The Soul Stirrers

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The Soul Stirrers

Gospel vocal group

Birth of Modern Gospel

Innovated With R & B-Style Instrumental Backing

Enter Sam Cooke

Cookes Departure for Pop Stardom

Selected discography


Although they are known to the secular world primarily as the vehicle for singer Sam Cookes rise to R & B prominence, the Soul Stirrers are far more important for creating, or at least defining, the modern gospel quartet sound. Cooke, though brilliant, was a member of the group for just six years of its roughly six-decade existence. And while his influence cant be overstatedCooke was gospels first true sex symbol, even transforming it in some ways into a sexual musichis is not by any means the Soul Stirrers entire story. The group embodies the leap gospel made in a generations time from the backwoods church to todays urbane show business.

The Soul Stirrers differentiated themselves from their contemporariesThe Five Blind Boys, Pilgrims Travelerby boasting immensely talented frontmen. Many years prior to Cookes tenure with the group, the Soul Stirrers were the first quartet to add a fifth member, which allowed the lead singer to step out and bellow ardent lead lines with the four-part harmonies intact. It was a revolutionary move.

R. H. (Rebert) Harris, Cookes predecessor and one of the groups earliest members, was gospels consummate stylist, balancing great emotional range with delicately controlled phrasing. Even to this day Harris remains the model for the modern gospel style. Harris was succeeded by Cooke, who in turn was followed by several excellent vocalistsJohnnie Taylor (later of note for the not-so-sanctified Stax hit Whos Makin Love to Your Old Lady While You Were Out Makin Love?), Willie Rogers, Richard Miles, and Martin Jacox.

Birth of Modern Gospel

Formed in Trinity, Texas, around 1932 by bass singer J. J. Farley and tenor S. R. (Senior Roy) Crain, the Soul Stirrers were first recorded by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress in 1936. Lomax remembered their music in The Gospel Sound as the most incredible polyrhythmic stuff youve ever heard.

Harris, then a Texas farm boy, joined the group in 1937. His relaxed, insistent vocal stylegreatly influenced by the Blind Lemon Jefferson blues recordings he had heard at homechanged the groups approach from rural jubilee to what would soon be called modern gospel. As their style developed, the Soul Stirrers made full use of their own innovations. Their harmonies were full of rhythmic invention: Farley began employing the two-beat bass line, a technique very important to doo-wop, and later, rock and roll.

For the Record

Founding members include S. R. (Senior Roy) Crain , tenor; J. J. Farley , bass; R. H. (Rebert) Harris , lead vocalist; and James Medlock , baritone. Later members include Keith Barber, Thomas Bruster, Sam Cooke, Julius Cheeks, Paul Foster, Martin Jacox, Bob King (instrumentalist), Richard Miles, Jimmy Outler, R. B. Robinson, Willie Rogers, Johnnie Taylor, Leroy Taylor , and Faidest Wagoner (instrumentalist).

Group formed in Trinity, TX, c. 1932; recorded by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress, 1936; added R. H. Harris, 1937; toured churches and gospel venues, 1938-43; performed on White House lawn for President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill, 1944; added fifth member, Paul Foster, 1949; recorded By and By, 1949; signed to Specialty label, 1950; Harris left group, 1950; added Sam Cooke, 1951; recorded Peace in the Valley and Touch the Hem of His Garment, 1952-53; added instrumentalists Faidest Wagoner and Bob King, 1953; added Julius Cheeks, 1954; Cooke replaced by Johnnie Taylor, 1957; Taylor replaced by Jimmy Outler, 1961; Cooke joined group for anniversary reunion, Chicago, 1962; group continued with changing lineup, anchored only by original member Farley, 1965-70; released Resting Easy and Tribute to Sam Cooke, 1986.

Addresses: Record Company Specialty Records, c/o Fantasy Inc., Tenth and Parker, Berkeley, CA 94710.

Less than ten years after Lomaxs primitive field recordings, the Soul Stirrers performed on the White House lawn for President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill. Perhaps most important to their development was that Harris and Crain began composing. Classic gospel material like By and By, Hes My Rock, My Sword, My Shield, and Im Still Living on My Mothers Prayer were written and recorded by the Soul Stirrers.

Innovated With R & B-Style Instrumental Backing

In 1949, Paul Fosterpreviously a member of the Golden Echoesjoined the lineup; he would stay until 1963. By the late 1940s, the Soul Stirrers, led by Harris, had pioneered the concept of bringing sophisticated church songsoften with R & B-like instrumental backingto the contemporary gospel scene. Instrumentalists Faidest Wagoner and Bob King were added, greatly enhancing much of the groups work. Particularly compelling is Kings pedal steel guitar part on the haunting Come and Go to That Land.

But there were other, more tawdry, aspects associated with the gospel group, the wages of popularity one may argue. Frustrated by the amount of moral compromise around himparticularly in regard to sexHarris quit the Soul Stirrers in 1950. Harris was a happily married man; his wife, Jeanette, sang lead with the great female quartet the Golden Harps. The singers felt they could do anything they wanted, Harris complained at the time, as quoted in The Gospel Sound.

