Samuel Cook was born in 1931, in deepest blues country in Clarksdale, Mississippi, also the hometown of John Lee Hooker, Eddie Boyd, Ike Turner, Son House and Junior Parker, among many other luminaries. The son of a preacher man who moved the family to Chicago in 1933, Sam was singing in church from an early age and joined a gospel group, the aptly named Soul Stirrers, in 1950.
That prescient meeting resulted in recordings for Specialty Records and concerts at which young Sam became the focus of attention. Debonair, handsome and always immaculately dressed, Cooke was groomed to follow the gospel-meets-rock’n’roll style of Little Richard, but he was far too laidback a cat for that. His first significant hit was ‘You Send Me’, which he cut in New Orleans and then Los Angeles. It topped the Billboard R&B and pop charts in 1957 and enabled him to set up the entrepreneurial label SAR Records in 1961. The imprint was a vehicle for The Valentines (Bobby Womack and brothers), Womack as a solo artist, Johnnie Taylor, Mel Carter, Billy Preston and others – though not Sam himself.
Given his increasing fame, it was natural for Sam Cooke to sign to RCA Victor, for whom he hit huge with ‘Chain Gang’, ‘Cupid’, ‘Bring It On Home To Me’ (featuring his friend Lou Rawls on backing vocals), ‘Another Saturday Night’ (later covered by Cat Stevens) and ‘Twistin’ The Night Away’, the latter of which featured The Wrecking Crew and was lovingly covered by The Marvelettes in 1962 and Rod Stewart on his 1074 album Never A Dull Moment.
Cooke was typical of the time in that he recognised the value of singles: they were cheap for the fans and provided the fastest way to maintain popularity via airwaves and jukeboxes. On the other hand, his crossover appeal at a time when society in America was segregated along political, social and cultural lines made him stand out from the crowd. He had genuine popular appeal.
His debut album proper was 1957’s Songs By Sam Cooke, on which he was backed by the Bumps Blackwell Orchestra (an important figure who passed on his arrangement and production skills, Robert “Bumps” Blackwell was an important figure who worked with Little Richard, Ray Charles, Quincy Jones and Sly Stone). Primarily a set of standards, the album includes Sam’s gorgeous ‘You Send Me’ and a steady run of great covers of such chestnuts as ‘Danny Boy’, ‘Ol’ Man River’ and ‘Summertime’. The impression that he was a younger upgrade on Paul Robeson couldn’t be denied, and Cooke stayed within the traditional pop milieu for 1958’s Encore.
The following year’s Tribute To The Lady (that lady being Billie Holliday) signaled a change of tack. Producers Hugo & Luigi encouraged Cooke to broaden his scope, and one can hear elements of changes to come in the opening ‘God Bless The Child’, though the ensuing jazz standards are equally memorable.
Cooke’s final album for Keen Records features his own standard, ‘Wonderful World’, which led off 1960’s The Wonderful World Of Sam Cooke. In that same year, Cooke signed to RCA and gave us his most arranged and sophisticated set to date, Cooke’s Tour, a quasi-conceptual trip around the globe from Hawaii to Paris, Mexico to London. Combining an R&B core with Glenn Osser’s arrangements for strings, the formula was repeated almost immediately on Hits Of The 50’s and Swing Low, though in the latter’s ‘Chain Gang’ one senses Cooke’s desire to break away from the norm, even if the business encouraged him to steer clear of controversy.
1961’s My Kind Of Blues released the valve as Cooke tackled Duke Ellington and Jimmy Cox while still keeping a weather eye out for the smooth croon events and jazzy pieces that kept him busy on the live circuit. However, by 1962, the pop world was shifting on its axis and Twistin’ The Night Away both reflected the new dance craze and inspired Sam to return to songwriting. He also took pleasure in working with a different breed of musician, folks like Earl Palmer, Tommy Tedesco and the great René Hall, whose arrangements and conducting skills reinforced Sam’s best album in that period. The soul genie was out of the bag.
The Best Of Sam Cooke covered obvious ground, and then it was back to relaxed moods on 1963’s Mr Soul. That same year, Cooke released the magnificent Night Beat. Finally, he threw off a lot of the New York and Los Angeles shackles and made a stylistic return to his southern roots with sterling versions of ‘Nobody Knows The Troubles I’ve Seen’, Willie Dixon’s ‘Little Red Rooster’ and Mississippi Fred McDowell’s ‘You Gotta Move’ (later memorably covered by The Rolling Stones on Sticky Fingers). Perhaps the highlight is a take on T-Bone Walker’s ‘Mean Old World’. The ensemble is crisp and airtight behind Cooke, and the arrangements are box fresh. It’s a great album.
The final LP to be released in his own lifetime was Ain’t That Good News, two suites of mellow and tougher soul that include ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’, ‘Another Saturday Night’ (written during his final UK tour), the oft-covered ‘Good Times’ and, as a bizarre finale, the English – some say Appalachian – folk air ‘The Riddle Song’.
‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ had appeared to Cooke virtually complete, as if in a dream, and he handed over the arrangement in its entirety to Hall – an unusual move since Sam was a noted perfectionist who was hands-on in the studio. Hall didn’t let him down, integrating tympani, French horn, strings and a four-guitar section. While it’s fanciful to believe that Cooke had intimations of his impending mortality, the autobiographical struggle of the African-American race cut through the lyric. He could hardly have written a better epitaph.
Other albums of considerable interest are Live At The Harlem Square Club 1963, on which he really lets rip in front of an ecstatic Miami crowd. Anyone who assumed that Sam only did supper club and polite R&B was in for a shock when this performance was finally released in 1985, and it is now considered to be one of the finest live soul albums ever made.
If you happen to be lucky enough to wander past a jukebox, hope and pray you find something by Sam. A little ‘Wonderful World’ is bound to lift the spirits.
Sam Cooke at the Copa was a frustrating record. One of a handful of live albums by a major soul artist of its era, it captured Cooke in excellent voice, and was well-recorded -- it just wasn't really a "soul" album, except perhaps in the tamest possible definition of that term. Playing to an upscale, largely white supper-club audience, in a very conservatively run venue where he had previously failed to impress either patrons or the management, Cooke toned down his performance and chose the safest material with which he could still be comfortable. In place of songs like "Feel It," "Bring It on Home to Me," or even "Cupid," which were part of his usual set, he performed numbers like "The Best Things in Life Are Free," "Bill Bailey," and "When I Fall in Love" here. True, his renditions may be the versions of any of those songs that an R&B fan will like best, but they always seemed a poor substitute for what's not here -- not just the songs that he didn't do, but the intense, sweaty presentation, as much a sermon as a concert, the pounding beat, and the crowd being driven into ever-more frenzied delight.
The last of his studio albums released in his lifetime, Sam Cooke's Ain't That Good News offers a lot of superb material, pointing in several directions that, alas, were to go largely unexplored. The central number is, of course, the earth-shattering "A Change Is Gonna Come," with its soaring gospel sound and the most elaborate production of any song in Cooke's output. The rousing though less substantial title track also came out of a gospel tradition, as does Cooke's treatment of "Tennessee Waltz," which is one of his finest adaptations of contemporary pop material. "Falling in Love" was the work of Harold Battiste, an old friend of Cooke's who had recently re-entered his orbit and was partly responsible for encouraging the singer in exploring the New Orleans sound that was evident on "Rome Wasn't Built in a Day" and "Meet Me at Mary's Place." And then there's "Good Times," a bittersweet, introspective party number, and the pensive successor to "Twistin' the Night Away." There are a few moments where the spell is almost broken by the intrusion of what seems like pop material, but even Cooke's version of "The Riddle Song" is worth owning as a glimpse at how he could turn a folk song into a something so quietly soulful that its origins disappeared. With the exception of "Another Saturday Night," which had been released as a single early in the previous year, Ain't That Good News comprised the first material that Cooke had recorded in the six months following the drowning death of his 18-month-old son Vincent; it was also the first album that Cooke recorded and released under his new contract, which gave him greater freedom in choosing repertory and sidemen than he'd ever had, and so it offered a lot of pent-up emotional and musical expression, and, as it turned out, was tragically unique in the singer's output. Words: Bruce Eder
Saddled with soaring strings and vocal choruses for maximum crossover potential, Sam Cooke's solo material often masked the most important part of his genius -- his glorious voice -- so the odd small-group date earns a special recommendation in his discography. Thankfully, Cooke's voice took center stage on this admirably low-key session from February 1963, recorded in Los Angeles with a quartet of studio veterans. Unlike so many session crews and producers of the time, these musicians gave him plenty of space and often simply framed Cooke's breathtaking vocals. (On one of the best tracks here, "Lost and Lookin'," he's barely accompanied at all; only bass and cymbals can be heard far in the background.) The results are wonderful -- except for his early Soul Stirrers sides, Night Beat is the best place to marvel at one of the two or three best voices of the century. The songs are intimate blues, most taken at the pace of a late-night stroll, but despite the dark shading and heart-rending tempos, Cooke's voice is so transcendent it's difficult to become depressed while listening. Cooke also wrote three of the songs, including the excellent "Mean Old World," and rendered the traditional "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" practically unfamiliar with his own re-arrangement. Cooke also stretches out on a pair of jump blues classics, "Little Red Rooster" and "Shake, Rattle and Roll," summoning some honest grit for the former and putting the uptown swing into the latter. He also allows some solo space, from Barney Kessel's simple, unadorned solo on "Get Yourself Another Fool" to Billy Preston's playful organ vocalizing on "Little Red Rooster." If Sam Cooke had lived longer, there would've been several more sessions like this, but Night Beat is an even richer treasure for its rarity. Words: John Bush
