Sam Cooke With the Soul Stirrers
Reviewed by Scott Jordan, Fri., Dec. 6, 2002
Sam Cooke With the Soul StirrersThe Complete Specialty Recordings (Specialty) The end felt so tragic because the beginning sounded so pure. When Sam Cooke was murdered in a Los Angeles motel in 1964 while allegedly attempting to rape a woman, fans mourned the loss of a bona fide soul singer whose mesmerizing high tenor and boyish charm made him innocence personified. For secular-music devotees and the church community, Cooke's death and its surrounding circumstances were even more shocking; the Sam Cooke they knew was a baby-faced son of a preacher whose tenure with legendary gospel group the Soul Stirrers produced rousing gospel music. Now, every note of those timeless recordings is housed in one 3-CD set. For neophytes and Cooke devotees alike, these tracks are still a revelation, tracking the sound of Cooke rising from an unproven and tentative Soul Stirrers rookie to the undisputed leader of the group in just four years. Besides that unmistakable dazzling voice -- with a pure timbre and a soaring, multioctave range reminiscent of another murdered baby-faced dynamo, Little Willie John -- Cooke's genius shines through in his early songwriting on the enduring "Be With Me Jesus" and "Touch the Hem of His Garment." For listeners more interested in the music than the message, there's plenty of subtle touches throughout, from the Hawaiian-style guitar on "Come and Go to That Land" and Paul Foster's contrasting baritone lead on "The Last Mile of the Way" to the insistent, rolling harmonies of Cooke's fellow Stirrers during "Wonderful." Like most "complete" box sets, there's some filler among the killer. The former in this case, is multiple alternate takes of multiple songs, often sequenced back-to-back, leaving the effect of hearing a sermon one too many times. But the latter makes up for it, as Cooke's thunderbolts-from-above virtuoso performances on three live tracks from a 1955 concert are so overpowering, it's enough to make the biggest cynic convert.