Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers

(From the liner notes of The Complete Recordings of Sam Cooke with the Soul Stirrers, a three box set by Specialty.)

Five men in crisp white suits stand shoulder to shoulder, ready to go to work. In front of them is a single microphone. Their white suits and white shirts and white-tipped shoes shine so brightly that you can barely see their faces, but even so and even at a distance, the four men in the back are clearly older. They stand in a semi-circle, like a crescent moon, with the fifth–the youngster–in the middle.

The work they’re about to do is very precise: they are going to try to bring the divine spirit down into this room. And the measurement of their success is equally precise. Out beyond the microphone sits a congregation of eager people dressed nearly as sharply as the men on stage. Amongst them–amongst the extended families, the grandparents, the fidgety children, the adolescents eyeing each other from pew to pew–there are women of a certain age who go by the generic name of Sister Flute. If the men in the white suits do their job right, Sister Flute will start to moan. She may stand where she is and wave one hand in the air, or rock her head back till her broad brimmed Sunday hat threatens to drop off. And if the men are truly successful, if they shout the house, Sister Flute’s moans will turn to shrieks. Her legs will stiffen, and the heels of her best shoes will start to drum the floor, and, as the spirit gathers, she may collapse, or throw herself into the arms of the deacons, all the time shouting the praises of an almighty and present God.

How do the men in the white suits make this happen? Well, they are the Soul Stirrers, a gospel quartet, and after twenty years on the road they’ve devised certain proven methods. One is to sing in a glittering harmony as carefully constructed and intense as stained glass. The man on the far left, bass singer J.J. Farley, lays down a deep foundation that seems to be hooked into the very bedrock beneath the building. Next to him is Paul Foster, a rough-voiced, dark skinned man in eyeglasses whose growl can be modulated into a gravelly counterpoint. R.B. Robinson sings baritone, twining his voice with the first tenor and manager of the group, S.R. Crain. Sometimes, all Sister Flute needs is to hear that first immaculate hum of harmony, and she’ll start to moan.

The white suits are part of the job, too. This isn’t show business–no, no, as the singers often say, “We’re here for church.”–but it is a performance. The Soul Stirrers tend towards the formal: standing upright, not moving much, Crain keeping the beat by clapping softly. Others in their line of work–the Blind Boys, for instance, or the Sensational Nightingales–will charge the room, rushing off the stage and right down into the pews. The Soul Stirrers get just as passionate–but with style.

Of course the songs make a difference. They’re the vehicle that the spirit rides in on. It helps to have a musical hook that grabs the listener, or a story so familiar to the congregation that as soon as they hear the premise–maybe that Mother’s died, or a bible tale they’ve been told since childhood–they nod their heads in recognition, ready to be transported.

Finally, all successful gospel groups have a gifted lead singer to spark the holy fire. From 1937 through 1950, the Stirrers had one of the very best: Rebert H. Harris. His proud high voice could beg or boast, mourn death or trumpet victory. But in 1950, Harris leaves. His replacement is that youngster in the middle: an unknown nineteen year-old son of an itinerant preacher. Reverend Cook’s boy, Sam, has a pretty face, an even prettier voice, and a couple years experience touring with the teenage Highway QC’s. But stand him up next to the hard-won professionalism of the Soul Stirrers, and it’s not surprising if Sister Flute eyes the new kid and wonders whether he can do the job.

The Stirrers’s record producer shares this skepticism. “Art Rupe didn’t actually think too much of him,” is how Crain recalled it. “Actually, Art Rupe didn’t like nobody but Harris.” That’s because R.H. sold records. His February, 1950 version of “By and By” shipped some 25,000 copies: a major hit in the gospel field. Now, a year later and with that single still selling, the Stirrers show up at Universal Recording Studio #2 in Hollywood with this new kid. It’s as if Rupe had bought the Yankees, only to discover that DiMaggio had decided to retire.

