I grew up on Southern gospel music in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. Back then it was a primal and gritty affair devoid of the glitz and polish of today’s pop/R&B megachurch music. Of what my parents played on their eight tracks and radios, a few artist artists seemed to stand out: James Cleveland, The Mighty Clouds of Joy, Andre Crouch and Shirley Caesar. Like the Madonna of her genre, it would be Ceaser who would become the model from which many female gospel singers would aspire (and a few males too).
In addition to being a singer and city councilwoman in Durham NC, she was (and still is) a minister who’s songs were never far from her sermons. Her ability to tell stories, usually accompanied by music were one of her trademarks. Songs like “No Charge” and “Satan We’re Gonna Tear Your Kingdom Down” were AM radio standards that I was forced to listen to first thing in the morning before school or in my Dad’s big Oldsmobile Delta 88 in route to church. I tolerated and eventually learned to love those songs, even as I loathe the ideal of going to church. That was always how I remembered Shirley Ceaser’s music from the ’70s and ’80s.
Finding gospel music from that era always seemed difficult. It went without saying that gospel music was not big on peer to peer sites like Napster. To make matters worse, most of Caesar’s catalog had escaped digital mediums like iTunes. Then one day to my surprise and delight I found a copy of the LP Rejoice at a local thrift store. Rejoice was issued by a small label called Myrrh, known for its popularization of sappy (white) contemporary Christian music.
I can only speculate that Ceaser just slipped between the cracks of Myrrh, a label lacking in experience with the type of black Southern Gospel Caeaser was known for. Rejoice has some familiar themes, but sounded clearly like Ceaser had moved on from the AM radio nostalgia I romanticized.
Rejoice resurfaced in 1998 as a CD, but with a different track list. Oddly enough, 1997 was when the first CD was issue in Japan, a testament of the popularity of gospel music internationally. It also highlights the fact that many American record labels felt that there was little demand for so called ‘black music’ on CD among black audiences in America.
I’ve always viewed Ceaser’s music as firmly traditionalist in that she was never swayed by the trends of secular music. Rejoice would suggest otherwise, but not like selling out (to the Devil). In some ways the production was a gateway into modernism, or the beginning of the secularization of gospel from one of its most anointed performers.
Some tracks like “Satan, You’re a Liar” sounded familiar, but were now inspired by folk and rock styled arrangements. Perhaps the biggest concession to what was happening then was the funk/blues of “Gotta Serve Somebody”. Ceaser’s rousing version makes Bob Dylan’s original from a year before sound lifeless.
Regardless of what musical style influenced the arrangements, Ceaser maintained her sermon in a song approach to gospel. Her intensity would make the reading of a menu enjoyable. In a nod to the old AM radio songs I remembered, “I Love You Mama” is a classic sermon in a song with Ceaser recalling one of her favorite subjects: her mother.
The late ’70s and early ’80s was an important time of change for gospel music. The strictly traditional AM radio styled gospel songs of artists like Shirley Ceaser and James Cleveland were giving way to more contemporary new comers like Andre Crouch. Even The Mighty Clouds of Joy had become contemporary.
Rejoice may not be Caeaser’s best work, but even it has the intensity, sincerity and anointing that has earned her the title The Queen of Gospel.