Wolff goes on to describe Clarksdale of the early 1930's:
"Out of these elements -- a large colored population, a little spending money, the exhaustion of picking cotton and the exhilaration of cheap whiskey -- came a music historians have called the Delta Blues. Legendary practioners like Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, and Skip James were drawn -- like the Reverend Cook (Samuel's father) -- to the relative prosperity of Clarksdale. Here they traded lyrics and played all night dances, till the music reached a zenith of moaning double-entendres, secret protest, and contagious gut-bucket beats."The twin of the delta blues, Wolff notes, was the church song: the spiritual. And the two were not to be crossed.
The Reverend Cook left his Clarksdale church at 2303 7th Street and hoboed up to Chicago with just thirty-five cents in his pocket. After finding work in the Chicago stockyards, he came back for his family.
This was how Sam Cooke (he added an e to his name after turning professional) made it to Chicago and the Soul Stirrers where on December 1, 1950 he replaced gospel legend R.H. Harris as lead singer. In March 1951 at 20-years-old a nervous Sam Cooke made his professional recording debut, a fact that Wolff writes did not sit well with producer Art Rupe who didn't know Harris had been replaced by a kid.
"Can he sing?" Rupe wanted to know.
"Yes sir, he can sing," Rupe was told.
"Okay" a disappointed Rupe replied angrily, "I'll allow you one mistake."
It was a decision Art Rupe of Specialty Records never regretted. There was no mistake.
Sam Cooke sang lead on eleven songs during that first session including "Peace in the Valley" and what would become the hit of the session, and Sam's breakout gospel song "Jesus Gave Me Water".
"The Sweet Mississippi accent he got from his parents dwells on each syllable and calls for attention. The third time through the chorus, Sam lets the group start and, by coming in a beat later, kicks up the excitement. And when he sings "I want to let His praises swell," Sam's voice does just that. If Art Rupe didn't know he had a hit here, he wasn't listening."Rupe was listening. So were thousands of impressed gospel fans who made "Jesus Gave Me Water" more popular than anthing R.H. Harris had ever recorded with the quartet. More than five decades later, as another Christmas approaches, we're still moved by the spirit in Sam Cooke's voice. And we're still listening.
(Click to hear Jesus Gave Me Water by The Soul Stirrers)
(Click to hear The Soul Stirrers sing Peace in the Valley)