Sam Cooke Fan Club

The History & Discography of SAR Records

The History

This history of SAR Records, written by Ray Funk, was featured in the August 26, 1988 edition of Goldmine Magazine. It is reproduced with the permission of the respective copyright holders. (See below for the official source acknowledgment.)

While Sam Cooke's legacy remains strong, with a number of excellent recent reissues and film and print biographies in the works, his legacy as a record company owner and record producer has received little exposure. Cooke and his long-time friend and singing associate J. W. Alexander started the SAR label in 1957. It was dissolved shortly after Cooke's death in 1964. The rights to the recordings and the publishing were bought up shortly thereafter by Allen Klein, who was Cooke's last manager. Fifty-seven singles and four LPs were issued on the SAR label and eleven 45s and two LPs on its companion label, Derby Records.

SAR Records was geared for the rhythm 'n' blues market, while Derby was more pop-oriented material. Both Cooke and Alexander were long-time gospel quartet singers who had left that field for the glamour and money of pop and R&B. Their two record labels showcased their skills as songwriters and producers; they did most of the production and a great deal of the songwriting on everything they recorded. Along with the record company, they had their own music publishing companies: KAGS Music Co. (BMI) and Malloy Music Co. (ASCAP).

While record companies might sound like big affairs, in SAR's case this was not so. The office of SAR Records, at 6425 Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, was a small affair: just two desks and a piano. Session work was done at various independent studios around town. Experienced bandleader and arranger Rene Hall, who had worked extensively for Specialty throughout the '50s, was the "house" arranger. He had an office around the corner and put most of the sessions together. Many of the records have a strong Sam Cooke sound; if you're a Cooke fan, they'll very likely appeal to you. Very little material from SAR has been reissued, and all SAR and Derby records remain very collectible, though not particularly expensive. Hopefully, someday someone will plot out sensible compilation LPs of most of the issued cuts and the best of what may remain unissued.

The artists on the label are largely singers and musicians that Cooke and Alexander knew through their years on the "Gospel Highway" as quartet singers. The label can't be properly understood without understanding how strong the gospel connection was with almost every artist on the label. In a much smaller and more intimate fashion, SAR was the kind of family-affair record company that Motown tried unsuccessfully to be. Close friends and long-term associates from their years as quartet singers out on the road touring the country were called in by Cooke and Alexander to record for the label.

After growing up in Chicago and singing with the Highway QCs, Cooke joined the Soul Stirrers in 1950; with his voice, they soon became the best-selling gospel group for Specialty Records and one of the top-drawing quartets on the circuit. The other successful gospel quartet for Specialty was the Pilgrim Travelers, managed by their tenor singer, J. W. Alexander. From 1950-57, they were two of the hottest acts in gospel, appearing on big gospel package shows going from the Apollo Theatre in New York to the Howard in Washington, D.C., and the biggest auditoriums around the country. The two groups of ten worked together, and over time Cooke and Alexander became friends.

The story of Sam Cooke recording for Bumps Blackwell as Dale Cook has often been told. His success led him to leave the Soul Stirrers and try his luck with secular recordings. Meanwhile, the Pilgrim Travelers shortly thereafter made a brief try at pop stardom themselves, touring as the Travelers, with Lou Rawls as their lead singer. They recorded a few R&B numbers for Andex, most notably the novelty number "Teenage Machine Age." When Cooke went on the road as a pop singer, the Travelers toured with him. It was during such a tour that a car accident hospitalized Lou Rawls and ended the Travelers' career. With the breakup of the group, J.W. Alexander went into production and management, and started working closely with Cooke. His involvement sparked the start of SAR.

The first records on the label were by the group that Cooke had left when he entered the pop field, the Soul Stirrers. Specialty, the label that had the Soul Stirrers under contract since 1950, lost interest in the group when Cooke's replacement, Johnnie Taylor, did not generate the sales that the Soul Stirrers had when Cooke was the lead singer. Cooke's new-found wealth and loyalty to the group led him to issue Soul Stirrers recordings himself if Specialty wasn't interested.

The company's name, SAR, supposedly came from the initials of the first names of its founders, a shortened form of Sam and Alex Records. The name for the music publishing company, KAGS, was taken from the nickname of Lou Rawls' father.

