Chapter One The Singing Children
Let me tell you a story on Sam. Sam was always ambitious. He always knew exactly what he wanted to do. When we was very little boys, we were playing, and he had these popsicle sticks-you know them little wooden sticks? He had about twenty of them, and he lined them sticks up, stuck 'em in the ground, and said, "This is my audience, see? I'm gonna sing to these sticks." He said, "This prepare me for my future." Another time he said, "Hey, C., you know what?" I said, "What?" He said, "I figured out my life, man." He said, "I'm never gonna have a nine-to-five job." I said, "What you mean, Sam?" He said, "Man, I figured out the whole system." He said, "It's designed, if you work, to keep you working, all you do is live from payday to payday-at the end of the week you broke again." He said, "The system is designed like that." And I'm listening. I'm seven and he's nine, and he's talking about "the system"! I said, "What are you gonna do, then, if you ain't gonna work, Sam?" He said, "I'm gonna sing, and I'm going to make me a lot of money." And that's just what he did. - L.C. Cooke, on his brother's early ambitions
Sam cook was a golden child around whom a family mythology was constructed, long before he achieved fame or added the e to his last name.
There are all the stories about Sam as a child: how he was endowed with second sight; how he sang to the sticks; how he convinced his neighborhood "gang" to tear the slats off backyard fences, then sold them to their previous owners for firewood; how he was marked with a gift from earliest childhood on and never wavered from its fulfillment.
He was the adored middle child of a Church of Christ (Holiness) minister with untrammeled ambitions for his children.
Movies were strictly forbidden. So were sports, considered gambling because the outcome inevitably determined a winner and a loser. Church took up all day Sunday, with preparations starting on Saturday night.
They were respectable, upwardly mobile, proud members of a proudly striving community, but they didn't shrink from a fight. Their daddy told them to stand up for themselves and their principles, no matter what the situation was. Respect your elders, respect authority-but if you were in the right, don't back down for anyone, not the police, not the white man, not anyone. One time neighborhood bullies tried to block Sam's way to school, and he told them he didn't care if he had to fight them every day, he was going to school. He lived in a world in which he was told hard work would be rewarded, but he could see evidence to the contrary all around him. Their father told them that their true reward would come in heaven, but Sam was unwilling to wait. He was unwilling to live in a world of superstition and fear, and even his father's strictures and homilies were subject to the same rational skepticism, the same unwavering gaze with which he seemed to have been born. He was determined to live his life by his own lights and no one else's.
He was born January 22, 1931, in Clarksdale, Mississippi, the fifth of the Reverend Charles Cook and his wife Annie Mae's eight children (the oldest, Willie, was Annie Mae's first cousin, whom they took in at three upon his mother's death). Charles and Annie Mae met at a Church of Christ (Holiness) convention at which he was preaching, and they started going to church together. He was a young widower of twenty-three with a child that was being raised by his late wife's family. Born to sharecroppers in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1897, he had been baptized into the Holiness church at the age of eight, and when the church split in two a couple of years later (its founders, Charles Price Jones and Charles Harrison Mason, differed over the importance of speaking in tongues as certain confirmation of "spirit baptism," with Mason declaring this surrender to a force that overcomes recognizable human speech to be a sure sign of grace), the Cooks remained with the Jackson-based Reverend Jones, while Reverend Mason's followers became the better-known, more populous (and more prosperous) Memphis-based Church of God in Christ.
Just fourteen when she met Charles, Annie Mae was fair-skinned, round-faced, with hair she could sit on. She was sixteen when they married in November of 1923. She had grown up in Mound Bayou, a self-sufficient all-black township founded in 1887 and known as "the negro capital of Mississippi." The granddaughter of a businessman reputed, according to family legend, to be "the second-wealthiest man in Mound Bayou," she was raised by an aunt after her mother died in childbirth. She was working as a cook when she met her future husband and by her husband's account won him over with her culinary skills, inviting him home from church one day and producing a four-course meal in the forty-five minutes between services.
They had three children (Mary, Charles Jr., and Hattie), spaced eighteen months to two years apart, before Sam was born in January of 1931, with his brother L.C. ("it don't stand for nothing") following twenty-three months later.
Within weeks of L.C.'s birth Charles Cook was on the road, hitchhiking to Chicago with a fellow preacher with thirty-five cents in his pocket. It was the Lord who had convinced him he couldn't fail, but it was his children's education, and the opportunity he was determined to give them to get ahead, that provided the burning motivation. He had sharecropped, worked on the railroad, and most recently been a houseboy in one of Clarksdale's wealthiest homes while continuing to do the Lord's work as a Holiness circuit preacher-but he was not prepared to consign his children to the same fate. He was thirty-five years old at the time, and as certain of his reasons sixty-three years later. "It was to educate my children. It was a better chance up here. In Mississippi they didn't even furnish you with the schoolbooks. But I didn't put nothing ahead of God."
