"You are so beau-u-u-utiful to me," sang the groom. "Don't ever leave me o-o-oh," sang the bride. "Tell me that you love me, love me, love me, LOVE ME-E-E-E-E-E-E!" she added with a smoky wail.
And with that, Shirley Ann Caesar, the reigning queen of gospel, was married today to Bishop Harold Ivory Williams of the Baltimore-based Mount Calvary Holy Churches of America in a ceremony of operatic dimensions, and wonderful theater that attracted gospel fans from around the country.
They came in every conveyance from bus to Mercedes and, in one instance, a fire-engine-red Lincoln Continental with blazing silver, spoked hubcaps. The ceremony, attended by about 2,500 fans, friends and family, took place on a flower-festooned stage under an arch of blinking lights in Durham High School Auditorium. The couple exchanged the traditional vows and also diamond rings--and a long kiss.
"This really is equivalent to a king's or a queen's wedding," said the singer's eldest brother, Julius Caesar. One of nine siblings to attend their sister's wedding, he crossed the Rubicon from Carson City, Calif., where he toils as a landscaper, to give her away. "Not even a president's wedding would have this type of pageant, if you will. But Shirley is a beloved young lady with friends and fans all over the world. Personally I think this is an historic occasion."
The couple was turned out all in white, the groom in top hat and tails, the bride in a lace dress with a 12-foot train. When the ceremony was over, the members of the crowd leaped to their feet and cheered, and the couple rode away in a buggy pulled by a team of Belgian horses. Later there was a reception for 1,500 with a cake eight feet long in the city's Civic Center.
It was the 44-year-old singer's first marriage, the 50-ish bishop's second. It was also, by most accounts, the most elaborate knot-tying in ths history of Durham, where Caesar was born poor, grew up fast and now lives in a mansion in the woods.
Not counting three officiating ministers, there were 140 people in the wedding party, including three best men, 23 bridesmaids, 14 junior bridesmaids, 14 junior groomsmen, a complement of flower girls, train-bearers and candle-bearers, and two preschoolers acting the part of miniature bride and groom.
It took them nearly an hour to march to the stage inside the hundred-degree hall, where enough fanning to cause a small gale under normal circumstances did nothing to beat the heat.
Ann Caesar Price fanned her sister, the bride, with a large piece of cardboard as she sang a sensual counterpoint to Caesar's vocal passion.
"Harold, you've chosen me to be your wife," the bride sang, and the crowd roared. "I mean to love you, love you, LOVE YOU for the rest of my li-i-i-i-ife."
It was, top to bottom, a Shirley Caesar production, from the white plastic floral sheeting covering much of the stage to the pulsating chase-lights lining the red-carpeted bridal aisle. They blinked in tandem with the archway lights up front, lending the large auditorium all the charm and luster of a carnival midway.
The music, meanwhile, ranged from "We Can Make It Together," sung by the bride, to Pachelbel's Canon, played by members of the Durham Youth Orchestra. As George Scott, one of the original Five Blind Boys, sang "One in a Million," the wedding guests clapped and shouted encouragement. The wedding itself came off in high style, even though a fog machine rented to churn out mist during the vows refused to function in the airless hall. It all ended with hardly a dry eye, or anything undrenched.
"This wedding's costing me something like $25,000," said the bride at Saturday's rehearsal, "but I've never been married before, and I felt like this was a chance for me to feed the hungry and clothe the naked." Caesar said this in the cadence of a revivalist preacher and giggled. She bounced in her chair; her eyes shot off sparks, gospel music's "bundle of dynamite."
Caesar began the rehearsal by skipping down an aisle, followed by a burly man with a walkie-talkie. "Hi everybody," she shouted huskily, and hugged one well-wisher after another on her way to the stage.
In a minute, Caesar had climbed on stage, and had wrested control of the rehearsal from the Rev. Dr. W.A. Reeves, a harried-looking gentleman whose business, the House of Reeves, is equally divided between funerals and weddings. Caesar grabbed Reeves' microphone and started barking orders about music, processions and decorations.