After releasing the Soul Stirrers 45, the label tried its hand at the rhythm 'n' blues market. The first secular recordings issued were by Kylo Turner. Though little remembered now, he had been one of the two lead singers for the Pilgrim Travelers throughout the '50s and had generated a great deal of excitement as a lead singer.

He had left the group a few years before Alexander and had been replaced by Lou Rawls. However, the record went nowhere and Turner recorded only one other pop 45 in the early '60s. He never made the transition to pop, and continued to sing with a gospel group in Chicago, the Glorybound Singers, until shortly before his death a few years ago.

The next artist recruited was Johnny Morisette. Born in the South Pacific, Morisette had been raised in Mobile, Ala., where he had grown up singing with a local quartet, the Bells of Heaven. Though the group never recorded, they appeared on local radio and television. They were on local programs when nationally known quartets like the Soul Stirrers and Pilgrim Travelers would come to town. At the time, Mobile was a regular stop for touring black gospel quartets. Morisette and Cooke became friends during one of his tours through Mobile. In 1952, Johnny Morisette decided to abandon gospel and hitchhiked out to Los Angeles. He did a bit of recording for Dootone and Specialty before recording for SAR. In an interview with Tim Schuller, he recounted how he came to record with Cooke:

"I'm in the streets, at a friend-of-mine's breakfast club called Master's, and when I come out the door I seen Sam. We got to rappin', went over to a Chinese restaurant and he told me they were gonna start a record company and did I want in? So we were in Rene Hall's office and Sam got his guitar and started singin' 'Iíll never come back to you,' and I said, 'Yeah, I like that!" "That was 'Never,' my first Johnnie Morisette record. The others were all under Johnnie Two Voice. Sam and them said, 'You got a pretty name, man; why don't you use your own name?' So that's when me became me. When that record hit man, bam!" "Never" was the first of eight singles that Morisette had on SAR. His second release, "Dorothy," is an interesting adaptation of a traditional gospel number, "I've Got Heaven on My Mind." The only one to make the charts was his biggest hit, "Meet Me At The Twisting Place." It was on the Billboard R&B charts for four weeks in 1962, rising to # 18. It was one of SAR's all-time best sellers -but top sales must go to the next group.

The Sims Twins had the best-selling record that was released on Sar. A Sam Cooke composition, "Soothe Me," first hit the charts in October 1961 and stayed there for 22 weeks, Reaching #4. Of course, the Sims Twins had been gospel singers. They started out in a 1arger family gospel group, the Sims Brothers Sextet, who recorded two obscure records for Dootone in 1952 (so obscure that no copies are known to survive of either record!). The group was active only around Los Angeles and never did much traveling. When they broke up, the youngest members, Bobby and Ken Sims (who really are twins), started singing as a duo in churches. It was there that Sam Cooke heard them and convinced them to come and do same background singing. They went in the studios to sing background on "Cupid." Then he was working on "Soothe Me," a song he wrote, and he again wanted them to sing backup. When he was listening to a studio tape of their singing on it, he never did record his voice over theirs as he originally intended, and issued it as the record.

One of the most important additions to the label in 1961 was SAR's first and only employee, an experienced white songwriter named Zelda Samuels. Samuels came to the label when SAR and the two music publishing companies had grown sufficiently to need someone full-time to handle the day-to-day business. She was perfect for the job, having previously worked for Decca Records in distribution, its subsidiary Coral Records in A&R, then for Fred Fisher Music in music publishing, where she also wrote lyrics. She stayed with SAR until it folded.

With both Cooke and Alexander on the road most of the time; on most days she was SAR Records. She worked closely with Cooke and Alexander, co-authoring many compositions. Since the label folded Samuels has continued to write songs (over 200 have been published) and for 23 years has been Mel Carter's manager, an association that started when she was with SAR.