Charles Cook preached his way to Chicago, "mostly for white folks, they give me food and money," he said, for a sermon that satisfactorily answered the "riddle" of salvation, "proving that man could pray his self out of hell." Within weeks of his arrival, he had found work and sent for his wife and children, who arrived on a Greyhound bus at the Twelfth Street station, the gateway to Chicago's teeming South Side.
It was a whole different world in Chicago, a separate self-contained world in which the middle class mingled with the lowest down, in which black doctors and lawyers and preachers and schoolteachers strove to establish standards and set realistic expectations for a community that included every type of individual engaged in every type of human endeavor, from numbers kings to domestics, from street players to steel workers, from race heroes to self-made millionaires. It was a society which, despite a form of segregation as cruel and pernicious as the Southern kind, could not be confined or defined, a society of which almost all of its variegated members, nearly every one of them an immigrant from what was commonly referred to as South America, felt an integral part. It was a society into which the Cook family immediately fit.
From the moment of his arrival, Reverend Cook found his way to Christ Temple Cathedral, an imposing edifice which the Church of Christ (Holiness) had purchased for $55,000 six years earlier, just ten years after its modest prayer-meeting beginnings in the Federal Street home of Brother Holloway. He preached an occasional sermon and served as a faithful congregant and assistant pastor while working a number of jobs, including for a brief time selling burial insurance, before he found steady employment at the Reynolds Metals plant in McCook, Illinois, some fifteen miles out of town, where he would eventually rise to a position as union shop steward.
The family lived briefly in a kitchenette apartment on Thirty-third and State but soon moved into more comfortable surroundings on the fourth floor of the four-story Lenox Building, at 3527 Cottage Grove Avenue (there were five separately numbered entrances to the Lenox Building, with the back porches all interconnected), in the midst of a busy neighborhood not far from the lake. There was a drugstore on the corner, the Blue Goose grocery store was just up the street, and directly across from the Blue Goose was a chicken market where you could select your own live chicken and have it killed and dressed on the spot. Westpoint Baptist Church was on the other side of the street, all the players hung out at the poolroom on Thirty-sixth, and Ellis Park, an elegant enclave of privately owned row houses surrounding a park with two swimming pools in the middle, ran between Thirty-sixth and Thirty-seventh across Cottage Grove.
The new baby, Agnes, was almost two years old when Reverend Cook, through the intervention of one of his original Jackson mentors, Bishop J. L. I. Conic, finally got his own congregation at Christ Temple Church in Chicago Heights, some thirty miles out of town. This quickly became the focus of the Cooks' family life.
We was in church every time that church door was open. That was a must, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Saturday night Mama would cook our dinner. Then we'd all get up about 6:30 Sunday morning, 'cause everyone had to take their bath-seven children, one bathroom!-so we could be dressed and be at church at nine o'clock for Sunday school. After Sunday school you had eleven o'clock service, with prayer and singing, and Papa would do the sermon for the day. Then Mama would take us to the basement and heat up our food in the church kitchen. Then we had afternoon service, and after that BYPU, which is a young people's service, then the eight o'clock service until about 10 o'clock, when we would go home. Plus Wednesday night prayer meeting! One time Mary, our oldest sister-she was used to doing what she wanted-decided she wasn't going to go to church. She said, "I know what I'm gonna do. I'm going to wash my hair, and then I'm going to tell Papa, 'I can't go to church 'cause I just got my hair washed, and I haven't got it done.'" Well, she washed her hair, and she told Papa, but he just said, "That's all right, just come right on." So she had to go to church with her hair all a mess. Papa didn't play. You had to either go to church or get out of his house. - Hattie, Agnes, and L.C. Cook in a spirited chorus of voices recalling their early religious training
The Chicago Heights church, which had first been organized in 1919, grew dramatically under Reverend Cook's stewardship. The "seventeen" previous ministers, he told gospel historian David Tenenbaum, had been able to do nothing to increase the size or fervor of a congregation made up for the most part of workers from the local Ford assembly plant, but, Reverend Cook said, "I worked up to one hundred and twenty-five, I filled the church up. You had to be sure to come there on time if you wanted a seat."