The Soul Stirrers’s main source of income isn’t from record sales (not at the pay rate of two cents a double-sided single) but from the group’s almost constant touring. Still, a record is yet another factor in getting Sister Flute. If it precedes them–if she knows the song and the sound beforehand–she’s that much more willing to give herself up into familiar arms.

Rupe looks the fresh-faced Cook over and then turns to J.W. Alexander, manager of the Pilgrim Travelers and Specialty’s gospel scout. “Can he sing?” “Yea, he can sing” is J.W.’s response. “Well, I’ll try him,” Crain remembered Rupe saying, “but I don’t care too much for taking chances.”

Rupe covers his odds by conducting a marathon session. From 2:15 in the afternoon into the evening of March 1, 1951, Rupe tests the new singer. Usually, a session consists of four songs, eight at the most. This one stretches to eleven cuts, with an emphasis on sure things: strong traditional compositions by established gospel writers.

They begin with “Come Let Us Go Back to God” by Thomas Dorsey, the author of “Precious Lord” and one of the founding fathers of modern (which is to say bluesier) post-War gospel. Paul takes the first, measured lead as the Stirrers gather in solemn harmony behind him. Outside the studio, the Korean conflict is in its second year, and Foster warns us that “What happens across the sea // may come to you and me.” The anxious, Cold War lyrics depend on the singer conveying a sense of doom. Cook, who’s never cut a record before, has had some trouble figuring out how far to stand from the microphone. When he does come in, his young voice doesn’t quite convince us that “death has marked a path we trod.” There’s no doubt Sam can hit the notes; the question is whether he can strike the emotion.

He’s more successful on “Peace in the Valley,” another Dorsey standard, best known at that time through its country-western interpretation by Red Foley. Sam’s innocent voice suits this material better, as he declares that we will be “led by a little child.” But Paul carries the tune with his raspy shouts, as Cook joins the rest of the Stirrers responding to and magnifying these calls. On Crain’s “I’m Gonna Build On That Shore,” the group relies on its almost ragtime sense of rhythm; the undubbed version of “I’m On the Firing Line” uses the soft insistence and lifting harmony that made the Stirrers famous; and on the triumphant ending of “Joy, Joy To My Soul,” they produce the ringing sound of some huge cathedral. This is group music, a collaborative effort. Rupe wouldn’t hear the rookie’s individual strengths until the eighth cut, a narrative written by the great gospel composer, Lucie Campbell.

The plot of “Jesus Gave Me Water” concerns the woman from Sameria. She meets the Savior at the well, then goes back into town to convince the locals that she’s witnessed a miracle. As Campbell has constructed it, this is a story-song about the power of story-telling. And the lead singer’s challenge is the same as the Samerian woman’s: to evoke the inexpressible. Crain sets the succinct lyrics to a bubbling, joyful arrangement, and, in a sense, all Cook has to do is ride the current. But he accomplishes that with a grace and confidence beyond his years, meanwhile adding his own telling narrative flourishes. Hear him describe the miraculous liquid as “living, loving, lasting” and, at the end, riff on the word “water” till the song cascades to its conclusion.

The session, already long, should end there. But the last three cuts appear to be a kind of challenge. All have been sung earlier by R.H. Harris; now it’s as if the rookie is taking on the memory of the absent veteran. Technically, Cook’s voice can’t match Harris’s. It’s too light (which may be the same as saying too modern) to quite fit the sober, traditional arrangement of “He’s My Rock” — a song that went all the way back to Trinity, Texas where the Stirrers formed in the 1920’s. On “How Far Am I From Canaan?”–the tune Sam had auditioned with just a month or so earlier–he sounds dutiful and technically in control but not particularly passionate. And Cook’s version of “Christ Is All” doesn’t stand up to the one the Stirrers cut with Harris just a year before. Still, the rookie’s earned a place on the team as the five of them rise together to hit that shared note which affirms, “Christ is all.”

