I’m breaking my “no music before 1960” rule for this one. After all, what kind of soul music Web site would this be without the great Sam Cooke? Besides, most of the songs on this chronologically sequenced 28-song compilation were recorded during or after 1960, anyway. Rumor has it that many of Cooke’s best performances came at the beginning of his career with the legendary gospel group The Soul Stirrers, and sure enough, a superlative song such as “Touch The Hem Of His Garment” lends credence to this theory. Still, with his good looks and amazing voice (clear and precise yet not too pretty, with that impeccable sense of timing and phrasing that all the great ones seem to have) it was inevitable that Cooke would be a crossover star (his departure from The Soul Stirrers was all but sealed when they got wind of him recording secular music on the side under an assumed name), and he achieved superstar status in spectacular fashion with “You Send Me,” an ultra smooth ballad that still ranks as an all-time easy listening classic. Still, one should never forget where Cooke came from, for it had a direct bearing on all of his subsequent recordings. To quote Paul Young: “Sam never lost his gospel roots. A real feeling of joy and happiness emanated from anything that Sam touched. Singing a Sam Cooke song makes you feel like you have lifted a great weight off your shoulders, the same sense of release that I hear in gospel music.” Early on, many of Cooke’s songs had a distinct doo-wop flavor, and though some of his naive love songs about “boys” and “girls” are a reminder that this was before Bob Dylan would assert the importance of a more mature lyrical style, Cooke’s voice makes even his corniest ballads or silliest pop songs (“Everybody Loves To Cha Cha Cha”, anyone?) worth indulging. Sure, at 28 tracks there are quite a few samey sounding songs here, and some overly sweet arrangements sometimes make me wish that his crossover ambitions were a little less obvious. However, songs such as “Wonderful World,” “Having A Party,” “Good Times,” and “Twistin’ The Night Away” are undeniable classics, the latter three showing Cooke’s ability to write and sing upbeat party tunes far removed from the church, while an increased use of horns, saxophones, and so on attested to his increasing confidence as an arranger and his ability to branch out as a songwriter. Much like Otis Redding, one of countless soul artists who Cooke influenced, Cooke kept getting better, too, and one can only surmise as to the heights he would have subsequently scaled. After all, “Bring It On Home To Me” is another classic r&b-based pop ballad on which Lou Rawls helps out, while the utterly brilliant civil rights message song “A Change Is Gonna Come” elevated Cooke to a whole new level of maturity. Alas, to quote the All Music Guide “Early in the day on December 11, 1964, while in Los Angeles, Cooke became involved in an altercation at a seedy motel, with a woman guest and the night manager, and was shot to death while allegedly trying to attack the manager. The
case is still shrouded in doubt and mystery, and was never investigated the way the murder of a star of his stature would be today.” Regardless of what did or didn’t happen, what is undeniable is that a sublime voice was forever silenced on that fateful day. Fortunately, this collection contains all of his best-known songs (also including “Chain Gang,” “Cupid,” and “Shake”), and though I suppose its generous length lessens the overall impact of its best songs (which are among the best ever recorded), this is a superb starting point for investigating Sam Cooke. Of course, it’s not the be all/end all by any means (read the next two reviews), but clearly this is the single disc collection for starters, as it expertly showcases the best soul singer (hell, the best singer) of his era. Note: This album is currently out of print, but the 2003 collection Portrait Of A Legend 1951-1964 has a similar track listing and can be substituted instead.
