Sam Cooke’s SAR label still sounds heavenly
On January 22, Sam Cooke would have celebrated his eighty-fourth birthday. So it’s fitting that ABKCO scheduled a January 27th release near his birthday to commemorate two more compilations of material that was recorded for his SAR label between 1959 and 1964. While the label has been compiled before on the excellent Sam Cooke’s SAR Records Story: 1959-1965, that set was a two-disc overview of various acts who recorded for the label. With the new series that ABKCO started last summer with the long-awaited CD release of LC Cooke’s output, the complete recordings of select acts for SAR are being released along with previously unreleased material.
Bill Dahl, who wrote the liner notes for the latest Soul Stirrers collection, Joy in My Soul, calls the group “the cornerstone of SAR’s roster,” a point which is hard to argue. Cooke himself got his big break with the group, recording for Specialty in the early 1950s, before opting for a pop music career that is as celebrated as any artist in music history. In 1959, the Soul Stirrers were looking for a new label. It was fate that Cooke and his business partners, J. W. Alexander and Roy Crain, had formed the label and were looking to sign acts.
Over the course of the next few years, the Soul Stirrers would record a couple full LPs, Jesus Be a Fence Around Me and Encore!! With the Soul Stirrers, along with 45-only tracks as well. Aside from that material, unreleased tracks such as “Oh How I Love Him,” “Since Jesus Came into My Heart,” “All Over This Word,” and “When The Gates Swing Open” are now available for the first time.
The group’s incredible harmonies are evident throughout, and they were also known to write completely new arrangements for gospel standards. One such example can be heard on “Amazing Grace” in a stunning arrangement by Sam Cooke. Cooke even gets in on the singing action, a rarity for him on his own label, with some humming in the opening bars.
The Soul Stirrers would have other strong vocalists lead them after Cooke stepped down. Johnnie Taylor would fill his shoes admirably, especially on a track like his self-penned “God Is Standing By,” one that the legendary Al Green would cover in both a gospel cover and secular rewrite (“I’ll Be Standing By”). Taylor, of course, would also go on to crossover fame himself. Still, another great talent rose.
If you’ve seen the critically acclaimed film Selma, then you’ve heard “Time Brings About a Change,” penned by Jimmie Outler, who also sang lead. Recorded in February 1963 in Chicago, about a year before Cooke himself would release the anthemic “A Change Is Gonna Come,” Outler’s vocals are pleading and heartfelt.
Gospel on the label wasn’t just limited to the Soul Stirrers. A group of brothers out of Cleveland would record songs of worship for SAR at the beginning of their tenure before being persuaded by Cooke himself to record pop music. Originally, they recorded as the Womack Brothers before taking on a name change to the Valentinos. As the Womack Brothers, they recorded gospel like the beautiful “Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray,” written by Bobby Womack, and a really nice version of “Somewhere There’s a God” as written by Roscoe Robinson, who re-introduced the brothers to Sam (as Sam and the Womacks had previously met at a show years earlier) for recording on the label.
From 1961 to late in 1964, the Womacks recorded everything from their own material like “Somebody’s Wrong,” “Darling, Come Back Home,” “Don’t Go Away,” and “Bitter Dreams,” only to name a few, to tracks penned by their bosses Cooke—“Shakin’ This Way and That (Lassie)” and “Put Me Down Easy,” which was also recorded by labelmate L.C. Cooke—and J. W. Alexander—“Lookin’ for a Love,” co-written with office assistant Zelda Samuels; “To Show My Love,” co-written with Mandi Martin; and “Everybody Wants to Fall in Love,” co-written with Bobby.
As the set comes to a conclusion, we get another example of hearing Sam Cooke lead a session as producer (like we heard on the L.C. Cooke compilation) on a hidden track. “When you do that clap, don’t clap it right into the mic. Is there any way you can turn sideways and clap?” he instructs Curtis, Friendly, Jr., and Harry. We also hear him hum the melody of his own “Sugar Dumpling,” a tune that Cooke was familiar with, having recorded it himself, but he also had the Valentinos record their own version, which is seeing a release for the first time on this compilation.
While the majority of the material released by SAR was recorded by either L.C. Cooke, the Valentinos/Womack Brothers, and the Soul Stirrers, we hope the SAR unearthing continues and results with more reissues. The label released over fifty 45s over its too-short lifespan. (It folded shortly after Sam’s untimely death in December of 1964.) Acts like Johnnie Morrisette, the Sims Twins (who made background noises simulating an arrow flying on “Cupid”), (pre–Sam Cooke) Soul Stirrers lead singer R. H. Harris with another gospel group called the Gospel Paraders, Johnnie Taylor (solo), and several one-offs (Gus Jenkins and Kylo Turner, for example) all had a part in the history. Their work deserves to be heard again.
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