The Valentinos were the only other rhythm 'n' blues vocal group to chart for SAR. Their record, "Looking for a Love," hit the charts in July 1962 and stayed on for eight weeks, reaching #8. Originally a family group, the Womack Brothers (Bobby, Cecil, Harris, Curtis, Friendly), from Cleveland, Ohio, were very popular locally before they came to Cooke's attention through the efforts of Roscoe Robinson. They started touring with Cooke, and Bobby Womack also worked as the guitarist in Cooke's band. While their parents wanted them to stay in gospel, the brothers decided to try heir fortunes with rhythm 'n' blues. As the Valentinos, they were successful for several years until Bobby Womack decided to go off on his own. While they recorded a great gospel record on SAR, it was the transformation of their arrangement of the gospel standard, "I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray," into "Looking For A Love" that became a hit.

Zelda Samuels had heard the group singing around the studio with "I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray." It was to that melody that she first wrote the lyrics to "Looking for a Love," which she gave to J. W. Alexander, who tinkered with the words as the song took shape. But it was Cooke, in town to supervise the recording session, who added the hard-driving "looking, looking" refrain that added the extra power that helped make this song memorable.

Sam Cooke also got his younger brother L.C. Cooke to record for SAR. L.C. was, however, no newcomer to music or recording. He started out as his brother did, singing gospel while barely a teenager. His first group was the Nobleairs, a religious quartet made up of friends from his neighborhood. From the Nobleairs, L.C. got drafted into the Army in 1952 and continued to sing until his discharge in 1954. In 1956, in Chicago, he served as a member of the Magnificents, a popular Chicago rhythm 'n' blues group that had earlier hit with "Up on the Mountain."

His recordings for SAR were the start of a solo career that lasted about 10 years, including records for Chess, Destination, and other labels. SAR featured three female singers: Jackie Ross, Patience Valentine, and Linda Carr. Jackie Ross was only 16 when she recorded her first record for SAR. The daughter of a husband-and-wife evangelist team, she had known Cooke since she was very small. He was visiting her family in Chicago where she was singing gospel, and was so impressed that he convinced her family to let him record her on the bluesy "Hard Times." She decided not to go to Los Angeles as Cooke requested, and had had a moderate career issuing several excellent sides on Chess and other labels. Patience Valentine was a local Los Angeles singer who seems to have slipped into obscurity since her few numbers for SAR.

SAR had only two instrumental issues. The first was by Clifton White, who was the guitarist in Cooke's band. The other was by local Los Angeles bandleader Gus Jenkins, who had several releases on other labels.

The Derby label was started as a companion label to SAR for pop recordings. Alexander chose the name because he wanted a name that conotated class and had an easily definable image for a label logo. Derby featured the first release by Billy Preston and several by Mel Carter. (The story of Mel Carter's career bas been told at length in Goldmine No. 121.) His recording of "When a Boy Falls in Love" was the only record the labels produced to enter the pop charts. But - as if you couldn't guess by now - Preston also started as a gospel singer, as a member of the Raymond Rasberry Singers. He continues to be a popular singer, actor and has also recorded recently in the gospel field, gaining a Grammy nomination in 1985 for an album on Onyx International Records. In 1956, he was voted the best tenor singer by the National Association of Choirs.

The act that the label most extensively recorded was not a pop singer or group but the group that Cooke came from, the Soul Stirrers. After Johnny Taylor left, the new lead was a singer named Jimmy Outler. A fine lead, again very much in the Sam Cooke mold, he was with the group the whole time they were on SAR. He also followed his predecessors to popular music, recording one record on Okeh before being murdered in 1964. The two albums by the Soul Stirrers on SAR are two of the rarest and most collectible gospel items around. The most popular number that the group recorded on SAR and the title of their first album was "Jesus Be a Fence around Me." Another Cooke composition, this song ranks with "Touch the Hem of His Garment" as one of the best gospel numbers he wrote.

The other gospel groups that recorded for the label also had close connections to the Soul Stirrers. R.H. Harris was the legendary lead singer whose departure from the Soul Stirrers in 1950 led to Cooke joining the group. Though he had left the Soul Stirrers to get off the road, Harris could not give up Quartet singing. He made several excellent recordings in the first half of the '50s with the Christland Singers. He then formed the Gospel Paraders and, after one recording with Specialty, they did six numbers with SAR. The one female ensemble on Sar, the Meditation Singers, were from Detroit. They were a very strong group that was formed in the late '40s by Ernestine Rundless. They also recorded for Specialty at the time that Cooke and Alexander were both on the label. Della Reese spent several years with this group, as did Laura Lee Rundless, Emestine's daughter, who had a soul career in the '60s and '70s as Laura Lee and bas recently returned to gospel. The group's connection to the Soul Stirrers comes through her father, Rev. E.A. Rundless, who was one of the original Soul Stirrers when they left Houston in the late '30s to move north.

No doubt the rarest item on the label is an EP of the Soul Stirrers featuring Sam Cooke, Nearer To Thee (SAR EP 105). It is a live recording that appears to be identical to that issued in much better fidelity on the Specialty album, Gospel Stars in Concert (SP 2153). The EP was apparently withdrawn because of contractual problems from Specialty. Not only couldn't Cooke record on his label, but even earlier live gospel recordings weren't available! Despite this, SAR Records featured a number of memorable rhythm 'n' blues performances that still sound great today.

Reprinted with permission of Goldmine magazine, published bi-weekly by Krause Productions, a subsidiary of F + W Publications Inc. To learn more, visit goldminemag.com.

Discography

ID Number: 101
Artist: The Soul Stirrers
Songs: Stand By Me, Father / He's Been A Shelter For Me

ID Number: 102
Artist: Kylo Turner
Songs: I'll Keep Thinking Of You / The Wildest Girl In Town

ID Number: 103
Artist: The Soul Stirrers
Songs: Wade In The Water / He Cares

ID Number: 104
Artist: Johnnie Morisette
Songs: Never (Come Running Back To You) / In My Heart

ID Number: 105
Artist: The Soul Stirrers with Sam Cooke
Songs: Nearer to Thee (Part 1) / Nearer to Thee (Part 2)

ID Number: 106
Artist: Joel Pauley
Songs: That's Why I Cried / Slim Jim

ID Number: 107
Artist: Johnnie Morisette
Songs: Always On My Mind / Dorothy

ID Number: 108
Artist: The Soul Stirrers
Songs: I'm A Pilgrim / Jesus Be A Fence Around Me

ID Number: 109
Artist: L.C. Cooke
Songs: Teach Me / Magic Words

ID Number: 110
Artist: The Soul Stirrers
Songs: Listen To The Angels / Toiling On

ID Number: 111
Artist: Patience Valentine
Songs: Dance And Let Your Hair Down / In The Dark

ID Number: 112
Artist: L.C. Cooke
Songs: The Lover / Sufferin'

ID Number: 113
Artist: Johnnie Morisette
Songs: Damper / Don't Cry Baby

ID Number: 114
Artist: Johnnie Taylor
Songs: A Whole Lotta Woman / Why Why Why

ID Number: 115
Artist: Unknown
Songs: Unknown

ID Number: 116
Artist: The Soul Stirrers
Songs: I Love The Lord / I'm Thankful

ID Number: 117
Artist: The Simms Twins
Songs: Soothe Me / I'll Never Come Running Back To You

ID Number: 118
Artist: Womack Brothers
Songs: Something's Wrong / Yield Not To Temptation

ID Number: 119
Artist: Patience Valentine
Songs: I Miss You So / If You Don't Come

ID Number: 120
Artist: The Soul Stirrers
Songs: Heaven Is My Home / Lead Me Jesus

ID Number: 121
Artist: Johnnie Morisette
Songs: You Are My Sunshine / Your Heart Will Sing

ID Number: 122
Artist: Sam Cooke
Songs: Just For You / Made For Me

ID Number: 123
Artist: Unknown
Songs: Unknown

ID Number: 124
Artist: The Soul Stirrers
Songs: Must Jesus Bear The Cross Alone / God Is Standing By

ID Number: 125
Artist: The Soul Stirrers
Songs: The Right To Love / The Smile

ID Number: 126
Artist: Johnnie Morisette
Songs: Meet Me At The Twisting Place / Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere

ID Number: 127
Artist: R.H. Harris & His Gospel Paraders
Songs: Pass Me Not / Troublin' Mind

ID Number: 128
Artist: Clifton White
Songs: Dance What You Wanna / Theme Of Tomorrow

ID Number: 129
Artist: Jackie Ross
Songs: Hard Times / Hold Me

ID Number: 130
Artist: The Simms Twins
Songs: You're Pickin' In The Right Cotton Patch / Double Portion Of My Love

