Deep Dive into Sam Cooke

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There are certain performers who are best seen as singles artists – The Who, The Jam, or Solomon Burke, for example. This is often because they were recording at a time when the 45 rpm single was the pre-eminent musical format; or it might be because they accumulated a killer 2-hour set over several decades, but never really had the wherewithal to release a sequence of great albums. Some acts, like the Beatles, and even the Stones to an extent, straddle the line. You can make a case for The Beatles as a singles group (plenty of non-album hits to their name), but they’re hard to ignore as an album group.

I always thought Sam Cooke was a singles artist. His career spanned a decade or so at a time when radio singles mattered more than anything, and most music fans would be satisfied with a 20-30 track compilation to cover the major milestones (“Wonderful World”, “Chain Gang”, “Another Saturday Night”, “That’s Where It’s At” etc.).

But then my daughter and I came across a 10-CD boxed set along similar lines to the Frank  Sinatra set I bought a while ago. So here’s an opportunity to dive deeper into the catalogue of a musical pioneer who was the first notable artist to cross-over from a successful Gospel career into Pop, creating a scandal and inventing a new genre called Soul along the way.

But to imagine that Sam Cooke suddenly invented soul music by transposing sentiment and style from music dedicated to a (Christian) liberation theology to a music dedicated to personal salvation through romantic love is to oversimplify. What did it mean, in 1957, to release a pop album? Was Cooke seen as a rock ‘n’ roll artist? The track listing of his first few albums says no. His smooth voice and pleasant melisma lent itself (of course) to the Great American Songbook, and it seems clear that his record company (Keen, an independent based in LA) saw him either as a crooner in the mould of Nat King Cole or Bing Crosby; or perhaps as a more consummate performer and interpreter of song like Sinatra.

His first album, Sam Cooke, opens with the self-penned hit “You Send Me” but also features classic Songbook numbers such as “Ol’ Man River”, “Summertime”, and “Moonlight in Vermont”. It is, in a way, an uncomfortable mixture: “You Send Me” is instantly recognisable as early soul music, the Sam Cooke that we compilation buyers know and love. But the rest of it? It’s pop music – it’s even 1950s pop music – but it ain’t Elvis, Little Richard or Chuck Berry. It’s more like Sinatra, who covered some of the same material on Come Fly With Me the following year.

An so the trend continues, into his second album, Encore. Meanwhile, he’s popping out this hit (soul) singles, including “Only Sixteen” and “For Sentimental Reasons”. It’s almost as if there were two separate audiences: teenagers who bought the ‘modern’ singles with pocket money and adults who bought the more expensive ‘songbook’ albums.

The label put out a compilation of these singles and then Cooke followed up with Tribute to the Lady (Billie Holiday), which is of course a collection of blues/jazz numbers. Wonderful World of Sam Cooke did (finally) include more of the Cooke-penned songs, but still mixed with the Gershwin and Rodgers/Hart type numbers. And then later in 1960 came Cooke’s Tour, which is his version of Sinatra’s Come Fly With Me. 

My Kind of Blues in 1961 is another mixture of Jazz/Blues covers, and so things go on. The first out and out modern pop album he releases is Twistin’ the Night Away in 1962 – a party record, if ever there was one. By this time, Cooke is signed to RCA and has just three more studio albums in him before his untimely death. We’re only lucky that the rate of production in the 50s and early 1960s – before The Beatles changed the rules forever – was so prodigious that there are so many to hear today.

A complex artist, then, who stepped through the threshold from the closeted world of gospel (with The Soul Stirrers) and then continued to occupy a grey area between genres until his career was given an historical perspective.

Having been brought up on Sinatra, I really like his take on the Great American Songbook numbers, but I suspect most people would be content to stick to the compilations, such as Portrait of a Legend, which gives a fairly comprehensive sampling of his singles output.

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