He was, according to his daughter Agnes, a "fire-and-brimstone country preacher" who always sang before he preached, strictly the old songs-two of his favorites were "You Can't Hurry God" and "This Little Light of Mine." He took his sermon from a Bible text and was known to preach standing on one leg for two minutes at a time when he got carried away by his message. The congregation was vocal in its response, shouting, occasionally speaking in tongues, with church mothers dressed in nurse's whites prepared to attend to any of the congregation who were overcome. The Cooks didn't shout, but Annie Mae would cry sometimes, her children could always tell when the sermon really got to her and her spirit was full by the tears streaming down her cheeks. The other ladies in the congregation were equally moved, for despite his stern demeanor, the Reverend Cook was a handsome man-and despite his numerous strictures, as his children were well aware, the Reverend Cook definitely had an eye for the ladies. Annie Mae sang in the choir, which was accompanied by a girl named Flora on piano, and different groups would come out occasionally to present spiritual and gospel music programs. One group in particular, the Progressive Moaners, became regular visitors-they always got a good response-and that is what gave the Reverend Cook the idea for the Singing Children.
The Cook children were all musical, but Charles, the next-to-oldest, was the heart and soul of the family group. He was eleven, "and I had to sing every Sunday in church, my daddy used to make me sing all the time, stop me from going out in the street and playing with my friends." He and his big sister, Mary, sang lead in the five-member quartet. Hattie, who was eight, sang baritone; Sam, already focused on music as a career at six, sang tenor; and L.C., the baby of the group, was their four-year-old bass singer.
They practiced at home at first but soon were "upsetting" the church on a regular basis, taking the Progressive Moaners' place at the center of the service and in the process reflecting as much on their father, Reverend Cook, as on themselves. They sang "Precious Lord, Take My Hand" and "They Nailed Him to the Cross" with Flora accompanying them. "We just practiced our own selves and decided what songs we was going to sing," recalled Hattie. "Every time the church doors opened we had to be there."
Before long they were going around to other churches and leading off their father's out-of-town revivals in Indianapolis and Gary and Kankakee. The entire family traveled together, all nine of them, generally staying with the minister, but not infrequently having to split up among various church households due to the size of the group. Each of the Singing Children had a freshness and charm. They were a good-looking family, even the boys had pretty, long bangs, and the church ladies used to cluck over that baby bass singer who put himself into the music so earnestly, and the handsome lead singer-he was a big boy who carried himself in a manly fashion-but no one missed the little tenor singer, either, the one with the sparkle in his eye, who could just melt your heart with the way he communicated the spirit of the song. Sometimes, when he got too many preaching engagements, Reverend Cook would send them to sing in his place. "When they'd come back, the people would tell me, say, 'Anytime you can't come, Preach, just send the children to sing.'"
All the children were proud of what they were doing, both for themselves and for their father. And their father was proud of them, not only for causing the Cook family sound (his sound) to become more widely known but for adding substantially to his store of entrepreneurial activities: the church, the revivals, the riders he carried out to Reynolds each day for a fee in his nearly brand-new 1936 Chevrolet, soon to be replaced by a Hudson Terraplane, and, when Charles was old enough to drive, a pair of limousines ("Brother, I made my money!" he was wont to declare in later years with unabashed pride).
But Charles, a gruff, sometimes taciturn boy with a disinclination to show his sensitivity, soon grew disenchanted with the spotlight. "Aw, man, my daddy used to make me sing too much. I used to get so tired of singing I said, I'm gonna get up there and mess up, and he won't ask me to sing no more, but once I got up there, that song would get so good, shit, I couldn't mess up. I couldn't mess up. But I said, if I ever get grown, if I ever make twenty-one, I'm not going to sing for nobody. And I didn't."
Meanwhile, Sam, the irrepressible middle child, made no secret of his own impatience for the spotlight. Even L.C., who slept in the same room with him and appreciated wholeheartedly his brother's wit and spark, was taken aback by Sam's undisguised ambition. Charles could easily have resented his brother's importunity, but instead he retained a strictly pragmatic point of view. "Well, he had such a pretty little tenor-I mean, it was kind of undescribable, his tone, his singing. But we didn't have nobody to replace him. So we wouldn't let him lead. We were the lead singers, my sister and I. We pretty much had the say-so."
It was a busy life. The children all went to Doolittle Elementary School just two blocks west of the Lenox Building, and they were all expected to do well. Both parents checked their homework, though even at an early age the children became aware that their mother possessed more formal schooling than their father, and she would even substitute-teach at Doolittle on occasion. Reverend Cook, on the other hand, conveyed a kind of uncompromising rectitude and pride, which, in all of their recollection, he was determined to instill in his children. "He had a saying," said his youngest daughter, Agnes, "that he would write in everybody's course book when they graduated, and he would recite it to you constantly: 'Once a task is once begun / Never stop until it's done / Be the labor great or small / Do it well or not at all.' He always told us, 'If you're going to shine shoes, be the best shoe-shine boy out there. If you're going to sweep a street, be the best street sweeper. Whatever you strive to be, be the best at it, whether it's a small job or working in top management.' He always felt that you could do anything that you put your mind to."