Sam Cooke was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi on January 22, 1931, grew up a son of the church in Chicago, and died a violent death under unsavory circumstances in Los Angeles on December 11, 1964. Yesterday was the anniversary of his birth; let us now praise famous men.
In the beginning, writes Cooke biographer Joe McEwen, Cooke was black America’s favorite gospel singer. At age 19 Cooke replaced the lead singer — his idol R.H. Harris — in the popular and aptly named harmony gospel group, the Soul Stirrers. (In the photo of the group below, Cooke is at the bottom center.)
The Stirrers had long since established themselves as pioneers of the new gospel sound, forged on contemporary compositions and strong lead singing alternating with a second lead. Harris had introduced the technique of singing slightly behind the time and ad libbing to the theme, producing an effect “enough askew to create irresistible syncopations,” according to gospel historian Anthony Heilbut.
Cooke’s first recording session with the Stirrers occurred in March 1951. In one day they recorded eleven songs, including “Jesus Gave Me Water.” Sung a capella, the song is transcendently impassioned and beautiful. Despite the record company’s doubts about Cooke’s ability to replace Harris, the song proved to be the Stirrers’ biggest hit to date.
In the context of Cooke’s career, perhaps the fact most striking to me is the mature artistry of Cooke’s contribution in that first recording session. Music historian Peter Guralnick notes that Cooke’s singing on “Jesus Gave Me Water” lacks the confidence and poise of his later work, but observes: “Like nearly all of Sam Cooke’s notable later recordings, this one suggested the effect of swinging without effort, passion without strain, an indefinable depth of feeling overlaid with a veneer of sophistication that could convey all by a flick of the eyebrow, the tiniest modulation of tone…Like R.H. Harris’s, Cooke’s voice in a sense defied analysis, it appeared to flow so naturally, fit so effortlessly into a groove.”
For the succeeding five years, Cooke and the Stirrers unleashed a torrent of moving, powerful gospel hits including Cooke’s own “Touch the Hem of His Garment,” “Be With Me Jesus,” and “Nearer to Thee.” The legacy has now been documented in a magnificent three-disk set, “Sam Cooke with the Soul Stirrers: The Complete Specialty Records Recordings.” It is one of the truly essential bodies of American popular music.
Cooke’s first venture from gospel into secular music scandalized the gospel audience. First surreptitiously, then of necessity boldly once his cover was blown, Cooke crossed over to pop music, immediately achieving a smash number one hit with “You Send Me” in 1957. The hits never really stopped, although he had to overcome some uncongenial production concepts imposed on him by RCA’s team of Hugo and Luigi. (I met Luigi in Boca Raton, Florida in 1992; getting him to talk about his work with Cooke was like pulling teeth. Just about all I could get out of him was that try as they might, they couldn’t get Cooke to pronounce “ask” as anything but “axe.” Let it stand as my contribution to Cooke historiography.)
In bringing the gospel style straight into mainstream pop music, Cooke gave birth to soul music along with Ray Charles. Cooke’s pop fare is indisputably lightweight compared to Charles’s; none of his pop music can stand with Charles’s “I Believe to My Soul,” for example. At its best, however, in songs like “Good Times,” “Soothe Me,”and the incomparable “Bring It On Home to Me,” he found the vein of joy tinged with mortality. And with his posthumous “A Change Is Gonna Come,” he contributed a song that matched the moment to perfection and that continues to resonate today.
Did I forget to mention his movie-star good looks? Intending no disrespect, I get the impression that Cooke brought quite a few women to Jesus offstage as well as on. Let us give Guralnick the last word: “Not surprisingly nearly every Souther soul singer, almost without exception, took Sam Cooke, the urbane former gospel Soul Stirrer, for a model. With his matinee-idol good looks, liltingly graceful voice, sophisticated manner, and effortless delivery (all with a subtle suggestion, or inescapable undercurrent, of gospel passion), Cooke was not only the logical stylistic choice, he provided the clear social model as well.”
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