Today is the anniversary of the birth of Sam Cooke. 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 tawdry circumstances in Los Angeles on December 11, 1964.
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 Soul 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 the impassioned and beautiful “Jesus Gave Me Water.” Despite the record company’s doubts about Cooke’s ability to replace Harris, the song proved to be the Soul Stirrers’ biggest hit to date.
Cooke’s mature artistry is intimated in Cooke’s contribution to 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-disc set, “Complete Recordings of Sam Cooke with the Soul Stirrers” (the excellent liner notes by Daniel Wolff are accessible here.) It is one of the essential bodies of popular American 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.
In bringing the gospel style into mainstream pop music, Cooke followed in the trail of soul music that Ray Charles was blazing at Atlantic Records. Cooke’s pop fare is lightweight compared to Charles’s; none of his pop music quite measures up to Charles’s “I Believe to My Soul,” for example, though it doesn’t get much better than “Good Times,” “Soothe Me,” and “Bring It On Home to Me.”
With his posthumous “A Change Is Gonna Come,” he contributed a song that matched the moment to perfection and that continues to resonate today. Long after his death, with the 1985 release of his live recording at the Harlem Square club in Miami, listeners could hear the gritty, soulful intensity that he had mostly withheld from his pop releases.
Did I forget to mention his movie-star good looks? Intending no disrespect, I think it’s fair to note, as suggested by the circumstances of his death, that Cooke’s transition from the sacred to the profane seems to have taken place offstage as well as onstage. Let us give Guralnick the last word: “Not surprisingly nearly every Southern 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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