When I was devouring the music papers on a weekly basis in and around the late 1970s & early 1980s, I noticed that whenever soul performers were rated over the years, Sam Cooke would often be at the top of nearly everyone’s list.
At that time, I probably wouldn’t have known that he had died at a young age, and would have guessed maybe his career had nose-dived onto the cheesy cabaret circuit, doing the rounds just to make a buck.
It was only when I started digging deeper on him, that I discovered the tragic ending that he suffered, one that to this day is still shrouded in mystery. As my entree to his music, I picked up a 12 track greatest hits and soon discovered why vocally there were few that could touch him.
So today, for my album of the month I will look at my version of Sam Cooke’s Greatest Hits
The man himself was born Samuel Cook on January 22, 1931 in Clarksdale, Mississippi, one of eight children born to Father Charles, a factory worker and church minister and mother Mae.
Cooke (the E added later as part of his stage name) sang from as early as anyone could remember in church and then formed a singing group with two of his sisters called The Singing Children. Later aged 19 he joined the gospel group The Soul Stirrers as lead singer. A good-looking boy, he began to gain a female following somewhat at odds with the ethos behind the music he was performing.
Then the ‘regular’ music business began to take notice of him and the ‘pop’ world came calling. He released his first crossover single ‘Lovable’ under the name of Dale Cook in a vain attempt to not upset his gospel fans. No one was fooled though; his vocal style was just too distinct and recognisable.
Soon his secular singing career was off and running and not long after that he reached number one in the R&B charts with the self penned ‘You Send Me’ which then hit top spot on the Billboard pop charts too.
Always savvy in business, Cooke set up his own label, SAR Records, and publishing and management companies, before going on to have many more hits on the RCA Victor label, writing many of the tunes he recorded.
It is said that with his vocal style and delivery, he can justifiably be named as the original ‘soul’ performer, paving the way for the likes of Al Green, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye to follow on behind.
Cooke was also highly regarded in the black community and had become one of the leading lights on the burgeoning civil rights movement.
Married twice, Cooke was the father of four children, though there were rumoured to be a few more with his extra marital affairs widely known.
He died at the age of 33, shot in a motel in Los Angeles in December 1964 in strange and bizarre circumstances. It is said, he was there with a young lady he had picked up that evening, though that liaison appeared to become somewhat entangled. He later found himself in the office of the motel manager in a distressed and undressed state.
The manager then shot him, claiming self-defence, saying Cooke had become threatening. Those of Cooke’s acquaintance, including his close family have always questioned that version of events. To this day, no one is entirely sure what went on that evening.
One-fact remained however. Sam Cooke was dead.
200,000 fans lined the streets to view his body at the funeral home in Chicago. Just seventy-seven days after his death, his widow, Barbara, married his friend and protégé Bobby Womack.
Years later, in 1986, Sam Cooke’s talent was recognised by his peers when he was inducted as a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and in 1994, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
So that was the man, and here is my take on his music.
We open with ‘You Send Me’ from 1957, which is a fine and mellow outing, perfect for his ‘ever in control’ vocal. It has a very late 50s feel and sound to it, complete with whooping female backing vocals. On it, we hear Sam professing his undying love for his beloved, in a style reminiscent of more, supposed, innocent times.
From 1959, we have the declaration of unrequited first love as ‘Only Sixteen’ starts up. Again written by Cooke, it holds up as a classic late 50s song, though I feel the male backing vocals date it somewhat for today’s tastes.
‘Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha’ from 1959 is Cooke’s take on the ever- changing dance crazes of those days. This one of his songs that could be clearly filed in the ‘Novelty’ folder, but it is one that still retains a charm of its own.
Next up we have a change of pace, when ‘Chain Gang’ from 1960 hits my ears. A Cooke original, this examines the existence endured by prison chain gangs working out in the fields of the wild US of A. Cooke ran into one such gang whilst out on tour and it inspired him to write this. An inventive use of instrumentation and backing vocals surely helped this become a massive hit when first released.
We then slow down for the plaintive ‘Sad Mood’ from 1960. On it, we hear Sam dealing with the fact that he has been left by his baby. The violins hit the right sad notes as he promises he won’t do whatever he did in the first place, again, if only she would return to him. Surely an offer few could refuse? Not one of his biggest sellers, but it shows the variety of styles he was capable of writing.
Another single from 1960, ‘Wonderful World’ is up next. Written by Cooke, hiding behind the name of his second wife Barbara Campbell somewhat bizarrely, alongside Herb Alpert and Lou Adler. ‘Don’t know much about history’ sets the pace and off we go. This all time classic tune would later be covered by the likes of Otis Redding to Herman Hermits and hit number two in the UK charts 25 years after its initial release on the back of it featuring in a Levis advert from 1985.
‘Cupid ‘ from 1961 is up next. Cooke’s effortless delivery and vocal style on this instantly recognisable tune is a wonder in itself. There is also the sound of a flying arrow used to illustrate the effect of Cupid’s arrow flying ‘straight to my lovers heart for me, nobody but me.’
For me, the simplicity of this song is its genius.
If after 3 seconds of the next tune, ‘Twistin’ The Night Away’ you aint tapping your toe or clapping your hands, I’d see a doctor. The infectious beat conjured on this 1962 stomper is impossible to resist. I’ll confess, the ‘Benny Hill’ style sax break is guaranteed to get your correspondent up, stamping out small fire to this. One more time indeed!
Going back somewhat to his gospel roots with ‘Bring It On home’ from 1962, finds Sam in very fine voice indeed A tinkling blues style piano opens up proceedings and off we go. . Sam is joined here in the backing vocals department by long time friend Lou Rawls, himself a stand out performer in his own right, of course. This is guaranteed to give me goose bumps every time I hear it. A song covered by many, including John Lennon, Van Morrison, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding and Carla Thomas and Rod Stewart, but never equalled in my humble opinion.
The thought of a good looking lad like Sam having no lady friends on a Saturday Night (with his reputation!) seems ridiculous, but then I read he wrote this tune on tour in the UK in 1963, after staying at a hotel where women guests were not allowed. To me it shows Sam was still at the top of his game as the 1960s were now well under way.
I guess I first heard ‘Shake!’ as cover versions by The Small Faces and Otis Redding respectively and loved them both. The original, again written by Cooke, was a tad slower in tempo but still cracks along nicely. Extra poignancy is added to his version as it was recorded at his very last session before his untimely death in 1964 and later released posthumously.
For me, with ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ I’ve saved the best to last. This is a fantastic song, delivered by in a timeless vocal performance. This is simply the real deal. Written by Sam, partly as a result of being refused entry to a ‘whites only ‘motel in Louisiana, you cant fail to feel moved by the powerful lyrics backed by the full blown, stirring orchestration. Adopted as the anthem of the Civil Rights movement, it is most certainly fit for purpose.
So there you have it. If you have ever dismissed Sam Cooke I would urge you to think again. A great performer and a prolific songwriter, who like many, sadly checked out far too early.
The Mumper of SE5