She showed the groomsmen how to march down the aisle and make an arch with their arms. She led the bridesmaids in a rendition of "Let's Break Bread Together."
Bishop Williams, the husband-to-be, watched from a far corner of the hall, his expression a mix of amusement and admiration. "I was nervous until yesterday," said Williams, a tall, distinguished man with twinkling eyes, "but now that it's finally about to happen, I feel great."
Williams and Caesar have known each other for years through the Mount Calvary Holy Churches, a pentecostal denomination with adherents in 14 states. As he was climbing through the church hierarchy, she was gaining fame as a religious singer, starting at age 10 with the Charity Singers. Her father, Big Jim Caesar of the Just Come Four, died when Shirley was 12. She moved on to the legendary Caravans, and then launched a solo career that today combines concerts and recording dates with radio ministries and revival meetings.
She was the first black female gospel singer to win a Grammy, and has three gold albums, while her current release "Jesus I Love Calling Your Name" has been hovering in the firmament of the gospel charts.
She caught the bishop's eye after his first wife died in 1982, and they were engaged in January after a whirlwind courtship. "The first time he proposed was over the phone. Then he came to Durham and did it again from down on his knees. He was wonderful. I just jumped up and hugged him around his neck. This was in the Mr. Rib, out route 15 and 501."
Caesar was sitting in a back row holding hands with the beaming bishop. "You know, I've had lots and lots of proposals, but this time I knew." The bishop smiled more broadly. "Did you see my ring?" she asked.
She proffered a petite hand, on the fourth finger of which was a heavy gold ring. It was encrusted with nine sizable diamonds. "They represent the nine gifts of the church: love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, goodness, faith and temperance. Now I'm going to show you this," she said, and produced a small white envelope, from which she dumped into her palm an even bigger ring. This one had 30 diamonds, clustered in a swirl. "This is what I wear after the wedding."
Preparations proceeded apace. In the lobby outside, an assembly line of churchwomen stapled, rolled and tied with a ribbon 2,000 copies of the four-page wedding program, in one corner of which was advertised, "The Eleventh Annual Crusade Convention of The Shirley Caesar Williams Outreach Ministry." Shirley Caesar, inspecting the program, scrunched up her nose. "That 'Williams' shouldn't be there."
At a table nearby, a woman sat behind an exhaustive display of Mary Kay Cosmetics. The company had provided three staffers to apply mask, cleansing cream, toner, moisture balm and other unguents to the faces of the bridesmaids. Inside, one of three wedding photographers worked out his shots. "My problem," sighed Levi King, "is how can I take such a huge conglomeration of people, and photograph the total mass without making them look like a mess."
Carolyn Sharpe, the wedding consultant, shook her head. "This is too large an event not to have it done properly," she said, tapping her ballpoint pen on a yellow legal pad. "Obviously there are religious overtones and undertones regarding this wedding. But everything is being done in the greatest of taste. I want to underscore that. I don't want any agitations that this is being done in anything but good taste."
The groomsmen, carrying canes, sported silver-gray tails, silver hats and ascots. The junior groomsmen wore silver-gray short coats and bow ties.
The bridesmaids donned mint-green gowns of silk organza. And the bride was a vision in an Eve of Milady original design, with a high-crown collar, a beaded lace bodice, a scalloped back, bodice spires of schiffli whispers cascading from the shoulders, shadow pouf sleeves adorned with opalescent sequins, and flowing cathedral train.
"Don't you think she's entitled to it?" said the bride's 78-year-old mother, Hallie Caesar.
After honeymooning in Hawaii and London, the newlyweds will pursue their respective careers, with the bishop running the denomination from Durham, and Shirley Caesar Williams studying at nearby Shaw University in her spare time.
"I'm majoring in business management with a minor in religion," she said.