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.”
Everyone was expected to contribute. The girls did the housework. Willie, the oldest, the adopted cousin, was already sixteen and working for the Jewish butcher at the chicken market across the street. At eleven, Charles went to work as a delivery boy for the Blue Goose grocery store. Even the little boys helped their mother with her shopping.
Charles joined the Deacons, a neighborhood gang. Sam and L.C. freely roamed the streets, but there was only so much you could get away with, because the neighborhood functioned, really, as an extended family; if you got too out of hand, the neighbors would correct you, even go so far as to physically chastise you, and Reverend and Mrs. Cook would certainly do the same.
There were still white people in the neighborhood when the Cooks moved in, but by now almost all its residents were black, the shopkeepers uniformly white — and yet the children for the most part thought little about segregation because their exposure was limited to the fact, but not the experience, of it. Reverend Cook, on the other hand, was unwilling to see his children, or anyone else in the family for that matter, treated like second-class citizens. One time the police confronted Charles on the street, and Reverend Cook, in his children’s recollection, came out of the house and said, “Don’t you mess around with my kids. If there is something wrong, you come and get me.” And when the policeman touched his holstered gun, their father said, “I’ll whip that pistol off you.” He meant it, according to his children, “and the police knew he meant it. Our daddy wasn’t bashful about nothing. He always told us to hold our head high and speak our mind. ‘Don’t you all run from nobody.'”
It was a family above all, one that, no matter what internal frictions might arise, always stuck together. Charles might feel resentment against his father and long for the day when he could find some escape; the girls might very well feel that it was unfair that the boys had no household responsibilities; Sam and L.C. might fight every day just in the course of normal events. “We was always together,” said L.C. “We slept together, we grew up together. Sometimes we’d be in bed at the end of the day, and Sam would say, ‘Hey, we didn’t fight today,’ and we’d fight right there in the bed — that’s how close we were!” But the moment that the outside world intruded, Cooks, as their father constantly reminded them, stood up for one another. Mess with one Cook, mess with all.
The children all took their baths before their father came home from work (“We could tell it was him by the lights of his car”). Then they would sit down at the round kitchen table and have dinner together, every night without exception. They weren’t allowed to eat at somebody else’s house (“If you had a friend, bring them home”). Their mother, who addressed her husband unfailingly as “Brother Cook,” never made them eat anything they didn’t like and often cooked something special for one or another of her children. Chicken and dumplings, chicken and dressing, and homemade dinner rolls were the favorites, along with red beans and rice. None of them doubted for a moment that Mama loved him or her best of all. She lived for her children, as she told them over and over, and she prayed every night that she would live to see them grown, because “she did not want a stepmother over her children.”
After dinner, in the summertime especially, they might go for a drive. They might go to the airport to watch the planes take off; they might go to the park or just ride around downtown. On weekends they would all go to the zoo sometimes, and every summer they had family picnics by the pavilion at Red Gate Woods, part of the forest preserve, family picnics for which their mother provided baskets of food and at which attendance was not optional.
Once a year the family attended the national Church of Christ (Holiness) convention in Annapolis, Detroit, St. Louis, and every summer they drove to Mississippi, spending Reverend Cook’s two-week vacation from Reynolds shuttling back and forth among their various relatives all over the state, with Reverend Cook preaching (and the Singing Children accompanying him) wherever they went.
The preparations for the trip were always busy and exciting, with Mama staying up the night before frying chicken and making pound cake because there was nowhere on the road for a black family to stop. Papa did all the driving, at least until Charles turned fifteen, and after the first hour or so, everyone started to get hungry and beg Mama for a chicken leg or wing out of the shoe boxes in which she had packed the food. They all sang together in the car, silly songs like “Merrily, We Roll Along,” and read off the Burma-Shave signs that unspooled their message sign by sign on the side of the highway. They all remembered one sequence in particular year after year. The first sign said “Papa liked the shave,” the next “Mama liked the jar,” then “Both liked the cream,” and, finally, “So there you are!” One time, Agnes recalled, they ran out of bread for the cold cuts, and Papa sent her and her sixteen-year-old sister, Mary, into a grocery store — she couldn’t have been more than five or six at the time. “Well, Mary went in and picked up the loaf of bread and put it on the counter just like she do anywhere else, just like she would do at home, and the man said, ‘You’re not from around here, are you?’ So she says no, and he said, ‘When you come in here, you ask me for what you want, and I’ll get it for you.’ So she said, ‘I’m buying it. I don’t see why I can’t pick it up. I’m taking it with me.'”
It was a very different way of life. Charles and Mary went out in the fields to pick cotton, but, L.C. said, he and Sam had no interest in that kind of work (“We were out there playing with the little girls, trying to get them in the cotton gin”), and Hattie, who did, was forced to take care of Agnes. One time Sam and L.C. were watching their grandfather pull up some logs in a field, “and he just throwed the horse’s reins down when he seen us coming,” said L.C. “Well, Sam got tangled up in the reins, and they had to run and catch the horse. And we got Sam back to the house, and he was all right, but I never will forget, he said, ‘That horse tried to kill me.’ I said, ‘No, Sam, the horse was just spooked. She wasn’t trying to kill you.’ He said, ‘No — Nelly tried to kill me!'”
They met far-flung relatives on both sides of the family who had never left Mississippi, including their mother’s cousin Mabel, who lived in Shaw and was more like a sister to her, and their father’s brother George, who sharecropped outside of Greenville. Their grandmother, L.C. said, was always trying to get Sam and him to stay with her. “She would say, ‘You got to come live with us,’ but I had a little joke I’d tell her. I said, ‘You know what? If Mama and them hadn’t of moved and left Mississippi, as soon as I’d gotten big enough to walk, I’d have walked out!’ They used to laugh at me and say, ‘Boy, you’re so crazy.'”
Papa preached and they sang all over the state. To Hattie, “It was really a learning experience,” but from Charles’ point of view, “We was glad to get there, glad to leave.”
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