The Soul Stirrers was one of Texas’s most innovative gospel groups and pioneers of the contemporary quartet sound. It was the first gospel group to incorporate two lead singers. Their unique arrangements, which served as the basis for doo-wop and R&B, set the pace for gospel and pop vocal groups making the Soul Stirrers forefathers in the development of R&B.
The musical group traces its beginnings to two different quartets. Silas Roy “Senior” Crain had been performing since the mid-1920s in Trinity, Texas, when he formed a quartet with some of the other teens in his church and named themselves the Soul Stirrers after an audience member told Crain how their music had stirred his soul. When Crain’s group fell apart, he relocated to Houston. There he met Walter La Beaux who, in September 1929, had organized the New Pleasant Green Gospel Singers with himself as tenor, Edward Allen Rundless, Jr. (second tenor), C. N. Parker (baritone), and W. R. Johnson (bass). Upon Johnson’s passing four years later, O. W. Thomas took his place and a year later, upon Parker’s passing, he was replaced by Crain. Crain joined La Beaux’s group with the condition that they change the name to the Soul Stirrers.
In 1934 La Beaux left the group to preach the gospel and was replaced by A. L. Johnson. Two years later, in 1936, Jessie James (J. J.) Farley (bass) joined the group. It was this same year that Alan Lomax first recorded the group for the Library of Congress. About this time M. L. Franklin of Trinity, Texas, sang second tenor.
Around 1937 first tenor Rebert H. Harris of Trinity, Texas, joined the group. Harris, who admired blues artists such as Leroy Carr, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Lil Green, brought a new sound to the group’s old-fashioned Jubilee harmonies. Soon Crain recruited another tenor, James Medlock, who served as the second lead vocalist to complete the classic early lineup of the group. Under Harris’s direction, the group began to develop their innovative modern gospel style by creating the “swing lead” concept by combining four-part harmony and two alternating lead vocalists. His other concepts included introducing ad-libbing lyrics, singing in delayed time, repeating words in the background, and having its members move about stage in time to the music. These new ideas differentiated the Soul Stirrers from other groups, causing their popularity to quickly grow. The group moved to Chicago in the late 1930s and toured the gospel circuit across the country. In 1939 they began performing on radio alongside the Stamps-Baxter Quartet, becoming one of the superior gospel groups by the 1940s. During World War II they played in USO shows. The group’s popularity led them to perform at the White House for President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
In 1948 the Soul Stirrers made their first public recording with Aladdin, and in 1950 they were signed to Specialty Records where they recorded more than twenty tracks for their album Shine On Me, including their debut single “By and By,” which was followed by originals “I’m Still Living on Mother’s Prayer” and “In That Awful Hour.” Through the years the group was joined by other great singers such as Leroy Taylor, Julius Cheeks, T. L. Bruster (Brewster), and R. B. Robinson, founder of the Highway QCs, which drew several of the group’s lead singers.
The 1950s brought many changes to the Soul Stirrers. Near the end of 1950, Harris left the group and was replaced by nineteen-year-old Sam Cooke, singer with the Highway QCs, who had idolized and modeled his style after Harris. The group also added Paul Foster to be the new second tenor (replacing Medlock). In 1951 the Soul Stirrers recorded their first album featuring Cooke, entitled Jesus Gave Me Water. Cooke’s youthfulness, angelic voice, and idol good looks brought a sexual presence to the group causing women, even in this religious setting, to faint. Their single “Peace in the Valley” featuring Cooke became a classic version of the hymn. By the mid-1950s longtime member Bruster retired and baritone Bob King joined the group as their first instrumentalist. He played guitar in addition to singing vocals, thus making the Soul Stirrers the first gospel group to use instrumental backup.
From 1951 to 1956 Cooke had a successful and popular career with the group. By 1956 he was transitioning into a pop singer. That year he recorded and released a secular song, “Lovable,” which closely resembled the Soul Stirrers classic “Wonderful.” The song was released under the name of Dale Cook, a name adopted by Sam so as not to offend his gospel following. He left the Soul Stirrers in 1956 to pursue what would become a successful solo career in secular music. In 1960 Cooke pondered a return to gospel and attended several Soul Stirrers concerts. In 1962 he sang at an anniversary reunion in Chicago only to be treated with disdain by the audience. Cooke was shot and killed on December 11, 1964, by a motel manager who reported that she was threatened by him.
After Cooke’s departure in 1956, he was replaced by former Highway QC alumnus, Johnnie Taylor. Just as Cooke had modeled himself after Harris, so did Taylor after Cooke. However, his popularity or fan devotion never equaled that of Cooke’s. Taylor’s most notable recording with the Soul Stirrers was “Stand by Me Father,” which was later restyled to be Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me.” Having had previous experience in R&B, Taylor moved on in 1963 to sing and record secular hits such as “Who’s Makin’ Love” (1968), “Take Care of Your Homework” (1968), and “Disco Lady” (1976). Taylor was replaced by Jimmy Otler. In 1967 Otler was replaced by Willy Rogers.
Since the 1960s the Soul Stirrers continued to tour the United States and Europe as well as make recordings. The group experienced many changes in their lineup, yet never deviated from their high level of quality. Throughout these changes, original member J. J. Farley stayed with the group until his death in 1990. The Soul Stirrers were inducted into America’s Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame in 1988, and in 1989 they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an early influence. The group was inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame Foundation in 2000. A version of the Soul Stirrers continued to perform into the early twenty-first century.