Editorial: Sam Cooke, Gospel Crossover & The Resurrected Soul of Leon Bridges

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It’s 1953 and a 22-year old Samuel Cook looks toward the congregation, where outstretched limbs extend from ecstatic bodies in search of something sacred. He opens his mouth and starts to sing. Lilting verses fill the room with a voice that seems to reach out and touch you, inspire you, guide you toward something you never thought you needed. The power of his tenor is wildly versatile, tender and tame at times, unruly and invigorating at others—a remarkable force of nature that surges from the pit of his stomach and spews out of his taut, juddering throat. There’s something different about Sam. His performance is spectacular, sensual, and does much to distract from the other four Soul Stirrers crooning beside him. This is clearly his show.

But the nascent vocalist falters over the group’s concise, muscular phrasings. He gracefully trips, skips, and recovers, stumbling beneath an unreachable high note equipped with a sonorous melisma of melody. The sound—an intoxicating Whoa-oh-oh-oh-oh—is thrilling, a virtually unprecedented aesthetic gesture in the world of gospel music and everything beyond. It would take this profound musical development to motivate the future of American pop, to push progressive culture forward, to cultivate a space for black artists to thrive.

A year later, after eighteen months of deliberation, the Supreme Court ruled racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional. The national court ruling antagonized an already embroiled atmosphere of racism in the South, to include Sam’s birth state of Mississippi. Among 1.5 million African-Americans between 1910 and 1940, the ambition for blacks to attain vertical economic mobility and to secure unalienable social freedoms motivated Sam Cook’s family to migrate north when he was just two years old. Reverend Charles Cook made his way to Chicago on foot hustling as a traveling preacher, sending his wife and eight children ahead of him on a Greyhound bus.

As Peter Guralnick notes in his excellent biography, Dream Boogie, “despite a form of segregation as cruel and pernicious as the Southern kind… Chicago [was] a separate, self-contained world in which the middle class mingled with the lowest down.” The family of ten could embrace new professional opportunities in this city that were all but impossible to achieve in the South. Within the span of a few years, Reverend Cook had earned local respect as a minister at the Christ Temple Cathedral in Chicago Heights and organized Sam and four of his nearest siblings into a religious vocal group, aptly named the Singing Children.

Marketed as a sophisticated response to the amateurism of doo-wop and street-corner vocal ensembles, gospel music proved an extremely profitable entrepreneurial endeavor for white record companies who directly targeted lower class black communities. Gospel presented itself as a socially responsible art form supported by a morally conscious message. Long before protest pop songs of the 1960s inspired revolution among vexed youths nationwide, gospel music was churning out thematically contentious singles like the Golden Gate Quartet’s “No Restricted Signs in Heaven” (1947) or the similarly charged “No Jim Crow in Heaven” by the Capitol City Quartet (1950). Despite the former’s title, its cheery harmonies severely outweigh the lyric’s sentiments. It ends up sounding like these four musically gifted men are preparing to quit, to lay down their will until death becomes their sole salvation.

The Soul Stirrers, a hugely popular contemporary to these two quartets, strictly avoided the pop-sensible, commercially friendly integrity of songs like “No Restriction Signs in Heaven,” but the aural conviction of their performances, on record and even more viscerally live, seemed to speak to and beyond their intended message of social unrest. The voice of R.H. Harris, lead singer of the Soul Stirrers and one of the gospel world’s most prolific superstars, defined the group and exemplified an entire generation of male gospel vocalists.

His full-figured growl was coarse, gripping, and consistent with a prevailing aesthetic among black men of the church up until the mid-twentieth century, what could be read as an effort to prove and preserve their physical sense of masculinity. Now it’s provocative, but at this time in U.S. history a black man asserting his manhood was considered dangerous. The ubiquitous vocal style could also signify pain, hardship, and the experience of overcoming terrifying adversity.

At the height of his personal fame, in 1950, R.H. Harris turned away from the Soul Stirrers. He cited the moral paradox embodied by the gospel circuit as his reason for departure, which in his defense was, reportedly, a lawless raunch-fest of booze, drugs, and sex (although some writers source his motivations to affairs with women and dreams of a successful solo career).