Live At The Harlem Square Club, 1963 (RCA '85) Rating: A+
It's pretty amazing to think that one of the best live albums I've ever heard wasn't released until 22 years after it was recorded. Damn record companies, what can you do? Anyway, it's not important why it took so long for this album to see the light of day, what is important is that this is an essential Sam Cooke release. Why? Well, I'll quote Peter Guralnick, one of my favorite music writers who wrote the massive Sam Cooke biography, Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, as well as the liner notes to this album: "It's rare that an album can cause us to radically reassess a major artist, particularly one who has been dead for 20 years. This is such an album. This is a different Sam Cooke. The Sam Cooke who appears on this record, presenting his R&B hits of the last few years to a crowd that knows and loves his music...is a harder, grittier version of the Sam Cooke that we have known from his records, a singer closer to the ecstatic gospel music with which he started out." Indeed, a song such as "Chain Gang" is totally transformed here (love those "oohs" and "aahs"), with a toughness not even hinted at on the original, and the band's performances, in front of a small but frenzied crowd, are crisp and tight throughout, with several outstanding King Curtis saxophone solos (I'm a total sucker for that instrument and Curtis was an absolute master). Yet it is Cooke himself who is always in the spotlight and in total command (even the song introductions have a tremendous energy to them), and when the crowd joins in on the pop standard "For Sentimental Reasons" a good time is clearly being had by all. Even better is "Twistin' The Night Away," but everything here can't help but pale when compared to track 7. First Cooke launches into a drastically reconfigured "You Send Me," an incredible performance on which Sam pleads as if his life depended on it. Segueing into "Bring It On Home To Me" (that's my two favorite Cooke songs back to back), if anything the intensity increases, as you simply have to hear it to believe what a great singer this guy was. I mean, his voice is so much rawer and rougher here than on the studio versions, and in a very appealing way. Sure, some of these songs sound a little alike, but when the overall quality is so high, who really cares? Besides, the album ends on the most uplifting of notes, and when Sam sings "Having A Party" it sure sounds like they're having one helluva party. May the magical voice of Mr. Sam Cooke continue to kick start many a party, then, now, and many years from now. Seriously, this is a voice that deserves to be passed on through the generations, and Live At The Harlem Square Club, 1963 shows the man (and his music) at his showstopping best. So what are you waiting for?
Night Beat (Abkco '64, '95) Rating: A
Producers Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore: "It's just past closing time and Sam is singing for himself. There's an empty table right over there. Welcome to Night Beat." Indeed, this album, recorded with a small combo that included the legendary likes of Hal Blaine (drums) and Billy Preston (organ, though it is piano player Raymond Johnson who is probably the album's most prominent instrumentalist), is the polar opposite of the raucous party that was Live At The Harlem Square Club, 1963, as its intimate performances are perfect for those post-party hours instead, much like the album that likely inspired it, Frank Sinatra's In The Wee Small Hours (cozy up with a warm blanket and a bottle of wine). Sam's singing, which is appropriately way up front in the mix, is sad and somewhat subdued, but Cooke's silky smooth voice is in command even when singing in such a restrained manner. There's no song overlap with the other two albums reviewed on this page, either, though only three of these songs ("Mean Old World," "Laughin' And Clownin," and "You Gotta Move") are Cooke originals, the rest being interpretations of standards such as (to cite the most well-known ones) "Nobody Knows The Trouble I've Seen" (on which you can really feel his pain, though listening to Sam is never an unpleasant experience), "Little Red Rooster" (a rare song on which he lets the band take the spotlight for a bit), and "Shake, Rattle and Roll" (a fun, singable version whose upbeat feel seems somewhat out of place on such a late night mood album). When Sam sings "Lost and Lookin'" or "I Lost Everything" he makes me feel like he's singing directly to me - and only me - (even if it’s addressed directly to her), and when he decries the "Mean Old World" it seems ok 'cause Sam is there to offer me comfort. Sure, some of these songs kind of come and go, and the album lacks both the excitement of Live At The Harlem Square Club, 1963 and the instantly singable pop pleasures of most of A Man And His Music. Yet Night Beat is almost as essential, as this album of sparse blues songs sees Cooke stripping the arrangements down to their bare essentials (really, with that voice not much else is needed). There are a few songs that swing or are a little more upbeat ("Please Don't Drive Me Away," for example), but most of the time Sam Cooke and company deliver low-key, somber readings of what are very well-written songs, and the album's cohesive atmosphere largely makes up for a certain lack of excitement. Really, it's inconceivable that this album was out-of-print for almost 30 years, for this is a classic showcase for yet another side of Sam Cooke's stunning artistry.
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