Saturday, 27 February 2010

Waxing/waning crescent moon (Sam Cooke in the Soul Stirrers)


Daniel Wolff's liner notes for the Sam Cooke Complete Specialty Recordings set, mentioned earlier in connection with his biography of Cooke (above), include details which are particularly relevant to the discussion of Stand By Me and the overlapping of musical forms in the fifties. An extensive interview with Lloyd Price can be found on Matt the Cat's site here, but for all the undoubted importance of Lawdy Miss Clawdy to the development of rock'n'roll (none of which seems lost on Price himself) Wolff suggests that the recording was part of an ongoing process for Specialty owner Art Rupe:

"Actually," Art Rupe has declared, "I dug gospel music even more than rhythm and blues," and the producer often made his own crucial modifications to the songs. In 1952, he seems to hear a new, beat-heavy sound on the horizon. A month after this [February] Stirrers's session, he'll go to New Orleans and cut "Lawdy Miss Clawdy," a run-away #1 r&b hit by Lloyd Price that sells to both white and black fans.



Here [Wolff continues], Rupe approaches from the gospel end, adding drums to the Stirrers's usual mix. [I could only find a brief audio clip, here]

At first, it's an awkward fit. Compare the single of "It Won't Be Very Long" to the alternative takes, and you can hear the predictable beat dumbing down the complex rhythms. But towards the end, an odd synthesis starts to happen. The lead voices jump with urgency, and the group seems to open up and let the drums in. Social critics have argued that the concept of the teenager was an invention of the 1950's. If so, here's evidence that it happened not just in the malt shop but across the street, in church.
As further evidence of Neil McKay's inspired choice of June Cheeks as narrator of A City Called Glory, Wolff suggests that Cheeks's role in Cooke's development extended beyond the purely musical, important as that was:
The finishing touch in Cook's vocal education comes through one of gospel's true master singers: Julius "June" Cheeks. In 1954, Cheeks temporarily left the Sensational Nightingales to ride the gospel highway with the Stirrers. Cheeks was a shouter, unstoppable, and an onstage mover who rushed the floor to get Sister Flute -- and pushed Cook to do the same. June's eloquent urgency was social as well as spiritual: he was one of gospel's most outspoken critics of segregation. And his stint with the Stirrers coincides with the Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education decision that helped launch the modern civil rights movement.

The one recording we have of Cheeks and Cook together, "All Right Now," is a raving, extended lesson in dynamics. The first full take goes on nearly four minutes, much of it June repeating "All right now" in a voice that threatens to blow out the recording equipment. Though he cuts a minute off that in Take #4, it's still a convincing argument that distortion and feedback aren't the sole invention of rock&roll. Listen closely to the climax, as June simultaneously rages and exults, and you can hear the Stirrers shiver in excitement, as if they're about to throw down their stylish harmonies and just testify.

Sam Cook is far from the center of this astonishing maelstrom, but the other cuts show him, as Crain has said, "in his power."
"Sister Flute"? A generic name for the matrons who must be bowled over, before a gospel group's live performance can be deemed a success:
If the men in the white suits do their job right, Sister Flute will start to moan. She may stand where she is and wave one hand in the air, or rock her head back till her broad brimmed Sunday hat threatens to drop off. And if the men are truly successful, if they shout the house, Sister Flute's moans will turn to shrieks. Her legs will stiffen, and the heels of her best shoes will start to drum the floor, and, as the spirit gathers, she may collapse, or throw herself into the arms of the deacons, all the time shouting the praises of an almighty and present God.
Wolff describes a 1955 recording [poor quality version in youtube clip below] of the Stirrers at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, Cooke working "the rough, June Cheeks end of his voice," pushing, along with Paul Foster, until
Sister Flute starts to go, screaming all the way. Between the two of them, Paul and Sam lift her higher and higher till she seems to rise right through the suddenly open roof of the Shrine: manhandled into paradise.

If this sounds like the passion of rock&roll, part of what this box set shows is that history is more complicated than that. By 1955, cross-pollination is everywhere. A month after the Shrine concert, Blackwell will go to New Orleans and record "Tutti Frutti" with that young student of the gospel shout, Little Richard. Meanwhile, Elvis Presley is acting out his own kind of possession over at Sun records.


A February 1956 session yielded the recording that could be called Cooke's gospel masterpiece. I have said of Stand By Me that "its plea for support, for some sign of common humanity, seems bound up with the time in which it was written." Of the mesmerising Touch the Hem of His Garment (composed as well as sung by Cooke) Wolff says:
What makes the spirit of this first-person, biblical narrative so modern (call that spirit rock&roll if you want) is not only the yodeling focus on what "I" did, or the return of Bradford's strolling beat, but the declaration of need that's at the heart of the song. Sam embroiders the phrase "if I could just touch" till it's all about want and possibility: how to be "made whole" in an unforgiving world. The song is recorded barely two months after Rosa Parks demands to be treated as a human being on a segregated Alabama bus..
[ignore visuals in youtube clip below; audio is good]



Cooke's last session with the Soul Stirrers took place in April 1957, a few months after he'd already recorded his first attempts at pop. Songs included the spiritual Were You There. The box set includes false starts, an assured Cooke admonishing the drummer ("Don't rush me"). Wolff deals with the "sang with more passion to his God" argument during his description of the master take:
Like many of the greatest Soul Stirrers songs, this narrative is about bearing witness. Was he really there when they pierced the Savior in the side? Claps of encouragement shout Cook forward to testify that he was not only there, but it made him tremble. Sam uses all his skills on this one -- his June Cheeks shout, his yodel, that clear diction -- in a performance as convincing as it is passionate. It's tempting to say he never achieved this level of direct urgency in his pop music. But that's not fair because he had different goals and a different audience. Better to say that those who knew him from gospel instantly recognized the well he drew from for "Bring It On Home To Me" and "A Change Is Gonna Come."