There’s no doubt Sam Cook knew a thing or two about sexual devotion when, at 19, he was asked to replace R.H. Harris as the lead of the Soul Stirrers. His talent was locally renowned, first as a pre-pubescent tenor for the Singing Children and then as the star singer of the Highway Q.C.’s. The teenager had thirteen years of experience observing how crowds reacted to his energy, and, more recently, how women could and would respond to his rippling vocal inflections and impassioned exaltations.

In this new role, however, Sam would stand directly in the shadow of another man’s legacy, constantly having to live up to the extraordinary talents of R.H. Harris’ skull-splitting, three-octave range. In fact, as reported in Daniel Wolff’s You Send Me bio, Sam first debuted his signature note-bending in 1953: the Soul Stirrers “would still occasionally forget and pitch [“How Far Am I From Canaan”] up where Harris used to sing it.” He was aiming for a high note when, as his manager Roy Crain recalls, “He just floated under.”

Sam Cook’s stylistic development was significantly influenced by R.H. Harris. He developed his voice as a formidable, absolutely adaptable instrument that boasted complete, confounding control. His conversational, Midwestern-accented sound was sleek, modern, and dignified. It drew upon the formal instruction of the National Quartet Convention, an organization co-founded by R.H. Harris that sought to professionalize the amateur aesthetic of gospel by refining pronunciation and diction among performers. It’s a tribute Sam would carry with him for the rest of his life, radically influencing the aesthetic trajectory of his pop career and ultimately defining what kinds of acts recorded at SAR Records (commandeered by Sam, among the first African-American owned recording companies, which operated from 1961 until his death in 1964).

The lower range of Sam’s warbling tenor was soothing, amiable, and somehow defiantly irreverent. Throughout his critically compelling essay “Sam Cooke: Lost and Looking,” Stephan Talty observes, “In the singing of almost every other gospel singer, you can hear their relationship with their God.” Sam changed the standard, influenced a trend of young male singers who favored the jubilation and outright love of the New Testament to the fire-and-brimstone hysterics of the Old. He projected a newfound positivity upon a music previously concerned with mournful reverence and heavy, burdensome sorrow. The effects can be heard most clearly in the recorded output of Johnnie Taylor, who would replace Sam for both the Highway Q.C.’s and the Soul Stirrers. Taylor’s SAR singles like “Rome (Wasn’t Built In A Day)” and “Keep On Loving You” were all but faithful reconstructions of Sam’s own bright-eyed soul.

In a similar stride to Elvis, whose presence summoned new conceptions of sexual desire among young white girls, Sam Cook embodied a new kind of pop star—a voice that expressed sensual conviction while equally asserting a steadfast sense of masculinity. He subverted the status quo for male gospel singers, displayed stark sexuality with a blatancy that had never before been explored. But where Presley deployed his wobbly limbs and overzealous hips to fulfill the spectacle of his music, Sam’s approach was more subtle: the overjoyous rearing of one’s head back toward the ceiling, the outreached spread of hands grasping for the next note, the scintillating taunt of a bottom lip bite.

Still negotiating a breakthrough into the pop world from the gospel circuit, Sam recorded the single for Specialty Records in 1956 as Dale Cook. His attempt at diplomacy was mostly in vain. Music listeners schooled in contemporary gospel music, who were many, saw right through the ruse, and those who maintained a concrete notion of its ethics rejected the 25 year-old vocalist’s pop ambitions. The sexually aggressive, substance abuse antics of the gospel circuit could be condoned, albeit obscured, but to abandon one’s spiritual calling for secular success was decidedly high treason. Sam was the first to attempt such bold maneuverings, but he certainly wouldn’t be the last. Still, at the budding stages of his pop career he was afraid of failure, because he had passed the point of no return. A failed pop career would inspire no mercy among audiences of the gospel circuit.

Outside the black church, similar antagonistic forces worked to keep a brother down– this time by Specialty Records’ label head Art Rupe: an old school white cat with an incredible affinity for gospel music. Rupe denied his request to record for another label, because Sam was unable to sever legal obligations established when he signed to Specialty with the Soul Stirrers. The artist found a friend in producer Bumps Blackwell, who previously worked on hit singles by Little Richard like “Tutti Frutti.” In April 1957, Sam sent the producer a six-demo tape of mostly original compositions. They were simple ideas, accompanied by Sam’s just-nearly-capable strumming on a four-string guitar. The tracks were rudimental but promising, instigated by the sheer force of his voice.

