Sam Cooke was arguably the world’s greatest soul singer. Certainly he was one of the most important. One reason was that he was one of the first soul artists to effortlessly reach the black and white audiences. The other reason was due to his being one of the first black artists to venture into the business aspects of music by setting up his own publishing company (Kags Music) and his own record label.
Starting in 1959, Cooke, along with business partners J. W. Alexander and S. Roy Crain, created the SAR (Sam, Alex, and Roy) record label. The label recorded both gospel (all three started as singers in gospel groups, and Cooke was the closest thing to a matinee idol gospel ever had) and soul music. A retrospective of the label was long overdue and ABKCO rectified the situation in 1994 by releasing the two-disc set Sam Cooke’s SAR Records Story: 1959-1965.
Disc one is completely made up of gospel sides and features the group Cooke got his start in recording with, the Soul Stirrers, on 17 of the 31 tracks. This incarnation of the Soul Stirrers featured the vocals of Johnnie Taylor, who had replaced Cooke in the group, and Jimmie Outler, whose vocal style had a bit of a rougher edge than Cooke‘s. Taylor only gets one lead, Paul Foster gets four, and Outler gets the rest.
Cooke wrote a lot of the group’s songs, including Outler’s show-stopper, “Jesus Be A Fence Around Me.” R. H. Harris, who sang lead in the Soul Stirrers before Cooke’s arrival, gets five tracks with his Gospel Paraders, the best of which is “Somebody,” which features his smooth, graceful vocals to great effect.
Closing out the gospel disc are three sides by the Womack Brothers, two of which feature Curtis Womack’s sweet vocals and the other featuring Bobby Womack rough, authoritative vocals. The Womack Brothers had been steered toward gospel by their father in the beginning, but with some coaxing from Cooke and Alexander, they went on to play on prominent role on the secular side of SAR.
Cooke’s beautiful “That’s Heaven To Me” closes out the gospel disc in grand fashion.
These 31 sides show that the musical line is so thin between gospel and soul that it’s almost transparent. In fact, some of the gospel tracks have rougher edges than the soul tracks on the second disc. Even non-believers will want to hear these sides again and again.
Disc two gives a solid representation of SAR’s secular artists and there are some familiar names. The first four tracks are Cooke’s, including an acoustic demo of “You Send Me” that strips the pop sheen of the original single and lays bare the sheer soul of the song.
Cooke’s brother L. C. also recorded for the label. His vocal style was similar to his brother's, but he was never really able to find his own voice or the proper outlet for it. His two songs are probably the least memorable on the collection.
Faring better were the Simms Twins, a predecessor of sorts to other great soul duos like Sam & Dave and Bobby & James Purify. Their single “Soothe Me” (included here, and influenced by a gospel side on Disc one, the Soul Stirrers‘ “Lead Me, Jesus“) was a driving force in Sam Moore and Dave Prater forming their partnership; that dueo later recorded it for Stax.
Johnnie Taylor is featured on five secular tracks, all recorded prior to his later successful run at Stax, the highlights being “Rome Wasn‘t Built In A Day“ and “Baby, We‘ve Got Love.”
There’s also a funky instrumental (“Greazee, Part I & II”) by a then-16-year-old Billy Preston, and the sugary “When A Boy Falls In Love,” by young Mel Carter.
The singers whose styles varied the most from Sam Cooke’s style make a distinct impression on this collection. Johnnie Morisette was probably the closest thing to a blues singer recorded by SAR and several of his tracks featured here are blues songs, such as “Don’t Throw Your Love On Me So Strong” (with guitar by Johnny “Guitar” Watson), and “Black Night.” Probably his best song, though, was “Meet Me At The Twisting Place” (later recorded by Cooke as “Meet Me At Mary’s Place”).
While Bobby Womack could bear a startling resemblance to Cooke at times, he was also more than capable of getting down and dirty when it was required. After persuasion from Cooke and Alexander, the Womack Brothers transformed to the Valentinos, moved to secular music and never looked back. A couple of songs eventually made it to Bobby Womack’s later solo albums (such as “Lookin’ For A Love”), but the track the Valentinos are most remembered for is the closing track on this disc. “It’s All Over Now” has a different sound from most of the rest of the SAR catalog, more of a rock & roll sound (it was later covered by the Rolling Stones and became one of their first hits), and it’s considered a classic today.
Interspersed throughout both CDs are snippets of conversations between Sam Cooke and the performers, where Cooke offers tips on vocal phrasing, instrumentation, and other hints designed to improve the songs. It demonstrates the amount of involvement and input Cooke had with these performers and the songs as well as the love and care he showed for them both. SAR Records was more than a label, it was truly a family affair.
Included in the set is a booklet with a brief biography of Cooke and an informative essay on the label’s history by noted author Peter Guralnick. Recording information and musician credits (though not track-for-track credits) are also in the booklet.
The label didn’t last long after Cooke’s death in 1964 and most of its music is familiar only to soul enthusiasts today, but Sam Cooke’s SAR Records Story: 1959-1965 stands as an important document in the history of soul music and one of its inventors.
--- Graham Clarke
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