Sam Cooke and The Soul Stirrers
Jesus Gave Me Water
By Rev. Billy C. Wirtz
Sam Cooke With The Soul Stirrers
Living Sober is one of several books used by a well-known recovery program. It’s a great little book that addresses the question of “Life On Life’s Terms.” There are several chapters dealing with suggested activities to replace the hours formally spent drinking and drugging. One section lists such diverse pursuits as dancing, exercise, taking a class, watching old movies, listening to soul music, writing a… Wait! What was that last one? Listening to soul music? How cool is that? This a book read by millions of recovering people every day, and the first form of music that it actually indentifies is soul music. Well, really it makes sense; at it’s best, soul music hits you with an emotional sucker punch and turns your heart inside out in the course of a three-minute song. Even though it’s been marginalized and trivialized over the years, at its core, soul music deals with temptation, betrayal, passion, and, in some cases redemption, in short, life experiences all too familiar to those in recovery programs.
In past articles I have discussed how gospel came to us in the 1930s as a result of Rev. Thomas Dorsey and his contemporaries applying blues patterns to sacred music. In many respects soul music simply flipped the coin; former gospel singers applied their style to secular music. One big difference however, there is no one person to whom soul can be credited, however, almost fifty years later, virtually every contemporary blues, soul, gospel, and even hip-hop artist acknowledges a huge debt to Sam Cooke.
According to gospel pioneer and founder of the Soul Stirrers, R.H.Harris,; Sam Cook (he added the “e” later) had the best natural intonation and innate talent of anyone ever recorded, period.
He was born January 22, 1931, in Clarksdale, Mississippi. In 1933, the family moved to Chicago, where he attended Wendell Phillips Academy, the same school Nat King Cole graduated from a few years before. He formed his first group, The Singing Children, with his brothers and sisters, and then, still in his teens, joined the Highway Q.C.’s.
At the tender age of 19, he auditioned for the Soul Stirrers. When Harris first saw the young man his first comment was “He’s pretty, but can he sing?”
Thankfully, Sam’s first recordings with the group are still available, and you can hear his initial hesitance as he struggles to fit in.
He proved to be a quick study and within a year he gained the needed confidence. Listen to those later recordings and you’ll hear that he’s beginning to employ such techniques as the glide (the Wooo-Oh-0 phrase on “You Send Me”), and then there is the distinct enunciation of each word, his crystal-clear, perfect pitch, and a command of each song that is simply stunning for a twenty-year-old singer.
Cooke would stay with the group for the next six years, during which time he would elevate the status of the group, especially among younger listeners, to levels previously enjoyed by only by secular groups.
He always remained humble and often cited Archie Brownlee, lead singer of the Original Five Blind Boys Of Mississippi, as one of his greatest influences. Brownlee in turn always gave credit to R.H. Harris for laying the groundwork.
The Soul Stirrers recorded for Art Rupes’ Specialty Records, one of the independent giants in the R&B and gospel world. (It was Rupe that took a Louis Jordan clone from Macon, Georgia, and allowed him to record a chaotic, cleaned-up version of a gay bar song that the world would soon know as “Tutti Frutti.”)
Rupe and the people he hired had, as we say in the music business, “good ears,” and his track record proves it. Although both gospel and secular were known as “singles driven” markets in 1955, Specialty would record a landmark album at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.
The Great 1955 Shrine Concert
In the short history of recorded music, there have been a handful of “live” albums that have rocked the world. Among them are Spirituals To Swing recorded by John Hammond Sr. in the 1930s, and Live at The Apollo, recorded in 1962 bringing international fame and success to James Brown. Although The Great 1955 Shrine Concert might not have had as great a commercial impact, the greatness of the performances insure its place in history.
Almost all the groups on the show were Specialty artists, Brother Joe May, The Pilgrim Travelers, Dorothy Love Coates, and Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers all recorded for him. From beginning to end, it is the quintessential live gospel recording; the interplay between the artists and the audience becoming more intense with each act. The Soul Stirrers set culminates with an extended version of “Nearer My God To Thee” that brings the crowd to the edge of hysteria. It was to be one of Cooke’s last great moments in gospel as a year later he would begin testing the waters of the secular world.
There are several collections of Sam Cooke and The Soul Stirrers’ studio work. Start with Sam Cooke With The Soul Stirrers and as you listen notice the trade-off leads, the timing changes, and the way Cooke “worries” a phrase. Again, this is one of those collections that I have given to friends and been told that they can only listen to it at certain times, the music being too overwhelming to simply play as background. The Great 1955 Shrine Concert is one of those albums that everyone should own, The Soul Stirrers segment being only one of several career-defining performances.
Next Week: Sam Cooke and the Birth of Soul
Rev. Billy C. Wirtz is a weekly columnist at BluesWax. Each week he finds artists, albums, and music that you should know about. He also plays piano.
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