It’s been a bit longer than I planned since the last post in this series. Originally, I thought I’d tackle the first half of the 60’s in one post. I’d give a taste of the different regional scenes and trends going down from 1960 to 1964 (Atlantic vs. Motown vs. Stax, etc.) and how the scenes progressed.
Once you hit the 60’s, though, things explode. It’s hard to assemble a clean timeline of who did what first and when. Beyond that, once I actually started writing I couldn’t bring myself to skimp on so many details. I’ll still get around to those topics, don’t worry, but in the interest of avoiding a blog post the length of a research paper I’m going to focus on one topic today: Gospel’s early takeover of the soul genre.
“Lookin’ For Love hit big: two million copies big. We were on our way…Some of our classmates were starting to ask for autographs. Plus, I had a teacher, name of Mr. Washington. He always told me I wouldn’t amount to jack shit. Yeah, I didn’t know who invented the cotton mill, but I knew who invented soul. I reckoned it was Sam. And he had called us, asked us to move out to California.”Bobby Womack in his autobiography, Bobby Womack: My Story, 1944-2014
The Gospel Floodgates Burst
While r&b artists spent most of the 50’s trying to find the recipe to crossover success, Sam Cooke started his pop career with both Black and White fans. He wasn’t the first gospel singer to record popular music but his mass market appeal helped convince a generation of gospel singers to join the first wave of soul artists, helping define the early 60’s sound.
“Sam opened the door for more singers than you ever dreamed of, because it was an approach to music that we didn’t ever think the public would accept from Blacks anyhow,” Ben E. King said in the 2005 BBC docuseries, Soul Deep. “He influenced most of us. Most of us.” With the taboo broken, gospel singers like Ben E. King, Solomon Burke, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, and more would soon follow Cooke’s lead.
Early soul singers mined their church roots for inspiration, often recording secular versions of gospel songs. Ben E. King’s biggest hit was a secular interpretation of Stand by Me Father, a gospel track that was originally co-written by Sam Cooke for the Soul Stirrers in 1959 (helmed by Johnnie Taylor at the time). Stand by Me became a soul classic, going to number one on the r&b Billboard charts in 1961 and number four overall.
Aretha Franklin, who was already touring alongside her idols Mahalia Jackson and Sam Cooke on the gospel highway by the age of 14, would sign with Columbia Records and release her first pop album, Aretha, in 1960. “I was interested in changing fields as well but I was not as confident, I guess, as Sam was to begin with.” Aretha said in a 1999 interview. “And finally I said, well if Sam made it, maybe I could too.”
While she wouldn’t truly hit her stride until she signed with Atlantic in the latter half of the decade, two songs from Aretha made it on the R&B Top 10. Won’t Be Long made it to number seven and Today I Sing the Blues made it to number ten.
A few years later, Solomon Burke (already known for hits like Cry to Me) recorded the march for the church that his old congregation used to raise the offering. Everybody Needs Somebody to Love became his signature song. “That gospel feeling is in all of this music,” Burke said in Soul Deep. “It’s that feeling that just says release this yell now. Release this feeling inside of you and let people know that you feel these words.”
The next year, in 1965, Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler brought Wilson Pickett down to Stax Records in Memphis, TN to try to jumpstart Pickett’s career (southern soul deserves, and will get, a post to itself). “I had been recording for more than 10 years in New York…using studio musicians,” Wexler said in Soul Deep. “They ran out of licks, that happens, you know. There’s only so much water in the well.”
Once Pickett got to Stax, he was put in a room with Steve Cropper of Booker T & the MG’s. Cropper listened to Pickett’s early gospel songs and noticed he often repeated the phrase, “in the midnight hour.” They worked together to turn that phrase into Pickett’s first big hit. “I would always put that in there, somewhere in the song, ‘in the midnight hour,’ in the gospel song,” Pickett said in Soul Deep. “So that midnight hour thing was kicking around all the time.”
Sam Cooke Starts SAR Records
Sam Cooke did more than just inspire gospel singers to crossover into pop, he helped cultivate some of the talent himself. By 1960, he had established his own publishing company, Kags Music, and record label, SAR Records (which I now can’t read without thinking of SARS…thanks COVID-19). Among those he signed were the Soul Stirrers, the Womack Brothers, and the 16 year old keyboard prodigy Billy Preston.
Sam and his artists aimed to record tracks with crossover appeal, like Johnnie Taylor’s 1962 song Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day. Bobby Womack remembers Cooke pointing out the differences between White and Black funerals to highlight how different the cultures were. “They look at us and think, ‘Fucking crazy.’ We are different so until we bridge that gap, they are not going to understand you singing and screaming like James Brown…. Believe me, it’s not that they can’t,” Womack remembered Sam saying. “It’s just that they have never been taught.”
Sam hoped to convert Johnnie Taylor—who he suggested take his spot in the Soul Stirrers—into the new Sam Cooke but left him with quite a big pair of shoes to fill. Taylor’s career never really took off and after Sam passed, Taylor would end up at Stax for a time. In an interview Taylor gave in 1977, he remarked that—despite cherishing his time with Cooke and later Stax Records—signing with Columbia really helped his career. “The really important thing is that they can sell albums and that has always been a weak spot for me. And I don’t really believe that it was the quality of my music that held me back.”
The Womack Brothers were another one of the early acts Cooke signed after he started his label. Sam wanted the Womack Brothers to crossover from Gospel to pop like he did. “I told [Sam] that it was gospel or nothing as far as Dad was concerned,” Bobby Womack said in his autobiography. He recalls Sam responding: “Ok, I’ll make a deal with you. I’ll cut you a gospel record and if it don’t hit, then you cut me something I want.” It didn’t take long for Sam to be proven right and soon the Womack Brothers became the Valentinos.
The Valentinos would record their first chart single in 1964, It’s All Over, but Sam had the publishing rights. About a month later, Sam gave the Rolling Stones permission to cover the song, which became the Stones’ first number 1 hit in the UK. “I made a stink about them recording the song,” Womack said in his book. “I would tell anyone that would listen that the Rolling Stones could go fuck themselves…until I got my first royalty check.”
By the age of 16, Billy Preston was a local legend in Los Angeles. He had already toured with Little Richard and Sam Cooke, made an appearance on TV and in a movie, backed up Mahalia Jackson on organ when she sang in Los Angeles and was playing for the “king” of gospel himself, James Cleveland. Before he’d get the honorific title “the fifth Beatle,” Preston recorded his first album with SAR Records while still in high school. The instrumental album was aptly titled, 16 Yr. Old Soul.
Sam Cooke’s life was tragically cut short in 1964 before he had time to fully develop the label and artists. After his death, the label soon became defunct. Johnnie requested to be released from his contract, the Valentinos broke up (and Bobby Womack married Cooke’s widow…a little too soon 👀), and Billy Preston would record a couple albums with Vee-Jay Records before hooking up with Sly Stone, and later the Beatles.
Sam Cooke left the world one last soul masterpiece before he passed, A Change is Gonna Come. Funk and soul music’s relationship with the civil rights movement also deserves its own post, but the song would evoke something deeper in the Black American consciousness and become an early anthem for the growing civil rights movement.
Ray Charles may have been the Father of Soul but deep down he was a rhythm and blues man. Maybe that’s why Sam Cooke was known as the King of Soul. Cooke, and the tidal wave of gospel singers that followed, helped define the soul genre. And all over the country, labels were snagging up gospel talent to pump out a sound that was selling faster than they could record.