Shirley Caesar is quick to affirm the lesson and the blessings taken from such experiences. "I believe that Love and Forgiveness are the hardest lessons to learn. So many things happen to you and you say you have forgiven, but deep down in your heart you hold a grudge. It's like a scar. But Jesus taught me to forgive, forgive, forgive."
These are the deep lessons that take Shirley Caesar everywhere from the soup kitchens of the inner city to the stages of Broadway proclaiming her message. And whether it's shown with her hands of love or heard in the bold strokes of her unstoppable voice, that message of hope never fades or falters.
"I've often taught that if there is a way into a situation, there is a way out of it. I don't care how bad it looks, you can make it!" "You Can Make It" isn't just a song for Shirley Caesar. It's a promise. And she's got all the proof anyone could ever ask for.
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