The Passion of Sam Cooke

sam_cookeOne Night Stand! Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club

Night Beat

The Best of Sam Cooke (RCA Legacy)

The question of how Sam Cooke's music is received by modern listeners is raised by the juxtaposition of these three recent reissues. First, there is the smoothness of production that Cooke usually favored.

You can call it dignity or elegance, or you can put it down to trying to capture some share of the white market, but either way it's not what works nowadays. So the reemergence of One Night Stand! Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club, recorded at a jam-packed Miami nightclub on January 12, 1963 but not released until 1985, is a welcome antidote to the slick studio production of Cooke's hits (booklet annotator Peter Guralnick even uses the word "antiseptic" and to the mellow live album that was released in Cooke's lifetime, Sam Cooke at the Copa, recorded a year and a half later.

At the Harlem Square Club, we hear a "chitlin circuit" gig with a gritty sound at least partly ascribed to Cooke witnessing the frenzied performances of Little Richard opening for him the previous year during a tour of England. (Of course, Mr. Pennebaker didn't teach Cooke how to do it – he already knew how after rising to fame as the lead vocalist of the Soul Stirrers, one of the most important and popular gospel groups.) Cooke's vocal control was spectacular; Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler, who we can safely call an expert in soul matters, called him "the best singer who ever lived." But too much control, however much admiration for sterling technique it might elicit, can drain music of crucial excitement; on this disc, with Cooke's voice more hoarse than usual, we get that excitement in full force. And it's not just Cooke; here we have a band working in the moment, responding to a pumped-up crowd. Saxman King Curtis shares the spotlight; the tail-end of Curtis's hit "Soul Twist" opens the disc, and he rips off some scorching solos, especially on "Twistin' the Night Away." Other hits including "Chain Gang," "Cupid," "Bring It on Home to Me," and "Having a Party" are also more urgent here than on The Best of Sam Cooke.

That venerable compilation will certainly inspire nostalgia in some fans; the LP with its distinctive yellow cover was the cornerstone of many soul collections back in the day. (Note, however, that Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964 is a much better single-disc collection, containing all 15 tracks on Best of and another 16, including such must-have songs from his last year -- formerly separated from his RCA work by manager Allen Klein for business reasons -- as "A Change Is Gonna Come," "Shake," and "Another Saturday Night," plus a little gospel material from the beginning of Cooke's career to round out the picture. Yes, it costs about half again as much [$19 list compared to $12], but you get twice as much.) Probably for die-hard fans, the material's so familiar that they grew up with, or long ago came to terms with, the dated production's bland strings and pallid backing vocals. On such wistful classics as "Wonderful World" it's no impediment, but on numbers such as "Chain Gang" it's incongruous. How about younger listeners? For them, the way into this music will be that Cooke's singing is so irresistible and his songwriting so masterful in its casual tone -- besides the hits already mentioned in this paragraph and in the last two sentences of the previous one, there's his only #1 on the pop charts, "You Send Me," plus some less epochal charting numbers -- that compromises will be accepted in order to enjoy some of the most influential songs in the early history of soul, and a vocal delivery that set the standard for decades to come. 

Put simply, Cooke was such a fabulous singer that accompaniment hardly enters the equation, relatively speaking. For proof just listen to "Lost and Lookin'" on Night Beat. Bassist Cliff Hils lays down a modest line; drummer Hal Blaine gently strokes a cymbal now and then. And that's it for instrumentation; the rest is Cooke delivering a dazzling and emotionally stunning vocal performance. The twelve songs on Night Beat were recorded in a mere three days, a bit more than five weeks after One Night Stand. Cooke used just eight musicians, as compared to fifty-three for Ain't That Good News, which he started working on at the end of 1963. Night Beat is an anomaly in several other ways as well. Cooke wrote only three of the twelve songs, and really "Mean Old World" and "You Gotta Move" rework old songs that straddle gospel and blues, making only "Laughin' and Clownin'" lyrically inspired by Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem "We Wear the Mask." Much of the disc seems like a tribute to the blues; after so many albums filled with innocuous standards, it was as though Cooke said, "Here's my heritage, the music that inspired me." (After all, he was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi in 1931 -- also birthplace of John Lee Hooker, Ike Turner, Junior Parker, and arguable rock 'n' roll inventor Jackie Brenston -- and grew up in Chicago.) Two songs are written by the suave Charles Brown, an influence on Cooke, and another three were associated with him. Jazz guitarist Barney Kessel proves himself an adept bluesman on three of the Brown tracks, recalling the linear style of T-Bone Walker. There are a few repertoire surprises. Willie Dixon's "Little Red Rooster," a hit for Howlin'Wolf the previous year, features weirdly cackling organ from Billy Preston. Big Joe Turner's "Shake Rattle and Roll" gets a streamlined performance that trades power for insouciance but still rocks. An oddly rearranged, secularized "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" is too strangely removed from its original form to be effective, yet is redeemed by the way Cooke floats his voice up at the end. 

Overall, the sound of Night Beat is certainly not raw, especially the genteel piano playing of Ray Johnson, but it isn't too far removed from its roots either, especially compared to the slick production of other Cooke albums. With the sparer production, Cooke's singing can be more subtle, and he takes full advantage in some of his most shadowed, brooding work. What this means, ultimately, is that to modern ears, the anomalous album sounds like his greatest studio achievement. A lot of that is because Cooke's success paved the way for Ray Charles, and between the two of them the ears of white listeners were prepared for a flood of soul greats " Otis Redding (a huge Cooke acolyte), Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Al Green, and more -- to whose rougher approaches mainstream audiences then adjusted, in the process rendering the production of Cooke's biggest hits passé. But not his songs, and certainly not his singing. No soul collection is complete without Night Beat, One Night Stand, "A Change Is Gonna Come," and some compilation of his hits. - Steve Holtje

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Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based former editor of Creem magazine and CDNow.com, editor of the acclaimed MusicHound Jazz: The Essential Album Guide, and contributor to The Big Takeover, Early Music America, and many other hip periodicals. He is a buyer at Sound Fix, a hot new record store in Williamsburg.

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