Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Support Our Annual Fund Drive! We only ask one time of year, but when we do, we mean it. Without your support we can’t continue to bring you the very best material, day-in and day-out. CounterPunch is one of the last common spaces on the Internet. Help make sure it stays that way.
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Sam Cooke, Shaken and Stirred

by DAVID VEST

The earth is in a blaze The world is in a maze The way of life today is strange and odd What happened across the sea May come to you and me

Thus begins the first cut, written by the great “Georgia Tom” Dorsey, on the first disc of the three CD box set “Sam Cooke with the Soul Stirrers, The Complete Specialty Recordings.”

If you didn’t get it for Christmas, go get it right now. Don’t stop at a church on the way to the record store expecting to hear anything like this. It’s about as far from the mewling drivel of most modern “gospel” music as Thelonious Monk is from Richard Clayderman.

The package contains surely the best liner notes ever to grace a gospel collection, written by Daniel Wolff, who knows (and clearly loves) what he’s talking about. He’s the author of “You Send Me: The Life and Times of Sam Cooke” (Quill), a must-have book for anyone interested in soul, gospel or pop music.

Sam Cooke was the ultimate crossover artist. He crossed over from gospel into R&B, and then he crossed all the way over into “pop.” I am old enough to recall the shock that went through the industry when RCA Victor signed him. Suddenly a Black artist was being treated like pop royalty. (Naturally, photos of Cooke wearing Pat Boone-style sweaters soon followed, to show he was “clean-cut” and no threat.)

He crossed over on the melismatic bridge of his unforgettable voice. Unfortunately, the one time I saw him perform, the bridge collapsed under him.

It happened in Birmingham about three or four years before his death. In contrast to Cooke’s reputation as a great live performer, this day was a disaster. Cooke and Barrett Strong, who had the original version of “Money,” were unadvertised, last-minute additions, replacing Dee Clark on the bill of a “package show” featuring dead-on performances by Big Joe Turner, Jimmy Reed, Bo Diddley, LaVern Baker, The Drifters, The Coasters, Barrett Strong, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters and others. All for a two dollar admission charge!

Lloyd Price’s Orchestra played behind everybody who didn’t bring their own band, and therein lay the trouble. They soared behind Big Joe, who nearly tore the roof off the building, but they were clearly unfamiliar with Strong’s recent hit or with any of Cooke’s material. The entire audience, to the last teeny-bopper, knew “Everybody Loves to Cha-Cha-Cha” by heart, but the professional musicians onstage had never heard of it. Lacking charts, they were helpless.

There were the days when rock shows and R&B reviews hired “jazz” and big band players to add respectability, when even Lionel Hampton, that old Republican, tried to get away with calling his music “rock and roll.” The traveling orchestras of that time, whose members disdained most pop music, including rock and even blues (unless there was some uptown crooner in a tux singing about “misery” and vowing to drink muddy water and sleep in a hollow log), deserve a special chapter in the Annals of Not Getting It. Delta blues was “hillbilly music” to these cats. Lots of them are still working today as “blues” acts, having missed the swing revival. Anyway, they’d rather play “Misty” and “Fly Me to the Moon.” Just don’t ask them to attempt “Boogie Chillen.”

Price’s band had real players in it, most of them probably from New Orleans. Incredibly, in 1960 (or was it 1961?) they had never listened to Sam Cooke.

Unable to get them to follow even “You Send Me,” which any amateur could learn to play in five minutes, Cooke, who had entered to screams and squeals, gave up after about three songs and left the stage to polite applause and scattered boos. The response to Bo Diddley a few minutes earlier had been deafening. Diddley had told the orchestra to take a break and performed backed only by drums and maracas.

Barrett Strong’s fate was even worse than Cooke’s. The audience rose to its feet and lustily booed the band’s pathetic attempt to turn “Money” into a shuffle, minus the signature piano riff. It might as well have been a Lawrence Welk tribute to Jimi Hendrix.

When I got back up to Huntsville, a nearly three-hour drive in those days, I told a friend how great the show had been. “Jimmy Reed was awesome! Bo Diddley destroyed the house. Big Joe Turner was rockin’ and shoutin’. Oh, yeah, Sam Cooke was there, too.”

Flash forward some twenty-five years, to a performance of “The Gospel at Colonus.” At the end of the play The Soul Stirrers, backed by an enormous choir, sang “Now Let the Weeping Cease.” Bass singer Jesse Farley still anchored the group. The lead singer by now was Willie Rogers, who sounds like a young Sam Cooke, even echoing his melismatic phrasing.

I saw the play five times in seven days in Houston, mainly to see Clarence Fountain and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama as King Oedipus, but I must say that while it was the Blind Boys who delivered the real excitement, it was the Soul Stirrers who brought the healing.

Willie Rogers is still working with the Soul Stirrers, ably filling the shoes once worn by legendary lead singers such as Rebert H. Harris, Paul Foster, Johnny Taylor, Lou Rawls, Martin Jacox and Cooke.

Sam Cooke was probably not a great gospel singer. The great ones stay at it over decades and grow into the material. His magnificent voice is still trying to find itself on some of these tracks, inserting swoops and yodels where they don’t always belong, sounding too self-conscious. Some of these songs are weak compositions, too, with an unfinished air about them.

