Easter Sunday Gospel Hour: Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers

by James Burkinshaw

Sam Cooke
Almost every great soul singer of the Sixties, from Marvin Gaye to Aretha Franklin, was influenced by  Sam Cooke. Legendary record producer Jerry Wexler described him as "the best singer who ever lived, no contest. He had control, he could play with his voice like an instrument. Everything about him was perfection."

Despite his extraordinary success as a soul singer, Sam Cooke's style was rooted in gospel. The son of an itinerant preacher, he was so gifted that the most popular gospel group in America, the Soul Stirrers, hired him as lead tenor aged only nineteen.

The singer he replaced was his musical hero, Rebert Harris, one of the great gospel innovators:"I was the first to sing delayed time. I'd be singing half the time the group sang, not quite out of metre, but enough askew to create irresistible syncopations". Harris pioneered the technique of a strong lead singer alternating with a second lead to create a sweeping sense of uplift, illustrated here by baritone R B Robinson and tenor Sam Cooke on Come and Go To That Land:

From the moment he joined the Soul Stirrers, Sam Cooke's effect on gospel music was transformative. Cooke built on Harris' innovations to develop his own unique, melismatic style, displaying an awe-inspiring range from searing falsetto to vibrant growl, heard being used to particularly evocative effect in Must Jesus Bear The Cross Alone?

In 1957, Cooke was (as Peter Guralnick notes) "the first of the big gospel stars to cross over (to secular soul music) . . . However, his singing remained imbued with "the same lilting, swinging, soulful (if restrained) manner that had imparted such a unique quality to the gospel sides," what fellow soul singer, Jackie Wilson described as "that real fervent approach." This gospel fervour can be heard in Cooke's soul classic hit Bring It On Home, with its yearning intensity and the potency of the call-and-response vocals between Sam Cooke and Lou Rawls:

Sam Cooke died at the tragically young age of 33, shot dead fifty years ago in circumstances that remain mysterious even today, at a motel in Hollywood. His funeral is estimated to have drawn over 200,000 fans.

His final recording, A Change is Going to Come, released on a B-side after his death, is one of his most beautiful - a searing, soaring response to the hopes and dreams of the Civil Rights generation, a song that, even as it calls into question his own religious faith ("I'm afraid to die/'Cause I don't know what's up there beyond the sky"), is (in Guralnick's words) "as heavily freighted with meaning as any of the gospel sides."

Peter Guralnick, Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom