Clifton M. “Cliff” White, guitarist and bandleader for soul singer Sam Cooke who leaped to fame with the 1950s hit “You Send Me,” has died. He was 76.
White, who also backed the Mills Brothers, died Thursday in Los Angeles’ Midway Hospital Medical Center.
A pioneer of soul music, White was there when gospel singer Cooke decided to switch to pop in 1957 with the legendary record that sold more than 2 million copies. White led the band and played guitar on all of Cooke’s recordings, including the other million-record sellers “Chain Gang,” “Bring It on Home to Me,” “Cupid” and “Wonderful World.”
Three years ago, White collaborated on a book about the singer, “You Send Me: The Life and Times of Sam Cooke,” which a Times review pronounced a “wonderfully crafted biography.”
Born in Dallas, White became enchanted with the guitar when family friend Blind Jefferson Gibson let him run his fingers across his guitar and when he heard a record by Spanish guitarist Andres Segovia.
After the White family moved to Carmel, young Cliff was further inspired by the singing of Marian Anderson and Roland Hayes at the annual Bach Festival.
During World War II, White sat in on jam sessions in the San Francisco Bay Area.
“When you jumped in, you swam or went down like a rock,” he once told Guitar Player magazine. “Everybody was moving, man--you just grab ahold and hang on. Being young, you know, anywhere you could set up and twang on that box, that was what you were looking for.”
He made an impression. Jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong recommended him as accompanist for the Mills Brothers when he was only 18. White toured the country with the quartet and played on most of their recordings.
In the 1950s, White moved to Los Angeles and formed his own band. He became a session musician for Specialty Records, where he was first teamed up with Cooke.
For the seven years from “You Send Me” until Cooke’s shooting death in a Los Angeles motel room in 1964, White led Cooke’s road band on national and international tours and was featured on major concert recordings, including “Live at the Copa” and “Live at the Harlem Square Club.”
Later, White continued his work as a session musician and with small bands of his own.
White is survived by one son, Darrell; six brothers, Thomas, Robert, Harold, William, Nathaniel and Carl; three sisters, Ophelia Wallace, Katheryne Branch and Tennie Reynolds; and four grandsons.
The family has asked that any memorial donations be made to the United Negro College Fund.