Shirley Willis – A Thrilling Story of Grace…

Shirley Findley nee Willis, a native of St. Ann, was the unforgettable leading vocal of the age-old gospel group, The Grace Thrillers. One of the most visible and renowned member of the original group, Shirley’s compelling voice in popular songs like “By the Grace of God I am Saved“, “Can‘t Even Walk“, “Oh What a Sunrise“ and “Not My Will” has won the hearts of Jamaicans at home and Jamaicans through out the Diaspora. Due to the Grace Thriller’s achievements and popularity, Shirley was granted the opportunity to travel to places such as, the United States of America, Canada, the Caribbean (Leeward and Windward Islands) and England, for various concerts and events.

Shirley was born in the 1950‘s. She relocated to Kingston where she attended Dunrobin High School. Shirley went on to Durham College where she studied textural courses. Shirley also studied Early Childhood Education at Micro College, and consequently, she became a teacher at Shortwood Preparatory School. Her teaching experience was not an extended one, and she later moved on from teaching. She became a florist and owned and operated a store in Kingston for long time; however, she also gave that up at a later date.

Shirley grew up with three siblings, one sister and two brothers. However, one brother passed away five years ago.

Shirley wedded Noel Willis, founder of the Grace Thrillers group, and they were married for (23) twenty-three years. Their marriage produced three children, two boys and one girl. The eldest of the three children is their son, Noel Orane Willis Jr. who graduated with honors from Bethune Cook-Man College in Daytona Beach, Florida. Noel Jr. majored in Music Technology. The middle child is their daughter, Sherane, who will be graduating in April 2007, with a degree in Chemistry. Sherane also attends Bethune Cook-Man College. Brian, their youngest son, is also studying Music Technology at Bethune Cook-Man College.

Shirley’s marital bliss with Noel Willis, eventually came to an end and they legally parted in 2004. Shirley’s disassociation with the Grace Thrillers group was also official at that time. Since the dissolve of the original Grace Thrillers, Shirley has released one album, “ Trust Him More”. She is currently working on a second album, which is expected to be released in the latter part of 2007.

Shirley currently resides in Connecticut with her sister Marcia (who was also an original member of the group). Shirley still visits Jamaica very often and is willing to sing anywhere she is invited to sing. An indelible moment in Shirley’s life was when she was personally invited to sing at Prime Minister Portia Simpson Inauguration in 2006.
“Singing for the Lord is my life” she says, “ You can take everything away from me, but just leave me singing for the Lord”.

Getting to Know Shirley….An Interview

1. In a nutshell, WHEN and HOW was the dynamic Grace Thrillers group created?
The group was formed in the early 70’s with three individuals, but they were not publicly known at the time, until me and my sister, Marcia, and two more members, Audrey and Jacinth, joined the group. The group was then officially known as ‘The Grace Thrillers“.

2. How did you become to be a part of the Grace Thrillers?
A previous lead singer was leaving the group and that singer recommended me to Noel Willis, the founder of the group. He gave me an audition and I became a member.

3. Do the original members still keep in touch?
We will keep in touch occasionally. The ‘many’ members of Grace Thrillers live in different places throughout the world; however, there are two original members who lives in Orlando Florida-Audrey and Jacinth. We still keep in touch and we are close.

4. How has the Grace Thrillers impacted your life’s journey?
When you do anything, you must know your motive. Are we doing this for self gain or kingdom building? That is something I have learnt being a part of this group. You have to be able to differentiate kingdom building from self-gain. If it was solely for self-gain, I would not have been a part of this group for such a long time. My experience in the group allowed my growth to be stronger in the Lord.

5. What are the marked differences in today’s Jamaican gospel music as oppose to Jamaican gospel music of a decade or two ago?
In my experience, I have noticed that the younger generation gravitate to the contemporary/upbeat Jamaican gospel music, whereas, older folks will still like ballads/slower gospel music. As an artiste, you should be able to fulfill and satisfy both generations.

6. What was the general reaction of the Jamaican Christian public when Grace Thrillers began to sing ‘reggae’ tunes to their songs? Was your music well received?
At first, we were not well received by the public. Some people felt like ‘reggae’ music was not for the Christian, but then they realized that it is not so. It is not the music that makes it Christian; the lyrics are more important.

7. Now that you are no longer a part of the Grace Thrillers group, how do you feel about that and was that change difficult for you, having been a long standing member?
I feel so happy and so relieved. I feel like I was in a box and now I am free.

8. Can you give a brief explanation of why this is so?
As a group, sometimes when we go on stage and we feel we are being led by the Lord to sing another song or change the program, but then we are being directed by management, so we had to ‘stick to the program‘. Now, I am able to do anything I want to do and when God prompts me to change my song or do something else while ministering, I can do this with all the freedom in the world, and just be myself on stage.

9. Now, who is the ‘Shirley’ of today? Can you describe ‘Shirley’ to me?
Shirley is a person who has been through a lot in her lifetime, and has grown from her experiences, and is wiser, more confident, can face challenges and plus I have a testimony to share with others. One thing I have learnt is that NOT all that glitters is gold, but God is faithful.

10. What do you value most in life?
Knowing that I am leading a life of example with positive Christian values for my children to follow. This is important to me.

11. Do you believe you are successful? Do you have any regrets?
To see my children pursuing their dreams and goals is success for me.
I have no regrets and I have been successful. God has favored me and I have no regrets.

12. What words of wisdom do you have for the couple-especially Christian couple- who are facing marital issues?
Love your spouse as you love God. Love God first, then love your spouse. Respect each other as God would like you to be with one another. Love your spouse as how God loves the Church.

13. Who has influenced you the most in life?
Shirley Caesar has influenced my singing career. My father has influenced my life in general. I have always loved my father and was a ‘daddy’s girl‘. A lot of things he told me came to pass in my life. And if I had listened to him more than I did, most things that occurred in my life, would not have happened-if I had listened. He was a wise man. He was also a minister.

14. What are your future plans?
I’m currently completing another album and I am just going wherever the Lord leads.

15. What is the one thing you would like for the Jamaican people to remember about you?
I want them to remember me as a woman who stood still when adversaries came against me; I stood still and let God speak. I want them to remember me as the courageous woman who, with God, overcame her challenges.

16. What advice would you give to a young gospel Jamaican artiste who is aspiring to be a famous gospel singer?
I would say, stay in your local church and, do what God have you to do, and when it is time, God will make a way for your singing ministry. Don’t focus your mind on being a *music star*; just be faithful where you are planted at your local church, do what you can for the local church, and God will open doors for you. I never knew or dreamed I would have been a household name. I just did what I loved to do, which is sing. So, my advice is to go to church, worship, sing and somebody will hear you and somebody will know of you.


  • Debbie Campbell

    Debbie is a Mental Health Counselor, and has been working in the mental health field for over ten years. A native of Jamaica, she has resided in the United States for more than twenty years. Debbie is the (2nd) second child of (5) five children. She came to the United States at age 17 to pursue her education in the field of Computers. However, her education pursuits led her into the field of Mental Health/Psychology. She obtained her Bachelors in Psychology in Miami and her Masters in Counseling in Oklahoma. Debbie's first book, 'Writings of the Soul: The Journey Vol. I' is only the beginning and a taste of what is to come in her writing abilities.

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