For Rupe, the true test is in the marketplace. After waiting a few months, he releases “Peace in the Valley” with “Jesus Gave Me Water” on the flip side. It answers any remaining doubts, nearly tripling the sales of Harris’s “By and By” and ushering the Soul Stirrers into a new era.

The group doesn’t record again for almost a year. That’s typical. Right after the 1951 recording session, the Stirrers do a program up in Oakland. In April, they host their regular Mother’s Day event at DuSable High School in their home base of Chicago. The Easter program is usually in Detroit at Reverend C.L. Franklin’s church (where the Reverend’s daughter, Aretha, gets a look at what she calls the “just beautiful” Sam Cook). In the spring, the group tours the south from Birmingham to Norfolk, then follows the warm weather up into the northeast: D.C., Philadelphia, Newark. It’s mostly night work, on some high school stage or at a big Baptist church, then driving till dawn to do it again the next day. In the summer, they might dip down into the southwest, cutting through Memphis to get to Oklahoma and Texas. Then, it’s the Carolinas in time for the tobacco harvest, Florida in the dead of winter, and, by February, back to California and the recording studio. When they arrive, they come with another set of finely honed, road-tested songs.

“Actually,” Art Rupe has declared, “I dug gospel music even more than rhythm and blues,” and the producer often made his own crucial modifications to the songs. In 1952, he seems to hear a new, beat-heavy sound on the horizon. A month after this Stirrers’s session, he’ll go to New Orleans and cut “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” a run-away #1 r&b hit by Lloyd Price that sells to both white and black fans. Here, Rupe approaches from the gospel end, adding drums to the Stirrers’s usual mix.

At first, it’s an awkward fit. Compare the single of “It Won’t Be Very Long” to the alternative takes, and you can hear the predictable beat dumbing down the complex rhythms. But towards the end, an odd synthesis starts to happen. The lead voices jump with urgency, and the group seems to open up and let the drums in. Social critics have argued that the concept of the teenager was an invention of the 1950’s. If so, here’s evidence that it happened not just in the malt shop but across the street, in church.

What Rupe calls “the best number we did today” is another attempt at W.H. Brewster’s standard, “How Far Am I From Canaan?” With the drums added, we lose the genius of the Stirrers’s arrangement: Farley’s bass thrum and the incredible use of pauses and silence. But Cook has clearly matured in a year, and Rupe puts his voice way forward, capitalizing on the young singer’s knack for intimacy. This, the Specialty owner seems to be arguing, is the future. In that context, Cook’s first recorded composition, “Just Another Day,” sounds like a debate between the modern and the traditional, with Sam’s reedy vision of the coming day playing tug-of-war with Paul’s deeper, more patient view.

That tension is even more obvious a year later. Rupe let his gospel talent scout, J.W. Alexander, supervise the 1953 session, and he seems caught between. Despite the presence of drums, piano and organ, the first single highlights the more traditional sound that J.W. and the Stirrers helped forge. Crain’s “He’ll Welcome Me” and his arrangement of “End of My Journey” are country: you can almost smell the piney air over the Trinity, Texas sawmills. These old-timey battle cries are proven weapons in the spiritual war; yet, the single will barely sell. As the Stirrers have begun to notice on the road, the nature of their job is changing. Yes, Sister Flute is still the key. But pushing past her, migrating to the front, are the young city girls–eager to see if this Cook boy is really as pretty as he sounds.

One of the songs that signals the shift is by an up-and-coming gospel writer, Alex Bradford. The flamboyant Bradford has a pop sensibility which will eventually land him on Broadway in “Your Arms Too Short To Box With God.” His song here, “He’s My Friend Until the End,” has more froth than the Stirrers’s old tunes and a strolling, contemporary beat. It also relegates the Stirrers to back-up singers. Cook, way up front, uses the spotlight to showcase a technique he’s been developing out on the road: a high yodel that breaks a note into pieces and then seems to string it back together. This will become Sam’s trademark, and, more and more, the group will look for opportunities to have him soar like this, drifting through the air while the girls cry out in wonder.

