Young singer heard the legendary Sam Cooke and knew what he wanted to do with his life

“I’ve been a traveling guy for the last 37 years,” said gospel and soul singer Thomas Rhyant. He began doing his Sam Cooke Revue when he was 19 in the Bahamas “and that has allowed me to come into a lot of new area,” Rhyant said.

He will perform Sunday, July 2, during Picnic in the Park in Hillsborough, along with other Music Maker Relief Foundation artists — The Glorifying Vines Sisters, Harvey Dalton Arnold and Cool John Ferguson. A friend of his put Rhyant in contact with Music Makers last year, which led to Aaron Greenhood, Music Maker’s program manager, helping him to get some concert dates in the Durham area. He now has a monthly gig at The Bullpen on Blackwell Street.

As did Cooke, Rhyant grew up singing gospel music. His father was a singer who, frustrated by the challenges of keeping a group together, had his sons form a gospel quartet, The Rhyant Brothers. There was once a strict divide between gospel music and popular music — a divide that Cooke bridged when he left the gospel group The Soul Stirrers and began singing R&B and pop tunes. “I think my dad and mom felt the same way,” Rhyant said. “Unlike some people, my dad saw Sam Cooke. My uncle saw Sam Cooke,” and when Rhyant announced to his father he was going to perform in Cooke’s style, there was no resistance.

n fact, he first heard Cooke performing with The Soul Stirrers on his father’s eight-track tape. “I was so amazed at what he could do with the rises and the falling. He was so clear,” Rhyant recalled. From that moment hearing Cooke, Rhyant decided “in my heart, in my mind, to kind of mimic that sound.”

The Rhyant Brothers sang at all kinds of venues, not just churches, he said. “My daddy introduced us to [Cooke’s] style of music. He would take us out of church and onto the street corners,” Rhyant said. “As I got older, I realized my daddy was smart as a fox. He was teaching us to perform, not just sing in church,” he said. “I really began to appreciate that.”

While Cooke is most remembered for his R&B songs such as “Chain Gang,” “You Send Me,” “Another Saturday Night,” Rhyant also puts him in the tradition of the great song stylists. “The thing that stands out about this guy is that he had such a unique style,” he said. He gives an example of how Cooke phrased: “Instead of saying water, he said, water,” Rhyant said. “My favorite singers are Perry Como, Andy Williams, Nat ‘King’ Cole, and Sam Cooke,” he said. “They were crooners and they could sing.”

Rhyant’s Sam Cooke Revue includes Cooke’s R&B songs, but Rhyant also intersperses traditional gospel and other songs from soul and R&B. “I try to mix it all up [because] Sam Cooke could do anything, sing anybody’s music,” he said.

In his years traveling and touring, he met musicians who played with Cooke. One of them was LeRoy Crume, who grew up with Cooke and played guitar in The Soul Stirrers. Crume wrote a book “Me and Sam,” about Cooke. Before Crume died, he stressed to Rhyant his hope to “keep the memory of Sam Cooke and The Soul Stirrers alive,” and that’s Rhyant’s goal with the Revue.

“I’ve had more people come to me and say, You’ve really brought back some memories,” Ryhant said. He recently did a concert in Shreveport, Louisiana, and the sound technician told him, “Man, you got this guy down. That’s what it’s all about — having a good time but not letting the memory of this man, who lived a long time ago, die.”

Cliff Bellamy: 919-419-6744, @CliffBellamy1

GO and DO

WHAT: Picnic in the Park, with Thomas Rhyant, The Glorifying Vines Sisters, Harvey Dalton Arnold and Cool John Ferguson

WHEN: Sunday, July 2, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

WHERE: Eno River Farmer’s Market Pavilion, 144 E. Margaret Lane, Hillsborough


ALSO: This event will have food trucks, yard games and crafts, and a community reading of the Declaration of Independence.