Honoring a ‘faith warrior’
She has been called the Queen of Gospel and received 11 Grammy Awards for her music.
Bob Dylan once gave her a standing ovation when she sang his song “Serve Somebody” in an awards ceremony.
On Wednesday, Shirley Caesar received a standing ovation from her hometown when she was honored at the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau’s Annual Tribute Luncheon for her work as a singer and pastor.
“We are celebrating an icon, a home-grown faith warrior,” said Minnie Forte-Brown of the Durham Public Schools Board of Education during her introduction of Caesar. Caesar has “a voice blessed by God” and has “been honored as the best by the best,” Forte-Brown said.
Caesar is “one of Durham’s best-known citizens who shows her love of Durham,” said Shelly Green, president and CEO of the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Caesar took the luncheon crowd to church briefly when she sang “God Will Make a Way” from her most recent recording “Good God,” and received a standing ovation for her performance.
“I am honored and blessed of the Lord to be here,” Caesar said. “This is a privilege. … You can always come home when you can’t go anyplace else.”
Caesar now lives in Raleigh, where she leads the Mount Calvary Word of Faith Church. She was born in Durham in 1938, graduated from Hillside High School and later earned a bachelor’s degree from Shaw University, along with several honorary doctorates. Her musical career began at age 18, when she went to Chicago to sing with The Caravans. Caesar said the chance to sing with The Caravans was her only reason for leaving Durham.
“I believe that was in the plan of God,” she said. “I always come back home. I love Durham. I thank God for this city.”
In 1966, Caesar began her solo career, which has led to Grammy Awards for “Stand Still,” “He’s Working It Out for You” and other recordings.
Caesar also was honored for her humanitarian work in the community. She was a member of the Durham City Council in the 1980s, and in a video tribute that the Convention & Visitors Bureau screened Wednesday, Wib Gulley and Sylvia Kerckhoff, both former mayors, praised her work on the council.
“One of the qualities she brought to the council was she knew what everyday life was like for folks in Durham,” Gulley said in the video.
During her brief speech, Caesar called Gulley the man “who tutored me” in city government.
“Thank you so much,” she said of Kerckhoff, who “really helped me not only to be a better person, but a better citizen.”
In addition to her music, Caesar runs an Outreach Ministry. During the past 44 years, that organization has helped the needy in Durham. She funds the ministry with 50 percent of her concert revenues.
In the video, Caesar said she did not expect to succeed when she graduated from high school, but “God turned that thing around.”
She said she wants to be remembered as a humanitarian “and a gospel singer, too. ….Please, remember my songs.”
Judging from the reception she received Wednesday for “God Will Make a Way,” that wish may already have been granted.