But the Soul Stirrers were and are a great group, whoever is singing lead, and a few of these songs are masterpieces. Cooke’s lead on “The Last Mile of the Way” is beautiful, almost too pretty, but when Paul Foster takes over mid-song he makes the hair on my neck stand up. With producers like Art Rupe and Bumps Blackwell, it’s a given that these sessions feature no clueless musicians reading charts.

The set list includes Cooke’s first attempts to make pop records, four tracks cut at Cosimo’s Studio in New Orleans with Earl Palmer on drums and Edgar Blanchard on guitar. It closes with the Soul Stirrers’ famous appearance at the Shrine Auditorium, with Cooke and Foster inciting the crowd to near-riot frenzy.

Clearly Sam Cooke’s presence on them, openly trying to hijack the gospel context and make it directly about sex, is the reason these recordings have been made available. But there is much more to the Soul Stirrers than Sam Cooke, and there is a crying need for other box sets highlighting different periods of the group1s storied career.

The best thing about this package, besides the portrait it gives us of Sam Cooke just before stardom came, is that it may convince someone to turn off the stereo and go out and see the Soul Stirrers.

No kidding. They1ll be appearing in Florida over the next few days:

DEC. 28—TAMPA

DEC. 29—ORLANDO

DEC. 30—SARASOTA

DEC. 31—LAKELAND

 

DAVID VEST writes the Rebel Angel column for CounterPunch.

He can be reached at: davidvest@springmail.com

Visit his website at http://www.rebelangel.com

 

DAVID VEST writes the Rebel Angel column for CounterPunch. He and his band, The Willing Victims, have just released a scorching new CD, Serve Me Right to Shuffle. His essay on Tammy Wynette is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on art, music and sex, Serpents in the Garden.

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

September 27, 2016
Louisa Willcox
The Tribal Fight for Nature: From the Grizzly to the Black Snake of the Dakota Pipeline
Paul Street
The Roots are in the System: Charlotte and Beyond
Jeffrey St. Clair
Idiot Winds at Hofstra: Notes on the Not-So-Great Debate
Mark Harris
Clinton, Trump, and the Death of Idealism
Mike Whitney
Putin Ups the Ante: Ceasefire Sabotage Triggers Major Offensive in Aleppo
Anthony DiMaggio
The Debates as Democratic Façade: Voter “Rationality” in American Elections
Binoy Kampmark
Punishing the Punished: the Torments of Chelsea Manning
Paul Buhle
Why “Snowden” is Important (or How Kafka Foresaw the Juggernaut State)
Jack Rasmus
Hillary’s Ghosts
Brian Cloughley
Billions Down the Afghan Drain
Lawrence Davidson
True Believers and the U.S. Election
Matt Peppe
Taking a Knee: Resisting Enforced Patriotism
James McEnteer
Eugene, Oregon and the Rising Cost of Cool
Norman Pollack
The Great Debate: Proto-Fascism vs. the Real Thing
Michael Winship
The Tracks of John Boehner’s Tears
John Steppling
Fear Level Trump
Lawrence Wittner
Where Is That Wasteful Government Spending?
James Russell
Beyond Debate: Interview Styles of the Rich and Famous
September 26, 2016
Diana Johnstone
The Hillary Clinton Presidency has Already Begun as Lame Ducks Promote Her War
Gary Leupp
Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Against Russia
Dave Lindorff
Parking While Black: When Police Shoot as First Resort
Robert Crawford
The Political Rhetoric of Perpetual War
Howard Lisnoff
The Case of One Homeless Person
Michael Howard
The New York Times Endorses Hillary, Scorns the World
Russell Mokhiber
Wells Fargo and the Library of Congress’ National Book Festival
Chad Nelson
The Crime of Going Vegan: the Latest Attack on Angela Davis
Colin Todhunter
A System of Food Production for Human Need, Not Corporate Greed
Brian Cloughley
The United States Wants to Put Russia in a Corner
Guillermo R. Gil
The Clevenger Effect: Exposing Racism in Pro Sports
David Swanson
Turn the Pentagon into a Hospital
Ralph Nader
Are You Ready for Democracy?
Chris Martenson
Hell to Pay
Doug Johnson Hatlem
Debate Night: Undecided is Everything, Advantage Trump
Frank X Murphy
Power & Struggle: the Detroit Literacy Case
Chris Knight
The Tom and Noam Show: a Review of Tom Wolfe’s “The Kingdom of Speech”
Weekend Edition
September 23, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
The Meaning of the Trump Surge
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: More Pricks Than Kicks
Mike Whitney
Oh, Say Can You See the Carnage? Why Stand for a Country That Can Gun You Down in Cold Blood?
Chris Welzenbach
The Diminution of Chris Hayes
Vincent Emanuele
The Riots Will Continue
Rob Urie
A Scam Too Far
Pepe Escobar
Les Deplorables
Patrick Cockburn
Airstrikes, Obfuscation and Propaganda in Syria
Timothy Braatz
The Quarterback and the Propaganda
Sheldon Richman
Obama Rewards Israel’s Bad Behavior
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail