Like all of us, Shirley Caesar isn’t getting any younger. Her audiences, on the other hand, are.
Even though her career stretches back to the early ‘50s, when as “Baby Shirley” a teenage Caesar sang at revivals throughout the Carolinas, the 60-year-old gospel star continues to attract new listeners. Some first saw her perform in the Whitney Houston film “The Preacher’s Wife"; others have come to know her through her role on the UPN TV series “Good News.”
Nor is she content to stop there. Caesar does the closing song on the just-released inspirational album from the animated film “The Prince of Egypt” and will be appearing with Kirk Franklin, CeCe Winans and others on a VH1 gospel special airing in December.
It isn’t that the venerable gospel star wants to trade her traditional style for something hip and video-friendly. But she does want to continue to reach people, and as such, tries hard to keep up with the times.
“I just want, at all times, to be current,” she says. “And I can be that without being [strictly] traditional or contemporary. And I am a traditional singer, but I have a contemporary flavor.”
As such, she isn’t about to rest on her laurels. Sure, she has won nine Grammys and 11 Dove Awards and has been a household name among gospel fans since joining Inez Andrews and Albertina Walker in the Caravans some 40 years ago.
But she still pushes as hard now as when she was starting out. “I once heard Michael Jackson say that once he finishes doing a video or something like that, he has to work harder and harder to bring something else that’s fresh and that people would really enjoy,” says Caesar, adding that she has the same attitude toward her work.
At the moment, she’s touring behind her newest release, “Christmas With Shirley Caesar,” but that won’t change the tenor of her performance too much. “I’ll just throw in some Christmas songs,” she says. “But I’m certainly going to sing some of my other songs, like ‘You’re Next in Line for a Miracle’ and ‘Heaven,’ and songs like that.”
In addition to giving concerts, Caesar has an active second career as an evangelist. “I try to sing pretty much every weekend,” she says. “But I fly back home to my church, to be at the church on Sunday, Wednesday nights, for Bible study and other revivals and things that we may have.”
She expects her schedule will get even more hectic next year, when she begins work on a master’s degree in divinity at Duke University. But all that work doesn’t phase the singer, because she has a firm sense of purpose in her work.
“The main purpose is to push Jesus,” she says. “Because of Christ, I live what I sing. But as soon as I open my mouth, from the time I get on the stage to the time I sit down, I’m not pushing me, I’m not pushing my voice.
“I’m pushing Jesus.”