The Soul Stirrer: The Legacy of Sam Cooke

Discussed in this essay:

Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke (Little, Brown & Company) by Peter Guralnick

The Gospel Soul of Sam Cooke with the Soul Stirrers, Vol. 1 (Specialty, 1965)

Sam Cooke: Portrait of a Legend, 1951 – 1964 (ABKCO Records, 2003)

If Ray Charles caused consternation in then-Negro America by using gospel sounds as a foundation for the “devil’s music,” what some blacks pejoratively called R&B, Sam Cooke made some people damn right apoplectic. Charles’ career had always been outré, outside the taste of good church-going folk, honed on the well-established chitlin’ circuit of clubs and dives. But Sam Cooke was, so to speak, a prince of the black church, the reigning voice of a mighty and influential gospel act, the Soul Stirrers. When he left the gospel music world to pursue a pop career many saw it as a statement of apostasy, and his tragic but tawdry ending in a L.A motel room only confirmed it.

Photo Credit: Little, Brown and Company

Like Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Elvis Presley and a chosen few, Sam Cooke possessed one of the seminal voices of American popular music. A crooning tenor that could evoke the suffering of Jesus, the grandeur of the Lord; he knew how to “caress” a song in an unmistakable yodel that became his signature. He would make church sisters in the amen corner swoon. Cooke was also devastatingly handsome; the kind of man that women would love to have his shoes parked beneath their beds, and a recent biography about him indicates that he placed his shoes beneath many a woman’s bed.

The death and circumstances of Sam Cooke’s demise was so wrenching to some in Black America, that a Harlem theater once presented a play in which his death was attributed to music business machination rather than Cooke being in a place he shouldn’t have been, meaning not at home with his wife and children. The Man had to take Sam down; his undoing could not have been the result of his own actions. His life was the stuff of legends and mythology.

Biographer Peter Guralnick, however, has written what may well be the definitive biography of a legendary singer, his life, times, tragedy and triumph, surpassing Daniel Wolff’s You Send Me (1995). In Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke (Little, Brown & Company), Guralnick delves into Cooke’s life with the same intensity that once would be reserved for a statesman. This is a 700- page-plus tome about man who was as popular and iconic as Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X in the 1960s. As matter of fact, the three were known to have hung out together.

Cooke’s story begins with the determination of his father, the Reverend Charles Cook (Sam added the “e” to the family name later), to obtain better circumstances for his children, of which he had eight with his wife, Annie Mae. (The Cooks also raised Annie Mae’s first cousin, Willie, as their own). Deciding to leave Mississippi, Rev. Cook preached his way to Chicago and within weeks of his arrival sent for his wife and children. As Guralnick notes:

It was a whole different world in Chicago, a separate self-contained world in which the middle class mingled with the lowest down, in which black doctors and lawyers and preachers and schoolteachers strove to establish standards and set realistic expectations for a community that included every type of individual engaged in every type of individual endeavor, from numbers kings to domestics, from street players to steel workers, from race heroes to self-made millionaires. It was a society which, despite a form of segregation as cruel and pernicious as the Southern kind, could not be confined or defined, a society of which almost all of its variegated members, nearly every one of them an immigrant from what was commonly referred to as South America, felt an integral part. It was a society into which the Cook family immediately fit.

As well as telling the story of a legendary singer, Guralnick also outlines the history of a black society that was once cohesive but has become less so; he also introduces readers into a subculture of that society, the world of gospel music. In many ways, Cooke’s signature civil rights anthem, “A Change is Gonna Come,” echoes the changes that did occur within the two Americas, some for the better and some with unintended consequences.

As the fifth child of Charles and Annie Mae, Sam Cooke, born on January 22, 1931, in Clarksdale, Mississippi, was considered the “golden child” because of his singing ability and charismatic personality. According to the author, the Cook family was a tight-knit one and under the tutelage of a no-nonsense fire and brimstone preaching father, and a warm-hearted mother who never turned a friend of their children away from her kitchen table.

While Rev. Cook may have been a no-nonsense patriarch with strictures against sports (they led to gambling, he said) and movies, it seems that Sam carved out enough of an independent life as a city boy. Sam wasn’t above tearing out people’s fences and selling them back as firewood or sneaking into the movies against his father’s wishes. His older sister, Hattie, recalled how Sam remarked to her when she did finally go the movies and found Sam and younger brother L.C. already there, “Girl, we was wondering when you was going to wake up!”

