Tuesday, 23 April 2024

CyberSoulMan: Remembering Mr. Soul

Image
T. Watts at the KPFZ microphone. Courtesy photo.

 

 


We’re havin’ a party

everybody’s swangin’

dancin’ to the music

played by the DJ, on the radio.

Cokes are in the icebox

Popcorn’s on the table

and I’m havin’ such a good time

dancin’ with my baby ...

 

I remember hearing it announced on radio station KSOL AM 1450 Dec. 12, 1964, that Soul icon Sam Cooke had been shot to death the night before in Watts, Calif. I was on my way to school that morning and the surreal news that “Mr. Soul” was gone weighed heavily on my 14-year-old sense of teen angst.


Sam Cooke was the man. Many of us became hip to him, through his evolution from “matinée idol” gospel star to certified rock and roll pop/soul superstar status.


In truth, many of our parents had witnessed that complete evolution and had no problem bringing his music into our homes. Of course, initially, certain elements of the church resisted Sam Cooke, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Ray Charles and others who bridged the gap between gospel and secular, my generation heard Sam as a pop star. Over time, I went back and discovered his gospel roots and history.


Sam Cook (without the e) was born on Jan. 22, 1931, in the cradle of Blues Music, Clarksdale, Miss. The Cook household was one whose spiritual belief system was based on the credos of the Holiness Church. Sam’s father Charles Cook was a reverend in the church and the Cook children’s upbringing was steeped in the rules and traditions of the church – no movies, sports or gambling, and if you tapped your foot to the music, it had better be Holiness music, according to Sam’s brother Charles.


Like many before and after them the Cook family left the oppressive South and migrated north to Chicago in search of less oppression and more opportunity. The Rev. Charles Cook started a church called Christ Temple and it was there that middle sibling Sam started singing at an early age in his family’s group called the Singing Children.


They were quite popular in and around the Chicago area singing at different churches. By the time Sam reached high school, the novelty and grind of the singing life on the gospel circuit had worn off for his older siblings and the Singing Children disbanded.


Sam, for whom singing – he had declared at 9 years of age – was his destiny, was recruited into another gospel group, the Highway QC’s. The QC’s through incessant practice became polished and professional on the “junior” gospel circuit.


True to his declaration, Sam studied his craft diligently. He learned the secrets of voice control and the theories of harmony. Occasionally the legendary Soul Stirrers would invite the QC’s onstage for one number and one number only. With Sam Cook singing lead the QC’s had the ability to wreck the house. The seasoned, well traveled Soul Stirrers took secret notice of Sam’s charisma and ability.


The Soul Stirrers are one of the most influential pioneers of the quartet style of gospel music. Though originally formed in the late 1920s, they have endured all the trends and still stand as the most popular, if not the best gospel groups ever. They were inducted into the Rock& Roll Hall of Fame in 1989 as one of rock’s early influences. Additionally, they were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in the year 2000.


In the year 1950, the Soul Stirrers revered and charismatic lead singer R.H. Harris resigned from the group. There were in a sensitive situation in that they had just signed a new contract with Specialty Records and needed to produce the goods to validate the contract.


The Stirrers asked 19-year-old Sam Cook to replace Harris and the rest is history. With Sam Cook in the group the Stirrers sold more records than they ever had. By 1955 with Sam Cook singing lead and writing songs for the group he had risen to the top of the heap in the world of gospel music. Sam became the No. 1 marketable “matinée idol” of the whole industry.


But the payoff in the gospel music world was shrinking. America’s taste in music was examining this new thing called Rock & Roll. Sam decided to test the pop music market by releasing a couple of sides under the moniker Dale Cook with moderate success. He gradually left the Soul Stirrers and in 1957 released the monster hit “You Send Me” as Sam Cooke.


Sam Cooke had 29 Top 40 hits between 1957 and 1964. Songs like “I Love You (For Sentimental Reasons),” “I’ll Come Running Back To You,” “Only Sixteen,” “Another Saturday Night,” “Wonderful World,” “Chain Gang,” “Twistin’ The Night Away,” “Bring It On Home To Me” and the posthumously released “A Change Is Gonna Come” cemented Sam’s Legacy in the landscape of American popular music.


In addition he was the first African-American to own a record label in modern times. He also had a publishing house and management firm to control the lucrative publishing of his music and artists signed to his label. This all occurred before the advent of Berry Gordy’s Motown.

 

The circumstances of the shooting death of Cooke have remained in dispute for years.


The official version states that a drunken Cooke, in search of the prostitute who had robbed him of his pants and wallet, burst into the office of the manager of the Hacienda Motel, wearing only a sport coat and a shoe. The 33-year-old Cooke then allegedly tussled with the manager, 55-year-old Bertha Franklin, who shot him to death in the struggle.


Though the coroner’s office officially called it a justifiable homicide, there seem to be many contradictory elements to the investigation, i.e., Sam Cooke’s badly mangled body, the disappearance of his will and many more theories too numerous to mention here.


The two books I’ve read on Sam Cooke are music journalist Peter Guralnick's “Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke” and “Our Uncle Sam” by Cooke’s nephew Erik Green. I met Erik Green in 2007 and it is evident in his story that Sam’s family firmly believes he was murdered. There is also a book by Daniel Wolff entitled, “You Send Me: The Life and Times of Sam Cooke."


Sam Cooke was an extraordinary talent. I enjoy listening especially to a recording entitled “The Great 1955 Shrine Concert,” done when he was still a Soul Stirrer. It is a breakthrough recording in that prior to that live recordings of gospel singing were hard to produce simply because when a singer was possessed of the Holy Ghost, they were inclined to go “off mic” and much quality of the recording endeavor lost.


The sound engineer of this recording invented a device that allowed the microphone to follow the singer, thus ensuring for all times great moments in gospel music. Indeed, after the guitarist strums the opening chord to the song, “I Have A Friend Above All Others,” Sam sings the words, “Somebody knows …,” then pauses. A female voice from the audience shouts, “Sing Sam!”


Yeah, Sam Cooke could melt the hearts of women and praise the Lord at the same time.

 

Keep prayin’, keep thinkin’ those kind thoughts.


T. Watts is a writer, radio host and music critic. Visit his Web site at www.teewatts.biz .

 

Follow Lake County News on Twitter at http://twitter.com/LakeCoNews and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Lake-County-News/143156775604?ref=mf .

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