Last Sunday, I had the pleasure of appearing on Chicago radio station V-103 for the Battle of the Best with legendary broadcaster Herb Kent. The “Battle” is a competition featuring music by two artists, one selected by Kent and the other one chosen by the guest. Kent chose Jackie Wilson and, of course, Sam Cooke was my choice. Listeners voted for their favorite by phone or on Kent’s Facebook page. After an hour of record playing, fact sharing and trash talking, I was declared the winner! Now for part two of Cooke’s story…
Years before he became a soul music icon, Cooke was a member of the Soul Stirrers, a renowned gospel group based in Chicago in the early to mid-1950s. In the 80s, I was a teenager when I first heard Last Mile of the Way, one of the group’s best-known songs. Rev. Milton Brunson played it during his Saturday afternoon show on WXFM (105.9 FM). Devoted Chicago gospel fans will also remember Brunson as founder of the Thompson Community Singers as well as pastor of the Christ Tabernacle Baptist Church on the city’s West Side. I was stunned by the song’s beauty as well as Cooke’s vocals. I knew some of his R&B tunes, but was thrilled to hear him sing gospel.
Born in Clarksdale, Mississippi on January 22, 1931, Cooke was almost two years old when his family migrated to Chicago’s South Side, eventually settling at 3527 So. Cottage Grove. As a child, he sang with his siblings at a church pastored by his father in Chicago Heights, about 30 miles outside the city. Cooke was 19 when he joined the Soul Stirrers in 1950.
Sharing lead vocals with Paul Foster, Cooke and the group recorded a string of gospel gems on Specialty Records, including Just Another Day, Touch the Hem of His Garment and Be With Me, Jesus—many of them written or arranged by the handsome lead singer. If you listen to those recordings, you can hear the distinctive phrasing, the trademark yodel and other vocal acrobatics that would one day earn him the title, ‘The Man Who Invented Soul.’
Cooke’s ability to whip crowds into a spiritual frenzy only intensified as the Soul Stirrers toured the country. A July 1955 appearance at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles would place him on the path to becoming a secular artist. The group sang extended versions of their most popular recordings, including another Cooke composition, Nearer to Thee. During this performance, he added new verses that ensured an emotional response from the audience. Listen to how he, trading ad-libs with Foster, steadily builds the crowd’s excitement, singing about how “bad company will make a good child go astray” and finding his mother “with folded arms…looking up toward the sky” with tears streaming down her face.
It was the Shrine appearance that made Specialty’s A&R man Bumps Blackwell urge Cooke to consider pursuing a pop career. By December 1956, he had recorded Lovable, a secularized version of the group’s hit, Wonderful. Concerned about the possible backlash from the religious community, he used the pseudonym Dale Cook. Of course, no one was fooled. According to Peter Guralnick, in the book Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, several gospel singers and fans tried to persuade the charismatic performer not to switch to popular music. Gospel deejays and concert promoters said he was making a huge mistake.
However, in April 1957, Cooke recorded his final session with the Soul Stirrers. Ironically, those songs which included, That’s Heaven to Me, Were You There and Lord, Remember Me could have easily been pop or doo-wop records. The next month, Cooke left Chicago and the group, and moved to Los Angeles. He signed a deal with Keen Records and four months later, You Send Me was on its way to the top of the pop and rhythm and blues charts.
Thanks for reading this; please join me in Sounding Off by sharing your favorite gospel song by Sam Cooke. I look forward to your response.
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