But it was the world of gospel music that gave Sam an identity and outlet for his personality and rambunctiousness. In many ways, he was the star of the family because of his “gift,” and Chicago was a hotbed of gospel activity. It was a competitive world with groups and individuals such the Willie Webb Singers, the Blue Jays with lead singer Silas Steele, Sallie Martin, the Roberta Martin Singers, and the Soul Stirrers, all vying against one another.

Onstage…it was nothing short of open warfare, with each group doing everything in its power to wreck the house, but offstage there was a sense of shared enterprise, the clear knowledge that they were all doing their best to make their way in a world fraught with dangers, a world in which they were thrown together not just by choice of vocation but by the unavoidable accident of race.

Groups that competed against one another would take the other on tours, as the Soul Stirrers did with the Pilgrim Travelers, who returned the favor by bringing the Stirrers to California. Yet the groups and individuals would engage in flamboyant pyrotechnics that were not dissimilar to jazz musicians’ “cutting sessions”; instead gospel singers would “wreck the house.”

Cooke began singing as a vanity project of his father’s church. Seeing that another group, the Progressive Moaners, always drew a good response, Rev. Cook devised his brood into a singing group, the Singing Children, at his church. That family gig gave Sam enough regular (if not professional) experience to be picked up by a semi-professional group called the Highway QCs in 1947. With the QCs, Sam began traveling more outside of Chicago, hitting the Midwest and the South. Since this was the era of segregation, black “entertainers”—and that word should be used provisionally when including black gospel singers—had to rely on a network of churches and religious organizations to provide housing, food, and networking. Yet while reading Dream Boogie, one cannot help but notice that despite the professed wall of separation between gospel music and pop music (R&B), groups like the Highway QCs had their own “groupies,” church women who would ask individual singers and their colleagues over for dinner, and, ahem, stay overs. “They got a lot of free meals that way”, writes the author, “and didn’t sacrifice any romantic associations.”

One suspects, though, that the faithful followers of the gospel audience were more upset over singers like Cooke going pop than the artists themselves. Gospel music itself was changing in form and presentation, and how it was being organized. “Traditional” gospel music, “sorrow songs,” the kind of music that Rev. Cook liked, was giving way to a more emotionally direct, up-tempo style, pioneered by groups like Golden Gate Quartet and the Soul Stirrers. Also, Thomas A. Dorsey, often considered the father of modern gospel music, had introduced a “gospel blues” that was based on personal testimony (“testifyin’”). These new influences, while still centered on the teaching of Christ, may have had an unintended consequence of making the slide over to pop music easier, especially to the form of black popular music that was called “soul” during the 1960s.

Forward looking and thinking practitioners like Rebert Harris, Charlie Bridges, and Abraham Battle formed the National Quartet Convention with the expressed purpose of professionalizing gospel singing. The convention sought to improve diction and pronunciation, presentation, booking and marketing, “the business of music in a dignified way…that was ‘spiritually educational.’”

Cooke’s tenure in the QCs was marked by greater exposure to the burgeoning gospel music world outside of Chicago, but his time with the QCs was becoming increasingly frustrated. While other groups like the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi were getting record deals, the QCs were not. The group’s manager, Louis Tate, wasn’t able to deliver better venues or recording deals.

Things began to change when Marshall L. Itson, a Chicago real-estate agent, became their manager. He got them uniforms (suits) and a program on radio station WIND. However, complicating matters was Cooke’s incarceration for inadvertently passing a “nasty book” to one of his girlfriend’s sisters; that, at the age of nineteen, got him ninety days in the Cook County House of Corrections. Adding to the group’s complications was the fact that Itson had disappeared when he was exposed as engaging in rental racketeering. Itson had kidnapped and locked an elderly woman in a basement and absconded with money from bogus apartments that didn’t exist. But Sam Cooke also had a stroke of good fortune: an opening occurred in gospel music’s seminal group, The Soul Stirrers.

When the Soul Stirrers reported to Specialty Records’ owner Art Rupe with Sam Cooke for a recording engagement, he wasn’t pleased. He had been expecting Rebert Harris, the group’s singing star, who had left the group to begin his own enterprise, the Christland Singers. But J. W. Alexander and S. R. Crain, the leader of the Pilgrim Travelers and the leader of the Soul Stirrers, respectively, made persuasive arguments that allowed Sam to record “Jesus Gave Me Water” (with “Peace in the Valley” on the B side).