ID Number: 131
Artist: Johnnie Taylor
Songs: Rome (Wasn't Built In A Day) / Never Never

ID Number: 132
Artist: Valentinos
Songs: Looking For A Love / Somewhere There's A Girl

ID Number: 133
Artist: Johnnie Morisette
Songs: Sho' Miss You Baby / Wildest Girl In Town

ID Number: 134
Artist: L.C. Cooke
Songs: Tell Me / You're Workin' Out Your Bag

ID Number: 135
Artist: R.H. Harris & His Gospel Paraders
Songs: Sometimes / Somebody

ID Number: 136
Artist: The Simms Twins
Songs: I Gopher You / Good Good Lovin'

ID Number: 137
Artist: Valentinos
Songs: Darling Come Back Home / I'll Make It Alright

ID Number: 138
Artist: The Simms Twins
Songs: There's Where It's At / Movin' And A Groovin'

ID Number: 139
Artist: Johnnie Morisette
Songs: Don't Throw Your Love On Me So Strong / Blue Monday

ID Number: 140
Artist: The Soul Stirrers
Songs: Praying Ground / No Need To Worry

ID Number: 141
Artist: L.C. Cooke
Songs: The Wobble / Chalk Line

ID Number: 142
Artist: Patience Valentine
Songs: Unlucky Girl / Ernestine

ID Number: 143
Artist: Meditation Singers
Songs: There Must Be A Place / Behold Your Hand

ID Number: 144
Artist: Valentinos
Songs: She's So Good To Me / Baby, Lots Of Luck

ID Number: 145
Artist: The Soul Stirrers
Songs: Free At Last / His Love

ID Number: 146
Artist: R.H. Harris & His Gospel Paraders
Songs: Even Me / Oh Lord, Come And Ease

ID Number: 147
Artist: Johnnie Morisette
Songs: I Don't Need Nobody But You / Black Night

ID Number: 148
Artist: L.C. Cooke
Songs: Put Me Down Easy / Take Me For What I Am

ID Number: 149
Artist: Gus Jenkins
Songs: Right Shake / Don't Get Sassy

ID Number: 150
Artist: The Soul Stirrers
Songs: Oh Mary Don't You Weep / Looking Back

ID Number: 151
Artist: Johnnie Morisette
Songs: Gotta Keep Smilin' / I'll Never Come Running Back To You

ID Number: 152
Artist: Valentinos
Songs: It's All Over Now / Tired Of Living In The Country

ID Number: 153
Artist: Linda Carr
Songs: Sweet Talk / Jackie, Bobby, Sonny, Bill

ID Number: 154
Artist: Soul Stirrers
Songs: Lead Me To Calvary / Mother, Don't You Worry About Me

ID Number: 155
Artist: Valentinos
Songs: Everybody Wants To Fall In Love / Bitter Dreams

ID Number: 156
Artist: Johnnie Taylor
Songs: Oh How I Love You / Run, But You Can't Hide

ID Number: 157
Artist: Patience Valentine
Songs: Woman In A Man's World / Lost And Looking

ID Number: 701
Artist: The Soul Stirrers
Album Title: Jesus Be A Fence Around Me
Songs:

  • I'm A Pilgrim
  • Listen To The Angels
  • Jesus Be A Fence Around Me
  • Toiling On
  • He's Been A Shelter For Me
  • Stand By Me, Father
  • Must Jesus Bear The Cross Alone?
  • Don't Leave Me
  • I'm Thankful
  • I Love The Lord
  • He Cares
  • Wade In The Water

ID Number: 702
Artist: The Soul Stirrers
Album Title: Unknown
Songs: Unknown

ID Number: 703
Artist: Various SAR Artists
Album Title: Gospel Pearls
Songs: Unknown

ID Number: 704
Artist: The Soul Stirrers
Album Title: Encore
Songs:

  • His Love
  • No Need To Worry
  • Since I Met The Savior
  • Praying Ground
  • Amazing Grace
  • Free At Last
  • Something Here Inside
  • Time Brings About A Change
  • Joy In My Soul
  • Where Jesus Is

ID Number: 705
Artist: Sam Cooke And The Soul Stirrers
Album Title: Sam Cooke & Soul Stirrers
Songs: Unknown