Soul singer James Phelps, who performed alongside Sam Cooke and had a hit on Chess in 1965 with “Love Is A Five Letter Word,” died in Los Angeles on October 26th from complications stemming from diabetes. He was 78. Born in Shreveport Louisiana, Phelps moved to Chicago around 1960 and performed in gospel groups like the Holy Wonders, the Clefs of Calvary and, most notably, the Soul Stirrers, who catapulted Sam Cooke to fame a few years earlier. Phelps sang on their 1964 classic “Lead Me to the Calvary. “That’s actually Sam Cooke and I in the background,” Phelps told the web site Soul Cellar in 2002. “Sam is singing the top voice and I’m next to him and then Sonny Mitchell.”
Phelps was on the road with the Soul Stirrers in December of 1964 when he got word that Cooke had been killed in a California motel. “We talked to him that same night,” Phelps told Soul Cellar. “Our bus had broken down in Atlanta, Georgia. We called Sam and told him we needed some money because we were on our way to Rocky Mountain, North Carolina. Sam said ‘I’ll get back to you guys first thing in the morning.’ We found out about his death next day through the radio.” Around the same time the group was signed to the Chess records imprint Checker, and Phelps was singled as a possible solo star. His first solo recording, “Love Is a Five Letter Word,” hit the top twenty on the R&B charts in 1965.
The success of the record lead Phelps to leave the Soul Stirrers, partially so he wouldn’t face the same criticism Sam Cooke dealt with when he remained in the gospel group as he continued to release secular solo work. “When I left the Soul Stirrers and went into rock & roll I experienced a lot of what we called ‘salt and pepper’ gigs with Otis Redding and James Brown” Phelps. “The whites would come in; we would sing to them first and then we would have an intermission and the blacks would come in.” Phelps continued to tour and record for the rest of his life, though he never again matched his success of the mid-Sixities. “I go to Vegas and I sing my secular stuff,” Phelps. “I’m usually at Caesar’s or some place. It’s really hard for me to go to church and somebody won’t recognize me. And then they have me up to sing.”