Back in the day, one of the greatest singers of them all, Sam Cooke, was a well known gospel singer who’s dad was a Church minister. Sam grew up surrounded by the church and was singing there from a young age, much like most young black kids at the time. Sam was always destined for greatness, and his Soul Stirrers gospel group were very well known and helped attract a young crowd such was his charisma. Sam had taken over as their lead singer in 1950, but by the mid 50s he was ready to record non church music.
There was a quite a stigma against Gospel singers recording pop music at the time, and there was a bit of a backlash, but ultimately Sam Cooke helped kick down many of the doors and enjoyed a massively successful solo career until his tragic death in 1964.
Sam Cooke played a massive role in the Civil Rights movement, and his ‘A change is gonna come” remains one of the most poignant and prophetic songs of that era. Sam Cooke and his friends had been turned away from a whites only hotel, helping inspire the lyrics, and the song become one of the big anthems of the 60s, though he was dead by the time the change truly came. The song was only released as a single just after Sam’s death, but it’s legacy remains more powerful than ever. As often with secular music, you can hear the soul and gospel of his Church background shining through in the lyrics.
Aretha Franklin was one of many of the next generation of great singers who was heavily influenced and inspired by Sam Cooke, and her own move from Church to pop music was even more of a big deal rally. Her father was one of the most powerful Ministers in Detroit, and a young Aretha was a effectively a child star, recording powerful Gospel albums even at a pretty young age. She eventually embarked on the inevitable pop career, but it took another good few years before she made her proper breakthrough.
Columbia records didn’t really get it right, but Aretha eventually teamed up with Jerry Wexler and Atlantic and went back to her roots, with gospel influenced soul music that revolutionised the game. Her recordings in Muscle Shoals in Alabama remain some of the most powerful songs in music history, and helped soundtrack the turbulent era that continued after Cooke’s death, in which civil rights and women’s liberation were brought sharply into focus. A recent movie documenting Aretha’s best selling album, Amazing Grace, shows again why the recently departed singer is still widely heralded as the undisputed Queen of Soul.
There are many other great singers, particulary from this era, who helped bridge the gap between church and pop, but it would be remiss to write about this without mentioning Ray Charles. He was another of the great versatile singers of this era who helped change the game, and like Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield and many more, you can hear the gospel in lots of his music. Many decades later, a young Chicago rapper, Kanye West, enjoyed his biggest hit to date with a clever use of Ray Charles’ “I got a woman” for “Gold Digger”, and he is bringing gospel music back into the spotlight with his “Sunday sessions”.
The eagerly awaited spin off album will incite lots of column inches, but truthfully Kanye West is just the latest in the line of many rappers, producers and singers who have taken the church vibes to the charts. He has been working with gospel artists such as Kirk Franklin for many many years, but it’s not just Kanye who has taken it back to the roots. You can hear it in the house music from his own Chicago, which helped change the whole shape of underground dance music in the 80’s. You can hear it in disco, in r’n’b, in country and even in hip-hop. The roots of music are complex, but no matter how our relationship with the Church gets soured by scandals and corruption, the gospel music will shine on in many ways forever.