Sam Cooke & The Soul Stirrers
The Complete Specialty Recordings (Specialty/Fantasy)
A Taste of Heaven (Legacy/Honey Darling)
Crediting a single individual with creating a genre is a tricky proposition. Sometimes, as with Louis Armstrong and jazz singing or with Bill Monroe and bluegrass, history supports such a notion. But in other cases, such as citing Ray Charles’ mid-’50s recording sessions for Atlantic as the official birth date for soul music, things aren’t as simple.
An alternative theory for soul’s emergence comes via the stunning three-disc set The Complete Specialty Recordings: Sam Cooke and The Soul Stirrers. The collection not only reaffirms The Soul Stirrers’ eminence as the finest vocal ensemble of gospel’s golden age; it features Cooke routinely doing things that became staples of soul singing. From the upper-register moans, sighs and wails to his extensive use of melisma and dramatic pauses, Cooke’s approach predated Charles’ by at least four years.
Unlike Charles, Cooke dared to mix soul and gospel directly, doing his final session with The Soul Stirrers after remaking the gospel hit “Wonderful” as the soul tune “Lovable” in 1956. More important, Cooke and the Stirrers influenced a broad spectrum of popular music, especially doo-wop, through their dazzling vocal exchangesarrangements that framed J.J. Farley’s booming voice in a formula that employed twin leads, a single tenor, two baritones and Farley’s lone bass. The group also incorporated drums and guitar into what typically had been an a cappella idiom.
Ironically, Cooke’s pioneering contributions to the group almost never happened. When the legendary R.H. Harris left The Soul Stirrers in 1950, embittered and disillusioned at what he deemed hypocritical personal conduct by gospel stars, Cooke wasn’t the first choice as a replacement. Then 19, he hadn’t distinguished himself while singing with The Highway QC’s, and the Stirrers’ longtime producer Art Rupe considered Cooke merely a photogenic type with minimal skills.
In his formative period with the group, Cooke deferred to veteran Paul Foster, and Foster’s forceful, less expressive voice frequently got the first lead. Yet even when he wasn’t the featured star, Cooke’s voice evinced an undeniable shine and authority, notably on “Peace in the Valley” and both takes of “I’m Gonna Build on That Shore.” By the time the Stirrers recorded “Jesus Gave Me Water” and “Christ Is All,” he established himself as the unit’s number-one star and gospel’s finest stylist. Cooke might have lacked Harris’ range, but he reflected his influence tonally, injecting his floating, high-pitched leads with urgency and passion.
As with any multi-disc package, a stylistic sameness is evident in spots here. Rupe placed more emphasis on hits than artistry or innovation, and he didn’t like straying from that formula. But Cooke was savvy enough to understand that, vocally, he could shade the religious framework of songs like “Just Another Day” and “I’m So Happy in the Service of the Lord” to express sentiments that weren’t exactly holy. The sexuality in his singing became more apparent, as Rupe gave him more space while trimming Foster’s role during 1953 and 1954.
By 1955, Cooke had become too dominant a personality to remain on the gospel circuit. Though Rupe eased him into the pop/soul world, he was already preparing for the move on songs like “Pilgrim of Sorrow” and “Farther Along.” He bends and stretches notes, words and phrases in more vivid fashion; he also isn’t as careful not to overshadow his comrades. Despite the fact that Cooke’s initial pop tunes are either gospel reworkings like “Lovable” or disposable period items like “I’ll Come Running Back to You,” the distinctive sound he honed during years of gospel singing proved ideal for the transition to romantic ballads and dance tunes. Soul and gospel fans will never agree which period of Cooke’s career was more fruitful or important, but he certainly pioneered every technique associated with soul singing during his tenure with the Stirrers.
He may not have been an idiomatic creator like Cooke, but Raymond Myles also merged elements of soul and gospel into a spectacular hybrid. Unfortunately, he never became more than a regional sensation revered by gospel aficionados. Myles’ 1995 LP A Touch of Heaven rivaled anything issued by Rance Allen or Alex Bradford, but it went almost unnoticed until the singer’s tragic murder in 1998. Thankfully, Legacy has reissued the album and included a bonus cut.
Myles achieved a measure of national attention at age 14, when he sang at Mahalia Jackson’s funeral. As a 5-year-old, he’d also been part of the Christine Myles & Son duo, but opted to become a public school music teacher after graduating from the University of New Orleans. His primary showcase was the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, from which critics and fans would return each year with tales of his remarkable concerts. His performances on A Taste of Heaven are no less startling. “Elijah’s Rock” was a triumph for Mahalia Jackson, but Myles romps through the tune here, making uncanny octave leaps, booming one moment, whispering the next, while nearly rendering Jackson’s version an afterthought.
When backed by strings or a choir, Myles stayed on the attack without plowing so far ahead that the backing couldn’t embellish his lead. Material and context were never any problem. Whether singing Elton John’s “Border Song (Holy Moses),” covering “Precious Lord” or doing an original like “He’s Right There,” Myles soared, dipped, moved from spoken narrative to fiery declaration, punctuated his voice with barrelhouse piano licks and took a traditional hymn and turned it upside down.
Still, perhaps the crowning moment on A Taste of Heaven comes on the last selection, a live solo version of “Elijah’s Rock” recorded in New York with Myles on Yamaha Piano. Without choral or rhythmic support, he slows down the melody, adjusts his volume and increases his intensity, carefully moderating the accompaniment until just the right moment. Then he powers the song to a magnificent conclusion, with flickering right-hand riffs underscoring a sweeping treatment.
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