The final song of what was to be Cooke's final Soul Stirrers session ("the twenty-six year old would never again stand before an audience in that semi-circle of group singing, that crescent moon") has particular relevance to Stand By Me. The song is Mean Old World, described by Wolff as a "variant" on T-Bone Walker's blues of that name.



Diversion: I note that Freddie Slack is credited on piano on the Walker recording. He also played, and is namechecked on, the original 1940 recording of Down the Road Apiece (details here), a song which became a rock'n'roll standard, recorded by Amos Milburn and Chuck Berry, whose version probably inspired the Rolling Stones' cover. My mother once brought  from her father's house (ignore the phrase's gospel overtones) some 78s including South American Joe and ... Down the Road Apiece in that selfsame rockin' boogie recording. I didn't note the record's credit at the time and years later, when I asked my grandfather about it, he had no memory of the record, maybe because I mentioned Amos Milburn rather than Will Bradley or Ray McKinley. But it is of interest to me, if no other reader, to ponder over this purchase. Did he buy it for the seemingly Scottish-sounding name? Had he been moved, as I was in turn, by the restrained power of that performance? There is now no easy way of knowing. But that's not going to stop me from including youtube versions of the song and its fantastic B side in the next post. Yes, the same grandfather whose appearance brought my brother's taping of Roxy Music's The Numberer to a premature end; maybe he should have kept right on, pointing out the unbroken musical line from 1940 to 1972. Or not. On a related note my mother played a mean version of In the Mood, not unlike the Jerry Lee recording which I later heard. It's possible, although unlikely, that a cassette tape still exists of her doing so, distracted by my jokey, overloud encouragement. Back, ready to be loosed with all the power that being changed can give, to our gospel highway:



As in Stand By Me, God seems absent from the Soul Stirrers' Mean Old World, although for Wolff He permeates the song:
from the rolling bass intro through the syncopated handclaps right to Cook's last gorgeous and, somehow, chilling falsetto, this is a song of the spirit. God isn't mentioned once, but His absence is the driving force. "It's a mean old world to live in -- all by yourself."
The fact that this is being sung by a gospel group makes the case in itself, I suppose, although the song is remarkably careful not to show its hand - or His hand. True, the lyric includes the declaration:
In trouble it's so nice to see a friend standing there -
Your troubles and trials ready to help you to share
For this is a mean old world to live in all by yourself
Which does suggest friend with a capital "F", but the song's opening has been careful to set that same word in an everyday context:
This is a mean world in which to be alone
Without a friend, kindred or even a home
Like Ben E King's Stand By Me, therefore, the song could serve equally well as a testament to the importance of friendship in times of trouble - and Cooke did in fact record a lightly bluesy reworking on his Night Beat album. It's essentially the same song, although he does add a verse about yearning for "someone who loved me true/Then I know I wouldn't be blue."

Incidentally, I haven't checked elsewhere, but this website appears to suggest that whatever the "variant" may have owed to Aaron (T-Bone) Walker's original composition, Sam Cooke was happy to claim both words and music as his own.

That same remarkably rich final session included one song actually composed by Cooke - and not, strictly speaking, a gospel song. Yet perhaps, as Wolff implies, this transitional piece aids our understanding of Cooke's decision to cross over:
"That's Heaven To Me" [...] defines paradise as "the things that I see as I walk along the streets." While the Lord does get mentioned, the lyrics and the fluting vocal focus on the beauty to be found right here on earth. Recorded only a couple of months before Cook splits from the Stirrers, the tune can be heard as both an apology and a statement of purpose: he may be leaving gospel, but he's also bringing it with him, expanding its definition.
As with Mean Old World, Cooke revisited this song after crossing over. The lyrics are unchanged, but in this version from 1959 - the same year as the Drifters' There Goes My Baby - the voices of his companions in that crescent moon have been replaced by violins; to these (and other) ears it sounds like a beautiful arrangement.



Having plundered Mr Wolff's notes so freely (although there is much more to read here), it seems only right that I should make the following declaration - so here goes:

I hereby pledge to reread the biography which has sat on my shelves for over a decade and, furthermore, to place a review in this blog (copying same to a well-known shopping website on account of I've got no idea how many people actually read it); the wordcount of said piece shall, I further pledge, be no less than for Mr Guralnick's opus.

There - and if I'm lyin', I'm dyin.'

In a Godless universe and everything.

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