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:
DAVID VEST writes the Rebel Angel column for CounterPunch.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit his website at http://www.rebelangel.com