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Michigan Heritage Awards

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Photo of Calvin Cooke playing his steel guitarCalvin Cooke
Photo courtesy of Robert L. Stone

Calvin Cooke
2011 awardee, Detroit (Wayne County) and McDonough, Georgia, sacred steel guitar

Calvin Cooke is an innovative master of sacred steel guitar music, a tradition rooted for over sixty years in the African-American House of God, a Holiness-Pentecostal Church. The steel guitar is the dominant musical instrument in the House of God and Church of the Living God, two related denominations that comprise about 200 churches nationwide. To be infused with the Holy Spirit, members engage in ecstatic behavior, including dancing and singing. Calvin was born in 1944 in Cleveland, Ohio, into a musical family that belonged to the Jewell Dominion of the Pentecostal Church. At age 11, he began playing at church services with a cousin. By age 15 he had developed enough proficiency to play in Nashville at the Keith Dominion General Assembly and continued playing there annually for decades. He soon was traveling across the country, helping repair and build churches while playing services by night. By 1967 he arrived in Detroit to work in the auto plants and lived there for 42 years. He traveled widely to perform within the intimacy of small church services in his own and in other churches.

While keeping his deep connection to his church where the music is rooted, Cooke also took sacred steel guitar to secular audiences playing at festivals and other venues throughout the U.S. and Europe. Cooke was featured in the documentary Sacred Steel, that appeared on the television show Austin City Limits, and issued a Heaven, CD produced in 2003 by Robert Randolph. He is featured in the book Sacred Steel: Inside an African American Steel Guitar Tradition for his role as a significant force in shaping the tradition for a half-century. Cooke has been honored with awards by other organizations including the Sacred Steel Convention, Detroit Music Awards, Sacred Strings Showcase, and Sacred Steel Hall of Fame. Cooke moved to Georgia in 2009. He plays in churches there as well as at festivals and concerts across the U.S. and regularly returns to Detroit to maintain his strong ties to churches, musicians and family in Michigan.

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