The sad irony in the timing of Harriss departure is that the group had just been signed to Art Rupes Specialty label. Rupe became interested in the Soul Stirrers at the urging of Pilgrims Traveler singer J. W. Alexander. Harris, the seminal vocal influence in modern gospel, would only record one session for Specialty. Yet his historical significance would endure: Harris introduced the technique of ad-libbing over the harmony parts, was the first to sing in delayed time (drawing comparisons to jazz), and used the falsetto voice at will. Harris would go on to form the Christland Singers and later the National Quartet Convention. He eventually recorded for Cookes label SAR as R. H. Harris and the Gospel Paraders.

Enter Sam Cooke

After Harriss somewhat traumatic departure, the Soul Stirrers developed an entirely new sound and image. Baritone singer R. B. Robinson discovered the angelic, 19-year-old Cooke while he was still with the Chicagobased Highway QCs. Cooke joined the Soul Stirrers in January of 1951 and recorded his first Specialty session on March 1, 1951.

In the beginning, Cooke greatly imitated Harris; his cool sensuality was partially the result of his inability to match Harriss technique. Still, Cookes early recordings, particularly the ebullient Touch the Hem of His Garment, show him developing his own style. With the matinee-idol-handsome Cooke, the Soul Stirrers jammed churches and auditoriums. Women, even in this religious, pre-Beatles setting, would often faint and scream. Most importantly, the boyish Cooke was able to interest young people in gospel music. Farley recalled to author Peter Guralnick, as quoted in liner notes to The Soul Stirrers: Jesus Gave Me Water, In the old days, young people took seats six rows from the back; the old folks stayed up front. When Sam came on the scene, it reversed itself. The young people took over.

As a gospel singer, Cooke was transcendent. His precise diction and modulated timbre were, in effect, pop vocal techniques employed in the service of sacred song. His two gospel masterpieces, Wonderful and Jesus Wash Away All My Troubles, demonstrated all of the nuances that would characterize his soul success. Indeed, the subtle Whoa-whoa-ao-o, later used so perfectly in You Send Me, made its first appearance in Wonderful.

Cookes Departure for Pop Stardom

By 1956 Cooke was a gospel singer in name only. The following year, Specialty found itself in debt to house producer Bumps Blackwell for back royalties. In lieu of money, Blackwell asked for the rights to a pop demo that Cooke had cut. Blackwell persuaded Cooke to attempt a career in secular music and released the materialthe song, Lovable, was credited to Dale Cook so as not to offend Sam Cookes gospel followingon his own Keen Records. From 1957 until his death in 1964, Cooke was a superstar. Yet only with the beautiful, gospel-tinged A Change Is Gonna Come, released posthumously, did Cooke in his pop career match the artistic fervor of his gospel days.

For a time, in the early 1960s, Cooke pondered a return to gospel. For about six weeks he attended Soul Stirrers shows, eventually singing at a 1962 anniversary performance in Chicago. All of the original members attended, and R. H. Harris himself emceed. Cooke was, however, treated with disdain by the audience. Two years later, he was murdered by a motel clerk who thought he was an intruder. Rumors circulated that the killing was a mafia hit, but evidence suggested that Cookes death was actually the result of a clandestine romantic tryst gone horribly awry.

In the wake of the singers untimely demise, the Soul Stirrers ground to a halt. Farley, the only original member remaining with the gospel outfit, struggled to keep the group afloat. Other lead singers, even gifted vocalists like Willie Rogers and Martin Jacox, tried to live up to the legacy left by Harris and Cooke. The albums Rest Easy and Tribute to Sam Cooke were released on Chess in 1986. Versions of the group, albeit with changing lineups, performed into the 90s.

Although his sexuality was largely innocent, Cookes crossover to pop and his unseemly, violent death greatly defeated the efforts of R. H. Harris. Harris, through the Soul Stirrers sanctity and innovation, had tried to make a music, in his words, fit for a King.

Selected discography

The Original Soul Stirrers Featuring Sam Cooke, Specialty, 1959.

Rest Easy, Chess, 1986.

Tribute to Sam Cooke, Chess, 1986.

The Soul Stirrers Featuring R. H. Harris: Shine on Me, Specialty 1991.

The Soul Stirrers Featuring Sam Cooke, Paul Foster, Julius Cheeks: Jesus Gave Me Water, Specialty, 1993.

God Said It, Savoy.

I Can See the Light Shining, Savoy.

Ive Got Much to Be Thankful For, Savoy.

Shes Gone on Home, Savoy.


Heilbut, Anthony, The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times, Simon & Schuster, 1971, reissued, Limelight, 1992.

Rolling Stone Album Guide, edited by Anthony DeCurtis, James Henke, and Holly George-Warren, Straight Arrow, 1992.

Rolling Stone Record Guide, edited by Dave Marsh, Rolling Stone Press, 1979.

Additional information for this profile was obtained from liner notes by Lee Hildebrand and Opal Nations to The Soul Stirrers: Jesus Gave Me Water, Specialty, 1991.

Stewart Francke

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The Soul Stirrers

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