One of the most popular and influential gospel groups of the 20th century, the Soul Stirrers were pioneers in the development of the quartet style of gospel and, without intending it, in the creation of soul music, doo wop, and motown sound, some of the secular music that owed much to gospel.
The group was formed by Roy Crain, who had launched his first quartet, which sang in a jubilee style, in 1926 in Trinity, Texas. In the early 1930s, after Crain moved to Houston, he joined an existing group on the condition that it change its name to "the Soul Stirrers." The name "Soul Stirrers" yields from the description of one of Roy Crain's earlier quartets as "soul-stirring". Among the members of that group was R.H. Harris, who soon became its musical leader. The Soul Stirrers formed as a Jubilee quartet, transformed their sound, influenced by many hard gospel singers such as Mahalia Jackson and Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
Rebert Harris, also from Trinity, Texas, brought several changes to the Soul Stirrers that affected gospel quartet singing generally. He used a falsetto style that had its antecedents in African music, but which was new to the popular jubilee singing style of the time. He pioneered the "swing lead", in which two singers would share the job of leading the song, allowing virtuoso singers to increase the emotional intensity of the song as the lead passed between them without disturbing the four part harmony. That innovation led the Soul Stirrers, while still called a quartet, to acquire five members; later groups would have as many as seven but still consider themselves "quartets", which referred more to their style than their number.
The Soul Stirrers made other important changes in those years: ad-libbing lyrics, singing in delayed time, and repeating words in the background as both a rhythmic and emotional support for the lead singers. The Soul Stirrers along with other quartet performers, dropped the "flatfooted" style of jubilee quartets before them and expanded their repertoire from spirituals and traditional hymns to the newer gospel compositions. The group also loosened the rigid arrangements that jubilee quartets had favored to permit individual singers within the group more space for individual development.
In 1936 Alan Lomax recorded the Soul Stirrers for the Library of Congress's American music project under the Aladdin Record label. They later moved to Chicago, where they broadcast a weekly radio show (WIND) with other famous groups including Golden Gate Quartet, and The Famous Blue Jay Singers. As the gospel quartet style of singing became more popular, groups would perform in competitions called "song battles" to further increase the genre's popularity.
As World War II began, it became more difficult for many gospel quartet groups to make a living. This resulted in many quartets making a living by doing "live performances at churches, schools and neighborhood centers," (Rubin). Despite the economic situation, throughout the 40's and leading into the 50's, many gospel quartet groups were able to pursue their careers successfully. The Soul Stirrer's nationwide touring gained them an even larger audience, as they delivered the emotional fervor that popular jubilee groups, such as The Golden Gate Quartet, did not.
The Soul Stirrers signed with Specialty Records, where they recorded a number of tracks, including "By and By" and "In that Awful Hour". Harris, the most popular member of the group, soon quit, however, in order to form a new group. He was briefly replaced on lead by Paul Foster, then by the unknown Sam Cooke.
In retrospect, Sam Cooke seems like a perfect and obvious replacement for Harris, but he had some pretty big shoes to fill. Sam worked hard to emulate Harris's vocal style. Harris claims to have spent time training Sam Cooke to be his replacement but this is debated by several sources. Under Sam Cooke, The Soul Stirrers underwent a change of image: Cooke was young and had a more sexual presence onstage. Sam Cooke was "the first singer to bring a younger crowd as well as the older shouting saints," (Heilbut).
One of the first singles with Cooke was "Jesus Gave Me Water", a major hit that brought the Soul Stirrers massive acclaim. Thomas L. Breuster was replaced by Bob King and, briefly, Julius Cheeks. When Cooke left in 1957 to pursue a career in pop music, the Soul Stirrers' preeminence in gospel was essentially over, though a brief period of success with Johnnie Taylor (an effective mimic of Cooke) sustained the group for a time. Various line-ups continued touring and recording throughout the last half of the century to a small and devoted following. The group — and all of its members — was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989 as one of rock's Early Influences, and into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2000.