Sam Cooke's voice is justifiably legendary, but most of his RCA albums are astonishingly little-known today, and My Kind of Blues explains why this is so, at least in part. The singing is superb throughout, but the repertoire, even in 1961, was not terribly well defined or the recordings well arranged. The basic problem lay in the nature of Cooke's career arc, which probably straddled too many styles and musical worlds for his own good -- the spiritual and the secular, pop and rock & roll, and pop and soul, all as defined in his time (which was, effectively, from the early '50s to the early '60s). The "blues" as a label on an album had a much wider meaning than it would have had at the other end of the decade, or any time since -- Cooke was part of a world where adult pop still held sway and seemed, at least for the LP market, a more attractive target than the teenage or even collegiate audiences of the time. Thus, the "blues" heard here would have been appropriate for a mainstream singer -- say, Sinatra, or Nat King Cole -- circa 1961 (or, really, about 1957 -- Cooke's producers were very conservative) -- rather than what most listeners today would call blues. Brassy, big-scale orchestrations abound, and even the leaner textured songs, such as "Little Girl Blue" and "You're Always on My Mind," rely on a reed or horn section, respectively, to augment the electric guitar, piano, bass, and brushed drums at the core of their arrangements. Some of this works beautifully, as on "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out," which was a good enough song to make it into Cooke's set at his Copa appearances, and, along with a handful of other tracks here, also onto the compilation The Rhythm and the Blues (and the box set The Man Who Invented Soul). All of this is what would probably be called "smooth blues" (assuming it is defined as blues at all in a modern sense); it's more soul of a pop variety. But Cooke's voice carries it -- even the weakest arrangements and material get elevated, as the best of Cooke's interpretive instincts overcome the worst of his producers' instincts. Given its limitations, My Kind of Blues was never going to be a defining album in Cooke's output, and had he lived past 1964 it almost certainly would have been relegated to his "early period" in a full career. Its strongest moments, of which there are many, stand on their own, however, and the leanest of the arrangements point the way toward greater things that were to come, including the best parts of Mr. Soul and the whole Night Beat album. Words: Bruce Eder
Sam Cooke began his career as a gospel singer, and after two pop-oriented LPs, the label and Cooke's producers, Hugo & Luigi, decided to play to that side of his repertoire and reputation for this, his third album. Certainly opening the album with the traditional spiritual "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and using it as the title track was an acknowledgment of his history. Despite some intersections with his gospel roots and his past history with the Soul Stirrers, however, this album isn't quite what one would expect from its title -- most of Swing Low consists of pop repertoire (including Broadway material), albeit songs that have a devotional, reflective aspect, or a spiritual tone, and the production is very full, if not quite as overblown as some of the songs recorded elsewhere in Cooke's RCA library. The choir and brass are slightly overdone on the title song, but almost everything else is a study in understatement that plays to the quiet strength in Cooke's voice -- "I'm Just a Country Boy," "They Call the Wind Maria" (from Paint Your Wagon), "Twilight on the Trail," and "If I Had You" combine with the title song and the single "Chain Gang" to make side one of this album a masterpiece of subtlety, and one of the high points of Cooke's early LP output. If parts of his other early-'60s RCA albums represent a tragedy of wasted opportunities, through bad song choices or worse arrangements, Swing Low falls on the other side of that line, bringing home what could (and should) have been -- one hears a phenomenal talent moving in almost precisely the right direction. Side two is a little weaker in focus, digressing back to a trio of 19th century chestnuts, "Grandfather's Clock," "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair," and "Long, Long Ago," which Cooke's voice does elevate. And then we get to Johnnie Taylor's "Pray," the highlight of the album in Cooke's hands, and a song and performance that bring the focus back where it should be. The album closes with "You Belong to Me," an original by Cooke and J.W. Alexander, and the Antonin Dvorák-spawned spiritual "Goin' Home" -- the arrangement of the latter almost swings a little too much, but finally comes off well, and both can be counted among the finest things Cooke ever cut for a long-player and, along with "Pray," among his must-own performances. In contrast to many of the singer's early RCA LPs, where one must pick and choose the jewels from among weaker moments, Swing Low is the man and the voice in much of their glory across most of the album. Words: Bruce Eder