Several times in the course of [“Jesus Gave Me Water”], Sam fully develops that lilting manner of teasing out the melody that he has only experimented with before, elongating the pronunciation of the central element of the story until it becomes a kind of patented ululation (“wa-a-a-a-a-ter”) that occupies the listener’s attention in a manner that has become its own text. There are moments in the performance in which there is evidence of strain—there are a lot of words, Sam has a lengthy story to tell, and he becomes breathless and a little hoarse, here and there. But all and all it is a bravura piece, a startling bold performance from the fresh-faced twenty-year-old, and it was clear that for all his doubts Art Rupe was finally won over.

It was such a style of singing that allows some to make the claim that Cooke was the creator of “soul music.” Yet people to this day argue that most of Cooke’s pop music—with the exceptions of “You Send Me,” A Change is Gonna Come”; Chain Gang”— never matched the same quality of his singing as with the Soul Stirrers. “But whatever their good intentions, artistic or commercial,” writes Guralnick, “nothing could mask the sessions’ uninspired point of origin, and Sam’s “simplicity and directness” were almost drowned in the sludge of Glenn Osser’s arrangement [for RCA]. It might be argued that Sam’s voice occasionally rose above the tawdriness of its surrounding, but the tawdriness was single inescapable factor.”

This assessment could be said of almost all Cooke’s pop arrangements; they were arranged towards appealing to a white, mainstream audience, i.e., mature middle-class listeners—not young people, black or white, whose ears were attuned to hearing the “feeling” (authenticity) in his voice, or just ready to rock and roll when he sung about partying or “twisting the night away” as he did in live performances. Cooke’s “triumph,” even genius, was that his voice, with its “simplicity and directness,” rose above the material. Compare and contrast his work by listening to The Gospel Soul of Sam Cooke with the Soul Stirrers, Vol.1 to some of his pop-oriented material in Sam Cooke: Portrait of a Legend, 1951-1964.

Ironically, it was Cooke’s more soulful singing and recording success initially with Specialty that led him away from the Stirrers and into the burgeoning pop/rock ‘n’ roll world of the 1950s, which forever changed how Americans produced, marketed, listened, and consumed music. The pop music market was much too lucrative to be ignored. Cooke was savvy enough along the way to learn how to keep control of his music publishing rights, positioning himself away from being a mere singing pawn in a very rapacious business where blacks have significant influence (i.e., “soft power”) but have very little control as owners (“hard power”).

As well as chronicling the life and times of Sam Cooke, Guralnick also shows how black music in the 1950s and 1960s was changing from gospel to R&B to soul, which foretold popular black music’s eventual evolution into hip-hop. The same can also be said of American mainstream (white) popular music; it went from formulaic, easy listening pop to rock ‘n’ roll and has been devoured by hip-hop (which, once again, blacks are influential but lack direct financial control over). In both societies, the taste of young people—teenagers— became the decisive market that the record companies sought to cultivate. This is also a chronicle of life on the road, about the good, bad, and the ugly about Cooke, and an era when blacks were not just having fun but BIG FUN. Meanwhile, the civil rights struggle began to emerge as a major social concern that the entire nation had to confront, and despite the apolitical stances of some black entertainers, they couldn’t help but be affected by segregation and reap the rewards that a post-segregationist society would offer. Guralnick indirectly underscores how then-Negroes, or colored people, increasingly became black, conscious of wanting to change their status and conditions.

Cooke, a down-home sophisticate and an intellectual of soul, was there in the middle of this era of rising expectations, riding the waves of changes and responding to them as he did with his classic, “A Change is Gonna Come,” which would have made a much better title for the book than the present one. Nevertheless, Dream Boogie, like any worthwhile biography, captures the personal life of a major artist as well as presents the myriad crosscurrents of American social and political history told through the life of an American master.

Norman Kelley’s R&B (Rhythm and Business): The Political Economy of Black Music is now available in paperback from Akashic Books.

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Norman Kelley

Norman Kelley's Rhythm & Business: The Political Economy of Black Music is now available in paperback from Akashic Books.

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