One demo, a giddy little ditty called “You Send Me,” had the makings of something great. Featured on a two-disc compilation titled SAR Records Story, the nearly two-minute track is a near-perfect slice of pop songwriting, notably absent of the vocalist’s signature melismatic flare.

The inevitable recorded effort for the single, replete with white female backup singers and a corny staccato bridge, was saccharine but unquestionably evocative. Talty calls it “a masterpiece of nothingness, so airy it’s barely even a song.” The gospel aesthetic had been dressed up in kitschy production trends as a swoon-worthy ballad, an incantatory new piece of music for young girls (and a few boys, I’m sure) all over the country to gawk and gape at in genuine wonderment. But Talty sees this as more than an attempt to get over and seize the pop market, writing, “He wanted to unchain black musicians from their sense of racial obligation and fatalism, to allow them to fantasize… It was as if he was stealing back the right of black Americans to feel innocence.” He released the single as Sam but added a silent ‘e’ at the end of his family name, an inexplicable affectation that would remain throughout his brief life.

By August of ‘57, Sam Cooke had a #1 record on the pop charts and the R&B charts for “You Send Me.” A few months later, the vocalist would stop processing his hair in favor of sporting a natural cut and later encouraged artists like Otis Redding to do the same. As a black man, his personality was subversive but congenial, and his commercial acclaim surely benefited from national television appearances such as those on The Ed Sullivan Show and American Bandstand. Sam Cooke’s character exuded self-love, racial pride, and personal drive. He defined success as vertical economic mobility in the same way James Brown and Little Richard seemed to secure self-worth through their towering, vertical conks. With this in mind, after having established a stark new visual identity for his people, Sam Cooke could be the progenitor of black cool.

In Questlove’s Vulture essay How Hip-Hop Failed Black America, Part III: What Happens When Black Loses Its Cool? the prolific musician explains that black cool is a complicated phenomena. “Black cool is the tip of African-American culture’s engagement with the broader white culture. They acted in ways that weren’t entirely predictable to white audiences, weren’t entirely safe or regulated, and that prolonged and deepened the attachment,” wrote Questlove. “As a result, in any display of cool, there is a slight hint of threat. That threat can be physical or sexual or intellectual, but it’s always felt. Look: That person has power that he or she is not using. Think: What will happen if he or she uses it?”

Sam Cooke’s progressiveness soon exceeded the defiance of his natural hairstyle. He read James Baldwin and Malcolm X, befriended Cassius Clay, and became generously involved in the Civil Rights Movement. His spiritual identity was also evolving. Cooke is rumored to have flashed a wad of bills at the Womack Brothers after his pop crossover saying, “This is my new God!” But it’s also likely that, late in his life, the singer adopted a curious penchant for Islam (in addition to an open bottle of whiskey, police found a copy of Muhammad Speaks, the handbook for black Muslims, inside his car on the night of his murder).

Sam Cooke’s music and media presence occupied an unprecedented space between white and black American cultures. He defied expectations set by both institutions, hoping to synthesize a new vision for African-American bodies and minds. His physical coolness was a prime factor, as was his suave, self-possessed exterior and his ability to walk, talk, and dress as an exemplary member of white society. Cooke’s audacious move from gospel to pop (somehow faintly mirroring Nicki Minaj’s 2012 pop crossover from gangsta rap, the relinquishing of historically formalized aesthetics to absorb a more pervasive, and consequently white, audience) paved the way for future soul legends like Aretha Franklin to attain a level of national acceptance and global notoriety that otherwise would not have been possible.

Cooke set the precedent for what it means to be young, black, and making music in America, especially after the release of his most critically acclaimed effort, “A Change Is Gonna Come.” The single, released a few days after his death in December 11, 1964, was emotionally charged with serious political implications. “A Change Is Gonna Come,” took a boldly contentious stance toward the state of race relations in America, and exposed a terrible human truth that for so long went concealed or ignored. It embodied the graveness of gospel and the brawny bite of the blues, while conjuring up something exciting and fresh. The song instigated a legacy of black protest music which sought to amend the injustices of the past by crafting a new musical and personal identity to combat the present.

