Clarence Fountain knows just how thin the line is between gospel and rock ‘n’ roll. A word here and a word there, and a song can leap from one field to the other.
He and his group, the Five Blind Boys Of Alabama, were there when gospel first turned into rock ‘n’ roll. They were even invited to jump on the bandwagon. But not only did they refuse to climb aboard, they also lived long enough to help change some rock ‘n’ roll back into gospel on their new album, Spirit Of The Century.
In 1957, the Blind Boys were signed to Specialty Records, a Los Angeles indie label whose roster included many similar gospel acts. Each group boasted an outstanding lead singer — Fountain, the Pilgrim Travelers’ Kylo Turner, the Swan Silvertones’ Claude Jeter, the Chosen Gospel Singers’ Lou Rawls, and the Soul Stirrers’ Sam Cooke.
Also on the roster was Richard Penniman, a former female impersonator and boogie-woogie pianist who Specialty producer Bumps Blackwell had transformed into a chart-topping star named Little Richard. There was money to be made in this new thing called rock ‘n’ roll, and Blackwell convinced the handsome young Cooke that he could get some of it. He wouldn’t have to change very much, just a few words — if only he would sing about his baby instead of his Lord.
So it was that on June 1, 1957, Cooke and Blackwell recorded “You Send Me”. This ode to teenage infatuation distinguished itself from the competition by the singer’s church-like devotion for his sweetheart and by the gospel-like way he broke the “you” of the title line into four thrilling syllables. Soon the rest of America would learn why Cooke was already a star in the nation’s black churches.
“Sam and I were in the same studio,” Fountain recalls. “He was cutting rock ‘n’ roll and I was cutting gospel. Bumps persuaded him that there was more money in rock ‘n’ roll than in gospel, and Sam wouldn’t have to split that money with the rest of the group. Sam told me he wanted a swimming pool in his backyard like everyone else.
“We were buddies. When he was singing with the Soul Stirrers and I was with the Blind Boys, we were running up and down the road together. But he saw he could make more money with rock ‘n’ roll. He put out one song called ‘Candy’ and that did nothing. But when his brother wrote that song, “You Send Me”, he went right to the top. And he sang it good. His rock ‘n’ roll sounded just as good as his gospel, because he didn’t change anything; it was the same except for a few words.”
But those few words made all the difference. The chords might stay the same; the rhythm might stay the same; the melody might stay the same. Even the quality of wholehearted desire might stay the same, but if the object of that desire changed, so did the audience. Hormone-maddened teenagers had no patience for songs about Jesus, and strict churchgoers had no tolerance for songs about kissing and hugging.
Ray Charles had already proven, back in 1954, how easily a gospel hymn could become a rock ‘n’ roll hit. He had taken the gospel lyric — “I’ve got a Savior, way over Jordan; He’s saved my soul, oh yeah” — and changed it to, “I got a woman, way across town; she’s good to me, oh yeah.” Over the next few years, he turned Dorothy Love Coates’ hymn “Hallelujah, I Love Him So” into “Hallelujah, I Love Her So”; the Pilgrim Travelers’ “I’ve Got A New Home” into “Lonely Avenue”; and Clara Ward’s “This Little Light Of Mine” into “This Little Girl Of Mine”.
But Sam Cooke was different. Charles had never been a touring gospel singer; he was merely borrowing the hymns of his youth to break out of his pigeonhole as a Nat King Cole imitator. Cooke, though, was as big a star as the gospel circuit had, and his defection to the rock world rattled the gospel community.
“When ‘You Send Me’ got hot,” Fountain recalls, “Sam wasn’t established yet in the rock ‘n’ roll field, so he tried to hang on in the gospel field as long as he could. But people in the churches walked out by the hundreds. It wasn’t that the music was any different, because he didn’t change anything. They just wouldn’t accept him singing that rock ‘n’ roll.
“Bumps asked me to sing some rock ‘n’ roll. He showed me the map to the bank. But I had promised the Lord I was going to sing gospel, and when you make God a promise, you better stick to it. You can’t back up on Him. I think Sam made a promise to God like I did, and you notice he’s gone and I’m still here. In fact, it wasn’t long after Sam made his decision and talked all that big talk that God took him out.”
This interpretation of history conveniently ignores that rock ‘n’ roll reprobates such as Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis are still going strong, while gospel greats such as Archie Brownlee and Julius Cheeks died all too young. Still, Fountain’s attitude indicates just how seriously church insiders take the alteration of a few lyrics.