As Cook’s style develops, the Stirrers don’t give up on tradition as much as add to it. Five months later, Rupe and the others are incorporating Bob King’s electric guitar into the mix. Listen to the three takes of “Come and Go to That Land,” and you can hear them trying to figure out where the popular instrument might fit. At first, King’s high notes ride over the parts Cook, Robinson, and Crain normally take. Though it works better with Paul’s low voice, the result is a mess. Then, Rupe brings up the drums and backs off the guitar so that Sam’s repeated cries of “Joy! Joy! Joy!” break through the mix. On tunes such as “I Gave Up Everything to Follow Him” and “I’m Happy in the Service of the Lord,” the guitar mostly provides backup; the drama is in the thrilling shared leads of Paul (roaring out his faith) and Sam (perfecting the glissando of his “yodel.”)

The finishing touch in Cook’s vocal education comes through one of gospel’s true master singers: Julius “June” Cheeks. In 1954, Cheeks temporarily left the Sensational Nightingales to ride the gospel highway with the Stirrers. Cheeks was a shouter, unstoppable, and an onstage mover who rushed the floor to get Sister Flute — and pushed Cook to do the same. June’s eloquent urgency was social as well as spiritual: he was one of gospel’s most outspoken critics of segregation. And his stint with the Stirrers coincides with the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision that helped launch the modern civil rights movement.

The one recording we have of Cheeks and Cook together, “All Right Now,” is a raving, extended lesson in dynamics. The first full take goes on nearly four minutes, much of it June repeating “All right now” in a voice that threatens to blow out the recording equipment. Though he cuts a minute off that in Take #4, it’s still a convincing argument that distortion and feedback aren’t the sole invention of rock&roll. Listen closely to the climax, as June simultaneously rages and exults, and you can hear the Stirrers shiver in excitement, as if they’re about to throw down their stylish harmonies and just testify.

Sam Cook is far from the center of this astonishing maelstrom, but the other cuts show him, as Crain has said, “in his power.” That includes a pretty good roar of his own towards the end of “He’ll Make A Way,” a yearning, upward melody that Sam navigates like some daredevil tightrope walker. While “Jesus, I’ll Never Forget” has the Stirrers’s traditional interwoven arrangement (listen to how they end each other’s sentences), the emphasis is clearly on Cook’s confident lead. And the smooth ballad, “Any Day Now,” seems designed to show off the twenty-three year old. You can imagine the church girls rushing forward on this number–and imagine how Cook must have begun thinking that, with the right song, the same thing might just happen outside of church.

“Any Day Now” is written by the woman pianist on the 1954 session, Faidest Wagoner. Finding strong material continues to be a challenge. Crain provides some memorable originals; many of the others–including Bradford’s and Brewster’s — come from Kenneth Morris, the famed Chicago song-writer and, with Sallie Martin, publisher. “Whenever we were in town,” Crain reported, “we’d go by the studio 42nd and Indiana. Little old dumpy place. Wasn’t enough room in there for the piano and the books he had stacked up.” In 1955, they came out with a song by the keyboard player for the Caravans, James Cleveland. “One More River” caps the group’s adaptation to instruments, with Willie Web’s organ swelling like a death shroud behind the exquisite harmonies.

But the songwriter who really emerges at this session is Sam Cook. He provides both sides of the first single. “Be With Me Jesus,” is a traditional sounding, “dying hour” song that showcases Paul’s deep solo work. It’s the A-side, “Nearer to Thee,” that proves, as Crain wrote Rupe after the session, a house wrecker. It will turn out to be the Stirrers’s most successful single since “Jesus Gave Me Water,” and it sounds like Cook’s been studying Lucie Campbell’s narrative technique. “There’s a story,” he declares, “in every song we sing” and that story can “lift heavy burdens.” The hook here is the traditional hymn, “Nearer My God To Thee,” that Cook builds into the chorus, making the old the focus of the new. That way, Sister Flute gets a shot of recognition and can instantly sing along, while the younger generation can marvel at Sam’s sophisticated flight through the verses. As the session makes clear, Cook’s talents shine in these higher, lighter regions. On Crain’s “I’m So Glad,” for example, hear how Paul takes the parts about sin while Sam is the messenger of gladness.

No one produced better sounding records than Art Rupe and his master engineer, Bunny Robyn: these two to three minute gems still jump out at us a half century later. But for the Stirrers and the other gospel groups on Specialty, the records were always secondary to their live performances. In July of 1955, Rupe sent his new a&r man, Robert “Bumps” Blackwell, to record a big gospel program at the Shrine auditorium in Los Angeles. The result is an extraordinary opportunity to hear just how the Stirrers did their job. Getting Sister Flute involves three songs extended over twenty minutes. Note that all three are written by no-longer-rookie Cook. His “I Have A Friend” is a warm-up, both for the group and the crowd. At the first note from Sam, a female shouts her approval, and he goes on to work the rough, June Cheeks end of his voice. (One indication of how effectively Sam suppressed this gospel roar on his pop records is that, thirty years later, when his “Live at the Harlem Square Club” is released, rock&roll fans and critics are surprised at how “soulful” he sounds.)

“Be With Me Jesus” charges right at the Shrine audience, Paul leading with Sam singing flat out ugly encouragement in the background. About three minutes on, you can hear the “midnight hour” that Wilson Pickett turned into a soul hit a decade later. But while Paul’s persistence sweats the crowd, it doesn’t carry them over. That work is done during the eight and a half minutes of “Nearer To Thee.” There’s nothing very subtle about Cook’s approach here: he’s going to push till the walls fall down, adding lyrics not on the studio version and hammering at the chorus. Finally, six minutes down this rough road, the sweet-faced singer testifies that bad company can make a good child stray — and Sister Flute starts to go, screaming all the way. Between the two of them, Paul and Sam lift her higher and higher till she seems to rise right through the suddenly open roof of the Shrine: manhandled into paradise.

If this sounds like the passion of rock&roll, part of what this box set shows is that history is more complicated than that. By 1955, cross-pollination is everywhere. A month after the Shrine concert, Blackwell will go to New Orleans and record “Tutti Frutti” with that young student of the gospel shout, Little Richard. Meanwhile, Elvis Presley is acting out his own kind of possession over at Sun records. Strangely, the Stirrers’ session that takes place just a month after the Shrine yields no singles–until fifteen years later when an overdubbed chorus turns the old Methodist hymn, “The Last Mile of the Way,” into “contemporary” gospel.

By the February 1956 session, categories are dissolving. Is the lilting “Wonderful” a pop ballad in disguise, or are r&b crooners like Specialty’s own Jesse Belvin singing gospel? Just before this session, Cook and Crain sign separate contracts that for the first time give them larger cuts than the rest of the group. From now on, the billing might as well be Sam Cook and the Soul Stirrers. Sam not only takes the lead on “Farther Along,” a song that calls for Paul’s rasp, but it isn’t until near the end of the session that Foster gets any solo at all, trading leads on “Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone?”

Cook both writes and sings the session’s most stunning song, “Touch the Hem of His Garment.” What makes the spirit of this first-person, biblical narrative so modern (call that spirit rock&roll if you want) is not only the yodeling focus on what “I” did, or the return of Bradford’s strolling beat, but the declaration of need that’s at the heart of the song. Sam embroiders the phrase “if I could just touch” till it’s all about want and possibility: how to be “made whole” in an unforgiving world. The song is recorded barely two months after Rosa Parks demands to be treated as a human being on a segregated Alabama bus.

It’s at the end of this year, 1956, that Sam cuts his first pop recordings. “A Friend I’ve Been Knowing For Quite A While,” Cook writes Rupe in his careful handwriting, “Asked Me If I Would Consider Recording Some Popular Ballads.” Sam has “One of the Major Recording Companies” interested and material ready: a five-song audition tape. He just needs Rupe’s permission. “We most certainly would be very happy to record you in the pop field ourselves,” Rupe quickly replies–and sends Bumps Blackwell to meet Sam in New Orleans. There, under the name Dale Cook, they cut four tunes. “Lovable” is simply a re-make of “Wonderful” with the subject switched from the divine “He” to a secular “she.” The other three numbers — less songs than melodic riffs–barely engage the talents of the first-rate musicians, including drummer Earl Palmer. What does emerge is a talented singer searching for a new persona. Starting from his gospel role as the good child gone astray, Cook feels his way towards a kind of vulnerable sexiness. But he still seems confused about exactly what his new job entails. Apparently, it will have less to do with how “I,” the singer, transport “you,” than how you will send me.

These first tries at popular music don’t sell. (Later, Rupe will overdub Sam’s audition tape of “I’ll Come Running Back to You” and get a major hit, but only after Cook–with an “e” added to the end of his name–is already a rock&roll star.) Sam hurries back from New Orleans to New York City’s Apollo Theater where the Stirrers are appearing on a Christmas program. But his gospel days are numbered. The group cancels their annual February recording date. When they do get in a Chicago studio, in April of 1957, it will be their final session together.

Dale Cook is nowhere to be found on the traditional “Lord Remember Me.” This is old-fashioned gospel with Sam’s cracked vocal conjuring up the raging “storm of life.” Closer to the secular is the one original tune Cook brings in, “That’s Heaven To Me,” which defines paradise as “the things that I see as I walk along the streets.” While the Lord does get mentioned, the lyrics and the fluting vocal focus on the beauty to be found right here on earth. Recorded only a couple of months before Cook splits from the Stirrers, the tune can be heard as both an apology and a statement of purpose: he may be leaving gospel, but he’s also bringing it with him, expanding its definition.

The traditional “Were You There?” shows what Cook couldn’t bring along. The group struggles to set a tempo that can express the excited awe of being at the crucifixion and still allow Sam enough time to tell the story. Like many of the greatest Soul Stirrers songs, this narrative is about bearing witness. Was he really there when they pierced the Savior in the side? Claps of encouragement shout Cook forward to testify that he was not only there, but it made him tremble. Sam uses all his skills on this one — his June Cheeks shout, his yodel, that clear diction — in a performance as convincing as it is passionate. It’s tempting to say he never achieved this level of direct urgency in his pop music. But that’s not fair because he had different goals and a different audience. Better to say that those who knew him from gospel instantly recognized the well he drew from for “Bring It On Home To Me” and “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

Reflecting on the session’s final cut, “Mean Old World,” Crain recalled, “That was an old song. Sam had that when he came to us.” The opening line — if not the entire melody — is a variation on T-Bone Walker’s seminal electric blues, also called “Mean Old World,” recorded in 1942. Yet, from the rolling bass intro through the syncopated handclaps right to Cook’s last gorgeous and, somehow, chilling falsetto, this is a song of the spirit. God isn’t mentioned once, but His absence is the driving force. “It’s a mean old world to live in — all by yourself.”

All by himself is how Sam entered rock&roll. He didn’t leave gospel completely behind, still attending programs occasionally and recording the Soul Stirrers for his own SAR record label. But the twenty-six year old would never again stand before an audience in that semi-circle of group singing, that crescent moon. As these remarkable sessions come to an end–six years and some fifty songs later–we hear Sam Cook saying good-bye to his gospel family in order to make his mark in a larger, meaner world. One job is over, the next just begun.

DANIEL WOLFF is the author of You Send Me: the Life and Times of Sam Cooke and Memphis Blues Again: the Photographs of Ernest Withers. He can be reached at:


Daniel Wolff’s most recent books are Grown-Up Anger: The Connected Mysteries of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and the Calumet Massacre of 1913 and How to Become an American: a History of Immigration, Assimilation and Loneliness.