Sam Cooke & The Soul Stirrers
Specialty Records president Art Rupe was, and is, an astute man. He arrived on the west coast with six hundred dollars and started a record company that truly made a difference in the history of popular music. He then parlayed that money into real estate and oil. His business sense was good, and his ear was almost infallible…but only almost. For all that he did right, Rupe made two mistakes. When Sam Cooke wanted to record what Rupe regarded as limp pop arrangements, Rupe cut him loose and watched a song recorded on his dime become one of the big hits of the rock ‘n’ roll era. Then, five years later, one of Rupe’s artists, Little Richard, toured Europe. The supporting acts included a young group that went over well, and Richard told Rupe about them. Rupe wasn’t interested. They, of course, were the Beatles. No one bats 1.000.
Was Sam Cooke the greatest R&B singer of all time? Few would dispute that. Was he the most influential? Undoubtedly. And although Cooke never lived to see the eruption of soul music, it was founded on reverence for him. Later, there were rock and even reggae singers who openly based their style upon his, and many others who absorbed his influence at several removes. Even Cooke’s trademark "whoa-oh-oh” has passed into the vernacular of popular music, although no one has quite managed to replicate it.
Sam Cooke could bear down on the hardest gospel song or glide effortlessly through a pop ballad. He could soar above a full orchestra or be almost embarrassingly intimate in front of a small group. He never seemed to overstretch or lose sight of his direction. He also wrote many of his own songs, produced many of his sessions, and later took control of the business of music. If he were alive today, he would only be in his seventies; as it is, he has been dead for more than forty years.
"I've seen musicians come along," Cooke said later. "Some kid who has a good voice. He'll have a hit record and get all kinds of money offers, but suddenly the success vanishes and so does he. If he has what it takes, he'll work hard and pay his dues. A person who makes it to the top too fast can't get the fundamentals." Sam Cooke paid his dues and understood the business from all sides. He was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi on January 22, 1931, not 1935 as was often reported. In 1933, the family moved to the south side of Chicago, where his father became a preacher in the Church of Christ Holiness Church. Sam was one of seven children, and his father formed a group with four of them called simply the Singing Children. Just out of high school, Sam was recruited by a professional gospel group, the Highway QCs. In January 1951, he moved on to one of the most prestigious black gospel groups, the Soul Stirrers, replacing an idol, Rebert Harris.
The Soul Stirrers were on Art Rupe’s Specialty Records, and Rupe had gotten into gospel as an act of expediency. He’d started Specialty in 1946, and it was a young company without much back catalog when the American Federation of Musicians called a year-long recording ban on January 1, 1948. The union only governed those who played instruments, so vocalists were free to record, leaving the field wide open for vocal groups. "I observed the strike,” Rupe told Kevin Howlett. "I was a good corporate citizen, and I got into gospel. It was music I always liked; in fact it was my favorite type of music, not for religious reasons but because of the feeling. The soul and honesty of it. I put plywood on the linoleum floor, and I put a microphone down there to pick up the foot tapping. I had a terrific gospel roster. We had the Pilgrim Travelers, who included J. W. Alexander, who later became Sam Cooke’s manager, and we had Alex Bradford, who was very flamboyant and openly gay. When everyone was out of sight, we’d drink Scotch, and when he’d phone the office, he’d say, ‘Can I talk to the original oppressor of the black man?’ I’d say, ‘Dammit Alex, they’re gonna believe you.’”
The Soul Stirrers joined the Specialty roster in February 1950 at the suggestion of the Pilgrim Travelers’ J. W. Alexander. By this point, gospel made up half of Rupe’s releases. Most histories of popular music confine the Soul Stirrers to the footnotes of the Sam Cooke story, but they were among the most popular groups in black gospel music before and after Sam Cooke. They were in business more than sixty years, and Cooke was part of the story for just six. Roy Crain had formed the group in Texas around 1926, and, after a parishioner had told him how much their singing stirred his soul, they became the Soul Stirrers. Members came and went, but with the addition of lead singer Rebert Harris in 1937 they became famous for their dual leads. By the time of the Specialty deal, they were based in Chicago, drawing upon that city’s pool of gospel songwriters.
Rebert Harris quit in late 1950, and Rupe was dismayed, especially when he was told that Harris’ replacement would be a largely untested Chicago youngster, Sam Cook (the "e” came later). Sam joined in January 1951, and made his first recordings with the Soul Stirrers in March. Maintaining the dual lead format, the Stirrers paired Cooke with Paul Foster. Their first record with Cooke upfront lead was "Jesus Gave Me Water,” and with it Rupe’s doubts were dispelled. The Pilgrim Travelers had recorded the song just five months earlier, but it became a hit all over again. Cooke was playful and effortlessly in command. That same session, they performed "Peace in the Valley.” Now one of the most familiar gospel songs of our time, it has crossed between black and white music. The hit country version by Red Foley was not only copied note-for-note by Elvis Presley, but became the standard way of interpreting the song. At the time of the Soul Stirrers’ session, Foley had yet to record "Peace in the Valley” (although it had been kicking around for more than a decade), and, as a result, their version is very different from the placid renditions we’ve come to know. Sam Cooke shared the lead with Paul Foster. The coupling of "Jesus Gave Me Water” with "Peace in the Valley” was a hit. "We want to thank you for suggesting that we put [it] out, and keeping on us until you did,” Art Rupe wrote to Roy Crain.
From a session in March 1954 came "Any Day Now.” Although unrelated to the Chuck Jackson hit of the same title, it was almost litigiously close to an old British pop song, "The Bells of St. Mary’s.” It was written by Faidest Wagoner, whose piano stylings were a little florid in places and almost detracted from Sam Cooke’s mastery. At one of his last sessions as a Soul Stirrer in March 1956, Cooke recorded the self-composed and magisterial "Touch the Hem of His Garment.” By then, his thoughts were elsewhere.
Sam Cooke had become the star of the Soul Stirrers. His voice, his looks, and his style brought him adulation that could not always be described as holy. As Peter Guralnick revealed in his recent biography, Cooke managed to get his Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland girlfriends pregnant within weeks of each other. He was living the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, and all that remained was to switch to rock ‘n’ roll. By 1956, gospel records no longer made up fifty percent of Art Rupe’s release schedule. The success of Little Richard had reoriented his thinking in a hurry, and reoriented Sam Cooke’s thinking, too. "Sam felt guilty at first,” said Rupe, "but when he observed Little Richard and Larry Williams and Lloyd Price making the big bucks and driving the Cadillacs, he wanted to make secular records, too.”
In June 1956, Sam Cooke wrote to Art Rupe, telling him that he planned to record pop music pseudonymously for another company, while remaining with the Soul Stirrers. Rupe replied politely that he was doing no such thing because he was under contract to Specialty. If Cooke was to record pop music for any company, it would be Specialty. Rupe’s new recording director, Bumps Blackwell, took Cooke to the J&M Studio in New Orleans, where Fats Domino, Lloyd Price, and the city’s big stars recorded. By then, Cooke had determined that he would not record rock ‘n’ roll, but would apply himself to pop music. A Soul Stirrers’ song, "Wonderful,” was adapted into "Lovable,” and was issued under the name of Dale Cook. Still with the Soul Stirrers, Sam couldn’t promote the record, although most gospel fans recognized his voice at once. The Soul Stirrers’ Roy Crain wrote to Rupe in May 1957: "’Lovable’ is hurting us in the spiritual field. Please do not release any more.” Sam Cooke tried to pretend that Dale was his brother, but no one was buying it. The Soul Stirrers forced the issue, and Sam Cooke was out. He now had to stand or fall with pop music. Art Rupe scheduled a session, and explained what happened next:
"I usually did the producing, but I turned this over to Bumps Blackwell. We went to an audition studio and Sam went through eight or nine songs, and I picked four. We plotted how we were going to do it. Get a choir background, et cetera. When I got to the session, I assumed…in error… that he’d have either a gospel group or black singers. But he had these white singers, and they were fine, but we’d had these plans, and they had digressed. I didn’t think the sound was the sound that our market demanded. One of the songs was ‘You Send Me,’ and the ill feeling from me criticizing the session carried over into subsequent talks. Bumps and Sam came into my office one day and said Sam should get more money. I’d already raised Sam’s rate when we did the initial pop session, but he wanted more. One thing led to another, and I figured I wasn’t going to fool with these people, and this stuff wasn’t going to sell very much anyhow ‘cause of these white singers. I thought one hundred, one hundred and fifty thousand. Bumps was on a bonus arrangement with me. I said, ‘Bumps, if you’re a gambler, I’m gonna make you a proposition.’ I gave him the masters [in lieu of some bonuses] and bid him goodbye. It looked like my judgment was right ‘cause no one was interested in those masters. Finally some airplane parts manufacturer took a chance, put it out [on Keen Records], and it became a tremendous hit. I made a terrible business mistake. And it wasn’t the first one.”
It was the worst decision of Art Rupe’s career, and his only recourse was to take a demo tape of "I’ll Come Running Back to You” that Sam Cooke had recorded in April 1957 and overdub it in November with guitarist Rene Hall and the same background singers he’d hated on "You Send Me.” It was only apparent in a couple of spots that this was a concocted master, and it was a successful move in that it reached No. 1 on the R&B charts and No. 18 on the pop charts. The bad news for Rupe was that the bottom of the barrel was in sight. He thought he’d built a safeguard into the separation agreement when he stipulated that Sam Cooke would remain contracted to his music publishing company, but Cooke thwarted him by registering his songs with other companies under the names of family members.
Sam Cooke’s recording career spanned thirteen years, and he spent six of them with Specialty Records. We’re left to wonder what he would have happened if he’d remained with Specialty for the rest of the three-year or five-year contract he’d just signed. Clearly, Art Rupe and Sam Cooke had different visions. In an unusual reversal, it was the label owner who wanted to stay with a hard-edged "black” sound while the artist wanted to go pop. If Rupe’s vision had prevailed, the results could have been very interesting indeed, but Sam Cooke proved during his few remaining years that he would not be a pawn in anyone’s game.