Sam Cooke knew he risked alienating his gospel fan base when he recorded his first secular single — so much so that he released it under the alias Dale Cook. Six decades later, though, it would be hard to imagine church folks still getting up in arms when one of their own steps outside the gospel realm.
Unless, of course, you're the Slide Brothers' Calvin Cooke (no relation), who was banned from performing at church gatherings for seven years after being accused of playing the blues at a Hurricane Katrina benefit.
Cooke, who'd grown up listening to sacred steel music in Cleveland's Church of the Living God, got his first guitar when he was just 9 years old. Because his fingers were still too small to reach all six strings, the fledgling musician took to using a knife for a slide. Not long after, his mom found a pedal steel in a pawn shop, and Cooke was soon mastering the sound that's echoed through Pentecostal churches since the 1930s.
In the 60 years since first taking a knife to his fretboard, Cooke's never stopped playing and singing. Yet it was only after working for 30 years at a Detroit Chrysler plant that he started to connect with a broader audience.
That pivotal moment came when Cooke and a teenage Robert Randolph both appeared on 1999's watershed Sacred Steel Live! compilation. Randolph would later record Cooke for his own label and land him a spot on last year's Experience Hendrix Tour.
And now, with his 70th birthday on the horizon, Cooke has embarked on the most high-profile project of his career. The Slide Brothers — featuring Cooke, Aubrey Ghent and real-life brothers Chuck and Darick Campbell — released their debut record in February. The album racked up rave reviews, even as its title, Robert Randolph Presents the Slide Brothers, caused critical confusion over who'd mentored whom.
Not that it matters, since the music is such an arresting mix of effects-laden slide guitars, with solos rivaling classic Duane Allman, and soulful gospel-funk arrangements echoing the Five Blind Boys and the Holmes Brothers. And then there's the album's juxtaposition of the secular and the sacred, from the tears that roll down the street in bluesman Elmore James' "The Sky is Crying" to God troubling the waters in the century-old spiritual "Wade in the Water."
In the following interview, Cooke talks about church hypocrisy, the slide tuning that came to him in a vision, and his ongoing obsession with the prog-rock band Yes.
Indy: When most secular people think of gospel music, they think of vocalists like Mahalia Jackson and early Aretha Franklin. But most of us know little about the sacred steel tradition. What was it like growing up with that music?
Calvin Cooke: Well, I've been in it ever since I was small. It was part of our church tradition for generations, and the main instruments were the steel guitar, the lead guitar and the drums.
Indy: So was that the primary music you grew up with?
CC: Well, half of our family was saved, and half of them were not. But they would still come together, and they always would play Elmore James, because he sounded like a steel guitar to them. And they would say, "Hey, Calvin, learn this: 'The Sky Is Crying.'" And they played that all the time.
Indy: Which you ended up singing on the Slide Brothers album.
CC: Yeah, Robert Randolph got us on the Hendrix tribute tour, and then we were talking with John McDermott, who runs the whole operation, about Elmore James.
They asked if I would sing that song, but I didn't think they were serious. But we reached Kansas City and they said, "C'mon, let's do this now!" And then the rest of it came along from there.
Indy: It's amazing how expressive Elmore James' guitar playing was. He didn't overdo it, just played the right notes. Is that something you try to emulate?
CC: No, I like to kind of stretch out. And overdo it. [Laughs.]
Indy: Speaking of which, you once mentioned in an interview going to see the British rock band Yes ...
CC: Yes, that's my favorite band.
Indy: I remember seeing a live video of them and being surprised how a lot of what I thought were synthesizer parts turned out to be Steve Howe on slide guitar.
CC: Right, right. Well, it was my cousin who introduced me to Yes, right around when they first started. She took me to see them in Cleveland, where I was raised, and I was just infatuated — first with Jon's voice, and then watching Steve Howe on the steel.
Indy: So are you guys gonna cover "Roundabout" at some point?
CC: Oh, no! [Laughs.] That's too complicated for me.
Indy: Tell me about the tuning you use. Does it differ from standard pedal steel?
CC: I couldn't tell you, because I only play by ear, but the younger guys around me could tell you. When I was a teenager, we were traveling in Georgia and I had a dream — well, not a dream, I guess, a vision — and it was so clear how each string should sound. I woke up and told the Bishop [gospel preacher Henry Harrison, with whom Cooke was touring at the time], who was a steel guitar player himself. And he said, "Go get the guitar and tune it to what you hear." So I kept singing it with my voice until I got the guitar tuned, and I've been playing it that way ever since.
Indy: So you must have been excited about that.
CC: Well, yes. But being a young guy, you know, you're after girls and whatnot. [Laughs.] But when I got home, I showed my mother the tuning, and she explained to me that God had given me something he hadn't given anybody else, and to not take it lightly. And so that's what happened.
Indy: I once interviewed Ben Moore from the Blind Boys of Alabama, and he was telling me that Sam Cooke, by crossing over into secular music, had decided to sell his soul to the devil.
Indy: And he wasn't speaking metaphorically — it was pretty clear he was serious about that. Have you at any point along the way encountered that sentiment?
CC: Yes, I have.
Indy: Tell me about that, if you would.
CC: Well, I was in Washington with Robert Randolph at a benefit concert for people who lost their homes to Katrina. And I had played a gospel song on that particular show with Robert. But the leader of the church heard I was singing and playing the blues, so he banned me from playing for the church. He never gave me a chance to speak up for myself or say what I was doing the benefit for. So for seven years I was banned from playing for the church, until last year they asked me to play for their convention.
Indy: Did all that shake your faith in the church?
CC: No, not in the church.
Indy: Just in that particular minister?
CC: Yeah. And if I was that bad, then I noticed no one seemed to come get me and bring me back. It's like, if you're out, you're out. And so I questioned what kind of Christians they really were.
And then Robert said, "Hey, man, why don't you just come out here and let's do a record together." So he produced an album for me called Heaven. But it never really went anywhere because he'd started working with Warner Brothers, and I don't think they let him take it any further.
Indy: They probably wanted people to think he was doing something totally unique.
CC: Right, they treated it like he was the only one who'd done it. But during that time, I still traveled with him. And one day he said, "If I ever make it, I'm coming back to get you." And then, when he made it, he kept that promise.