In 2015, there are few artists who channel the pervasive legacy of Sam Cooke with the enthusiasm and absolute fervor of Leon Bridges. Less than a year ago, he was washing dishes and busing tables for a late-night diner called Cafe Brazil (he wrote his first secular tune “Better Man” after a shift there one evening). At the time of writing and initially performing “Lisa Sawyer,” the most moving and swoon-worthy effort on his debut album, Coming Home, Bridges had yet to discover his affection for soul music. He knew only one Sam Cooke song and was confronted with the artist only when an avid fan stressed the similarity between the two after a gig.

Before collaborating with Austin Jenkins of White Denim, a fateful meeting prompted solely by the stylishly vintage apparel he sported, the Fort Worth, Texas native exclusively wrote songs of the gospel variety. He was worried that the religious community in which he was raised, his friends, and more importantly his mother, wouldn’t accept the stylistic shift to pop music—songs about love. And while Leon Bridge’s songs aren’t of the secular nature that our modern ears are used to hearing, they fall short of the thematic spirituality found on early YouTube recordings like the outwardly devotional “My Love Stays.”

Coming Home is Bridge’s attempt at searching for a sense of aesthetic consistency—from the powerful roots revival of his songwriting to the impeccable integrity of his personal style circa 1958, equipped to the nines and sharp as hell. Sonically, Bridges was guided by a direct aim for smoothness and simplicity. “My intention is to make a song sound timeless,” he told Oyster Mag in an interview. As the singer-songwriter acknowledges, Raphael Saadiq was the only musical contender seeking that old soul revitalization (his 2011 record Stone Rollin’ is a crisp, clean iteration of 1960s R&B). But where Saadiq first made a name for himself in the hip-hop/soul vocal group Tony! Toni! Toné!, later breaking through the new millennium as a D’Angelo-adjacent neo-soul soloist, Bridges possesses the luxury of initially branding himself as a pop artist—albeit with undeniable gospel undertones.

Leon Bridges’ major label debut with Columbia Records grants him a certain flexibility as a young breakthrough artist. The tracks included on Coming Home do not originate from a place of deep, philosophical soul searching. They serve instead as an experiment or sorts, seeing as this is the artist’s first attempt at exploring the pop form. His mother, a single parent and devout Christian, never allowed him to listen to pop music, but that hardly stopped R&B singers like Usher and Ginuwine from falling into his lap.

Bridge’s personal love affair with soul music is nascent, a burgeoning two-year development, but it’s fairly difficult to observe on record. Stylistic restraint and a complete sense of control evoke an endless stream of comparisons to the late great soul artist, but Cooke’s own vocal acrobatics seem overwrought and awfully self-indulgent in the wake of this invigorating new talent. Still, where Bridges’ polished subtleties work to distinguish his artistry, he exercises a reverence for Sam Cooke and has no qualms about citing the legend as an inspiration for his newly settled music career. “Why aren’t there any other young black men making this kind of music?” he posed rhetorically to his Noisey interview last month, “I felt like I connected with [Sam Cooke and soul music] as a black man.”

The track that most acknowledges that marriage between gospel and soul is Coming Home’s chilling closing number, “River.” “Been traveling these wide roads for so long/ My heart’s been far from you, ten-thousand miles gone,” the vocalist opens the song with a direct nod to Sam Cooke’s civil rights anthem, his final and most lasting musical contribution. The latter track strays from gospel on the line, “It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die/ ‘Cause I don’t know what’s out there, beyond the sky.” In contrast, Bridge’s ode is strong, unwavering, and sure of its beliefs: “In the darkness I remember, Momma’s words reoccur to me/ ‘Surrender to the good Lord, and he’ll wipe your slate clean.”

The power of these words—these strictly universal meditations on what it feels like to be lost, what it takes to realign yourself upon the path to truth—pervade beyond the ideological constructions of conventional religions. It speaks to all those wayward souls whose salvation has been a long time coming and offers a spiritual resolution for anyone willing to listen. It’s an incredible feat for the 25 year-old singer, one which Sam Cooke surely would have accomplished had he lived past his short 33 years.

Angel E. Fraden

Head Editor | DJ | Amateur Rave Maker | Photographer | aef351@nyu.edu / https://soundcloud.com/angelitofraden/ View all post →