Had the Soul Stirrers only launched the career of Sam Cooke, they would have earned their place in rock and roll history. Beyond that, however, they set the pace for gospel and pop vocal groups, and played a role as forefathers in the development of rhythm & blues. As exponents of the modern gospel quartet sound back in the Forties and Fifties, they took gospel out of local churches and found a national audience for it. The Soul Stirrers radically reshaped traditional gospel material and wrote many enduring songs of their own. The music of the Soul Stirrers represented a progression from jubilee singing to a more rhythmic style, and it served as the basis for doo-wop and R&B.
The Soul Stirrers’ career began on a small Texas farm, where R.H. Harris sang with a family gospel group called the Friendly Five. “I used to listen to the birds sing,” Harris told Tony Heilbut, author of The Gospel Sound. “Whatever tune they’d make, I trained myself to make. Harris, Jesse Farley, S.R. Crain and T.L. Brewster formed the Soul Stirrers in Trinity, Texas in 1935. They were recorded by music historian Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress the next year.
In contrast to the spiritual and “jubilee” repertoire of other quartets, the Soul Stirrers radically reshaped traditional gospel material and composed many enduring songs of their own. The group used two lead singers, one crooning high and sweet and the other shouting hoarse and low. During the Forties, the group competed for gospel supremacy with the Pilgrim Travelers and the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi. During World War II, the Soul Stirrers appeared at many USO shows and sang on the White House lawn for Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.
The group’s first commercial recordings, for the Alladin label, appeared in the late Forties. R.H. Harris, was a powerful vocalist who prefigured the falsetto style of soul singing popularized by Smokey Robinson, Curtis Mayfield and others. The Soul Stirrers also backed Brother Willie Eason, an outstanding preacher-guitarist in the Blind Willie Johnson mold. But their own recordings were strictly a cappella, with four-part harmonies that were so rich as to render any musical accompaniment superfluous.
In 1950, the group cut some songs for Specialty Records, including “By and By.” Then, that December, Harris left the Stirrers. He went on to form other gospel groups, including the Christland Singers and Gospel Paraders. His replacement was a Chicago teenager named Sam Cooke, who had been singing with the Highway QC’s. With Cooke singing lead, the Soul Stirrers recorded some tracks for Specialty in March 1951. Those songs included “Jesus Gave Me Water” and “Peace in the Valley.” Elvis Presley recorded the latter song during Sun Records’ Million Dollar Quartet session. He then sang it on The Ed Sullivan Show, and he recorded it for RCA in 1957.
With Cooke’s irresistible voice and magnetic personality, the Soul Stirrers attained peak popularity. All of the graceful phrasings and sensual sounds that later took him to the top of the pop charts developed during his time with the Soul Stirrers. Many consider his work with the group to be his best. “I’m not even interested in his pop records,” Jerry Wexler once said.
Cooke left to pursue a career in secular music in 1957 and was replaced by Johnnie Taylor. The Arkansas-born Taylor had also sang with the Highway QC’s, but he was singing with a Chicago group called the Melody Makers when he replaced Cooke in the Soul Stirrers. “I was singing in this little group,” he told writer Robert Palmer, “and here was this big star asking me if I’d join the biggest gospel group around. Man, I thought I was on Easy Street.”
Taylor sang their brilliant, Cooke-produced recording of “Stand By Me Father” (later reworked by soul singer Ben E. King into the classic “Stand By Me").
The group went through numerous personnel changes, and Jesse Farley was eventually the lone remaining original member. But the Soul Stirrers remained a viable and functioning institution, recording several great songs for Chess Records, including an album dedicated to Sam Cooke. Johnnie Taylor’s replacement, Jimmy Outler, was killed in 1967, and he was replaced by another member of the Highway QC’s, Willie Rogers.
Legacy of the Soul Stirrers continues to echo through the parallel worlds of gospel and soul music, and their urgent, expressive recordings never sound outdated.
The Soul Stirrers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989, and they were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2000.