Tag Archives: Sam Cooke

Sam’s Soul-Stirring Gospel

02-26-2013 08;10;16PMLast 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.

Kimberly Vann

Disclaimers: All data and information provided on this site is for informational purposes only. Sounding Off makes no representations as to accuracy, completeness, or validity of any information on this site and will not be liable for any errors, omissions, or delays in this information or any losses, injuries, or damages arising from its display or use. Unless otherwise noted, Kimberly Vann is the legal copyright holder of the original material on this blog and it may not be used, reprinted, or published without her written consent.

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A Change Is Gonna Come: Dr. King, President Obama and Sam Cooke

This is the first of a three-part series about the music of Sam Cooke. I have the pleasure of writing about this legendary entertainer one day before what would have been his 81st birthday. What makes this day even more special is that it is the national holiday commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and President Barack Obama’s second inauguration day. One of Cooke’s most notable compositions ties these three men together in a remarkable thread of history—A Change Is Gonna Come. Cooke wrote the song in 1963, a pivotal year in the Civil Rights Movement.

January 1 marked the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, ending slavery for millions of African Americans. In April, Dr. King began demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama, where non-violent protestors—men, women and children—were beaten by police officers, bitten by attack dogs and soaked by firemen wielding fire hoses. On June 11, weeks after the Birmingham campaign ended, President John F. Kennedy announced on national television his plan to propose a bill to Congress addressing civil rights issues including voting rights, public accommodations, school desegregation and nondiscrimination in federally supported programs. Hours following the announcement, Medgar Evers was assassinated in Jackson, Mississippi. Evers was the NAACP’s first field secretary in Mississippi. He recruited members and organized voter registration drives and economic boycotts throughout the state. His widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, delivered the invocation at the presidential inauguration earlier today.

The March on Washington on August 28 drew more than 200,000 people to the nation’s capital for a political rally which culminated in Dr. King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. Sadly, once again, tragedy would follow triumph. Nearly three weeks after the historic march, on September 15, a Birmingham church bombing claimed the lives of Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair. The four girls were attending Sunday school at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the starting point for many of the protests launched by Dr. King. He performed their eulogies. As the nation grieved the girls’ deaths, an assassin’s bullet would soon end another life in Dallas, and America’s sadness would only intensify.

President Kennedy was assassinated while riding in a motorcade through Dealey Plaza on November 22. His successor, former vice president Lyndon B. Johnson, would eventually sign into law the legislation he introduced which became the Civil Rights Act of 1964. These events and a popular song written by Bob Dylan set the stage for Cooke to compose A Change Is Gonna Come.

Dylan wrote Blowin’ in the Wind performed by folk music trio Peter, Paul and Mary and released in August of 1963. According to Daniel Wolff in You Send Me: The Life and Times of Sam Cooke, the soul singer was impressed by Dylan’s ability to address civil rights issues in a song that was also a hit record. He was compelled to do the same and in December of that year, he did! It’s the lyrics that make Change one of the anthems of the civil rights era. Cooke wrote about being refused entry in public places, “I go to the movie and I go downtown, somebody keep telling me don’t hang around” and rejection from those who should help, perhaps the members of the clergy Dr. King addressed months earlier in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “Then I go to my brother and I say ‘brother, help me please.’ But he winds up knockin’ me back down on my knees.” The song ends in a majestic climax, a testament to the strength of those who never gave up, “There were times that I thought I wouldn’t last for long. But now I think I’m able to carry on.”

Released in 1964, the song has been covered by several artists including Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and Terence Trent D’Arby. Many will recall hearing it throughout Mr. Obama’s first presidential run. Others may remember hearing him use one of the lyrics during his 2008 victory speech in Chicago, “It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this date in this election at this defining moment change has come to America.” Bettye LaVette and Jon Bon Jovi performed Change at the 2009 inaugural concert. I am certain that when Cooke wrote this song 50 years ago, he never envisioned a national holiday for Dr. King or the reelection of the country’s first African-American president whose inaugural event included an invocation by Medgar Evers’ widow.

A Change Has Come.

Thanks for reading this. Please join me in Sounding Off by sharing your favorite rendition of Cooke’s classic song. I look forward to your response.

Kimberly Vann

Disclaimers: All data and information provided on this site is for informational purposes only. Sounding Off makes no representations as to accuracy, completeness, or validity of any information on this site and will not be liable for any errors, omissions, or delays in this information or any losses, injuries, or damages arising from its display or use. Unless otherwise noted, Kimberly Vann is the legal copyright holder of the original material on this blog and it may not be used, reprinted, or published without her written consent.