J.W. Alexander; Key Figure in Gospel Music

James W. “J.W.” Alexander, a key figure in the development of African American gospel music and a close associate of singers Lou Rawls and Sam Cooke, has died.

Alexander, 80, died Monday of prostate cancer in West Hollywood.

Born in Hamilton, Miss., Alexander began singing in his early teens and reorganized the seminal gospel group the Pilgrim Travelers in 1945.

The Travelers, the Blind Boys of Mississippi and the Soul Stirrers were the most popular gospel ensembles of the 1950s. The Stirrers’ handsome lead singer, Cooke, and Alexander later became partners in recording and music publishing businesses.


Alexander helped move Cooke from being a giant of gospel to a giant of pop, a transition he also helped Rawls make.

Rawls joined the Pilgrim Travelers in 1957, and Alexander later managed Rawls’ pop career, getting him signed to a long-term contract with Capitol Records.

The SAR recording label that Alexander started with Cooke and another partner helped launch the careers of Johnny Taylor, Billy Preston and Bobby Womack.

Alexander also played professional baseball in the old Negro leagues with the Ethiopian Clowns, later renamed the Indianapolis Clowns.


He is survived by two sons, Anthony and J.W. III, and a daughter, Adrienne. A memorial service will be held today at 2 p.m. at the Harrison-Ross Mortuary, 4601 Crenshaw Blvd., Los Angeles.