In 1957, the gospel music world was rent asunder with the revelation that Sam Cooke, the 26-year-old lead vocalist of the renowned Soul Stirrers, had sold out and gone pop. Today's listeners may be mystified to learn of the ancient uproar caused by innocuous teeny-bopper hits like “You Send Me” and “Cupid,” but to gospel fans in the '50s, Cooke's exodus meant the loss of one of their biggest and brightest stars.
The razor-sharp division between sacred and secular was no mystery to Cooke, a preacher's son who had been called upon in 1950 to replace the legendary Rebert H. Harris, who left the combo to pursue his own career. Cooke was also keenly aware of the tremendous reputation of the Soul Stirrers, a long-lived and powerfully influential band that had lifted gospel music out of the old-fashioned group harmonies of the “jubilee” style and into a more modern sound, emphasizing vocal solos and inspired improvisations. Cooke, afire with raw talent, excelled at the new style, so much so that he quickly usurped the band that had mentored him, making it sound even more sensuous and dynamic.
The Complete Specialty Recordings gathers the bulk of Cooke's work with the Soul Stirrers, charting his phenomenal growth as a lead singer and the ensemble's tectonic shift to electric guitars and gospel composers like Alex Bradford. This three-CD set will come as a blessing to fans of classic shout-and-holler gospel, as well as to Cooke aficionados, who will go gaga over the handful of secular singles that Specialty allowed him to record in a desperate effort to forestall his defection. All these decades later, both styles — the love songs and the liturgical ones — sound simply heavenly.