If you think Shirley Caesar intends to slow down any time soon, you’ve got another thing coming. One listen to her new album, Good God (Light Records/eOne Music; March 26), says it all. The First Lady of Gospel is resoundingly back.
“I know one day someone will come along to take my place / But they’re gonna have to wait / There’s a fire in my spirit / And I still got pep in my step,” a joyous Caesar testifies on “I’m Not Through, Not Yet.” Accompanied solely by piano and organ at the song’s start, Caesar is off and running once the spirited backing choir jumps in—and brings listeners right along for the triumphant ride. And that’s just one of the 12 riveting songs comprising Good God, written and produced by two more of gospel music’s shining lights: Kurt Carr and James Fortune.
“I’m grateful for the message that’s coming out of this particular album,” says Caesar, who is also senior pastor of Mount Calvary Word of Faith in Raleigh, NC. “Good God speaks to everybody: red, yellow, black or white; young and old. When they listen to these songs, they will hear more than a sob or sad story. They will hear and feel something that will help change their lives.”
A case in point is the set’s powerful lead single, “God Will Make a Way.” It’s one of two songs (including “You Stayed”) written and produced by Grammy nominated artist Fortune, best known for the hit single “You Survived”. Fortune’s skillful meshing of contemporary and traditional gospel melodies and uplifting lyrical message on “God Will …” go hand-and-hand with Caesar’s still commanding vocals. “God will make a way / He knows exactly what you’ve been feeling / So don’t doubt and don’t you give up now / The God I’m serving is already working it out,” teaches Caesar.
Caesar’s first-time collaboration with Fortune came at the recommendation of Light Records’ James Robinson. “I took that to heart and James wrote two wonderful songs,” she recalls.
Setting the stage for the entire project is the album’s opening title track. Caesar and her backing choir, The Thompson Community Singers, lift every voice on this up-tempo, feel-the-spirit song that you can’t help but start singing along to while you step in the name of God. Additional standouts on the album include “Nice to Be Nice,” “More and More Like Jesus,” “Fighting the Good Fight” and a revamp of “Holy Boldness,” Caesar’s earlier hit as a member of pioneering female gospel group the Caravans.
These are among the songs helmed by Carr, who has worked with Stevie Wonder, Yolanda Adams and Kirk Franklin and also performs with his own Kurt Carr Singers. The pairing with Carr also marks another first for Caesar. “He voiced that he’d like to work with me and that was all I needed,” she says. Caesar goes on to call Carr a “gifted songwriter/producer who brought out things that I’d almost forgotten I had in me. When I first started my recording career, I used to do a lot of talking along with my singing. Kurt asked me to dialogue and just turned me loose.”
As for what makes a powerful gospel song, Caesar adds, “The song really has to say something extraordinary to me and to the needs of others. Then I go from there.”
Caesar has been on the go ever since the Durham, NC native recorded her first single, “I’d Rather Have Jesus,” at the age of 13 as Baby Shirley. Caesar’s electrifying voice and lively stage presence caught the attention of Albertina Walker, the Queen of Gospel Music and leader of the Caravans. Putting aside her college studies in Durham, Caesar spent the next eight years performing with the Chicago-based group, singing lead on several hits including “I Won’t Be Back,” “No Coward Soldiers” and the aforementioned “Holy Boldness.”
Going solo in 1966, Caesar came into her own in 1975 when her gospel version of the No. 1 country hit “No Charge” crossed over to the R&B and pop charts. Three years later she landed at No. 36 on Billboard’s R&B albums chart with First Lady. That project, with its disco-style rhythms, solidified her reputation as a standard-bearer willing to challenge convention and take gospel in a cutting-edge direction.
“Anything that does not change becomes stagnant,” says Caesar. “I still sing traditional gospel songs. But when it comes to recording, I don’t want to go all the way back unless I can bring something new with it.”
Winner of 11 Grammy Awards, 18 Dove Awards and 14 Stellar Awards, Caesar was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in 2010. Along the way, the versatile talent has collaborated with a diverse array of gospel and contemporary artists ranging from Dottie Peoples, J. Moss and Kirk Franklin to Al Green, Whitney Houston and Faith Evans. In addition to various roles in film, TV and on Broadway, Caesar has recorded some 40 albums over the course of her illustrious six-decade career. The most recent: “A City Called Heaven” released in 2009.
Now Caesar returns with one of the best albums of her career, Good God. “All I’ve ever tried to do is record songs that make people trust in what I sing and say,” she explains. “If I’ve fallen short, it’s not because I haven’t tried.”