Sam Cooke – Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964 – Classic Music Review
As strange as this may sound given the legacy he left behind, I don’t think Sam Cooke came close to reaching his full potential. He left us with many tantalizing possibilities, but died long before his time.
They’ve tagged him “The King of Soul,” a highly misleading label that falls far short of describing his remarkably inclusive approach to music. His catalog contains everything from gospel to blues to rock to calypso to purest pop. He could have been the male version of Mahalia Jackson or a serious competitor to Johnny Mathis with a touch of Harry Belafonte thrown into the mix. I think it’s much more accurate to describe his music as imbued with soul. “You can’t just put in a ‘whoa-oh’ in every song, you got to feel it, man,” Sam told the record label owner who encouraged him to adhere to a formula. While sometimes he did follow a formula (welcome to the music business), played too much to the crowd and too often tried to cash in on the latest fads, his journey through his truncated life can be characterized as a relentless drive to realize a vision of music that was constantly evolving and maturing. He knew he was headed somewhere, and his instincts led him to explore many paths along the way. His early death denied him the opportunity to reach a final destination, but I’m not sure that Sam Cooke would have wanted to go there anyway. He was an explorer, and for the explorer, the meaning of life is in the journey itself.
Portrait of a Legend is a decent travelogue of Sam Cooke’s development as an artist; it only ranks as “decent” because the track order isn’t chronological. This is a particularly crucial issue when it comes to Sam Cooke because the chronology tells you that his progression was not at all linear but an uneven combination of forward movement and regression as he struggled to balance artistry with a strong desire to please the audience. The liner notes by biographer Peter Guralnick are generally informative, but the biography itself (Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke) also leaves much to be desired: the lead character and his music are often buried in a barrage of mini-bios on nearly everyone who crossed paths with Sam at one time or another, the narrative lost in dozens of side trips into the workings of the music business and the authenticity of the story compromised with tedious quotes from acquaintances who invariably describe Sam in exactly the same way (nice guy, full of himself, great voice, could charm the pants off a suffragist). I was surprised by this, because Guralnick’s Elvis bios (Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love) were first-rate efforts. Perhaps it slipped his mind that a writer can use something called “footnotes,” where curious readers can find additional information without losing the narrative thread. Listening to Sam Cooke is a far more enjoyable experience than reading about him (at least for now), so let’s not waste any time getting to the heart of the matter.
I’ve rearranged the tracks in chronological order (by recording date, if available) to provide a more honest travelogue of Sam Cooke’s amazing journey.
“Jesus Gave Me Water” (1951): Sam Cook (the final “e” came later) began his musical career in gospel at the age of six, singing with his brothers and sisters at the behest of his preacher father in a group unimaginatively called “Singing Children.” By the age of fourteen, he was the lead singer of another gospel group, The Highway QC’s, and from there he reached to pinnacle of gospel by joining The Soul Stirrers, a gospel institution that has survived in various forms for eighty-plus years.
Sam had performed this song with The Highway QC’s, but it was the version he sang with the Soul Stirrers that turned him into a gospel star at the ripe old age of twenty. Even at that very young age, he displayed three talents that would serve him well throughout his career. The first and most obvious is the innate soulfulness he brought to the song—his sense of rhythm and forward movement is remarkably compelling, and regardless of your faith or faithlessness, Sam grabs your attention with his complete command of the material. The ease with which Sam navigates the melody tells you that the man was born to sing, and while there are techniques that every singer has to learn, Sam’s innate ability gave him a huge head start. Finally, Sam understood that gospel music relies on the ability of the singer to tell a great story, and carrying that storytelling talent with him when he made the transition into pop music would prove to be crucial to his success.
“Touch the Hem of His Garment” (1954): This particular number came out of a Soul Stirrers recording session—a song that Sam literally made up on the spot because he hadn’t bothered to prepare anything in advance.
‘Sam, the folks are waiting for you to sing them a song, and if you don’t get yourself together before we get to the studio, what are we going to do?’ So Sam said, ‘Well, hand me the Bible.’ And they handed Sam the Bible, and he was thumbing through it, skipping over it and skimming through it, and he said, ‘I got one. Here it is right here.’ ” At which point Sam put the song together right in front of Bumps’ eyes. “He said, ‘Okay, strike the chords.’ So the guitar started playing these two little chords, and Sam started singing, quoting right from the Scripture, where Jesus was coming into the marketplace and he met the woman at the well, singing ‘There was a woman’—and those chords were coming—‘in the Bible days.’ And [then]: ‘Whoa-oh-oh, She touched the hem of his garment and was made whole.’ ”
Guralnick, Peter. Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke (pp. 151-152). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.
That natural talent would prove to be both a blessing and a curse throughout his career.
Not giving a hoot about religion, what I find fascinating about this song are the rough edges in Sam’s vocals. At this point in gospel’s development, the Pentecostal style—a more emotional approach to gospel with more volume, shouting and grit—was coming to the fore. The rough edges in Sam’s voice here are reminiscent of the vocals you hear in punk and grunge music, but while those genres use grit as expressions of angst and outrage, gospel used grit to express the joy of immersion in the spirit. Simultaneously with the rise of the Pentecostal approach, the underlying sexuality in the music began to manifest itself more openly, with women and girls rushing to the pews in front to display forms of hysteria akin to Beatlemania . . . and Sam, who would prove to be rather fond of female attention, could charm the pants off just about any broad within visual range. A young Aretha Franklin noted that “if Sam had twenty girls in a room, each one would leave feeling that she was the only one—’he just made you feel like it was all about you.'”
And that natural talent would also prove to be a blessing and a curse throughout his career.
“Lovable” (1956): After a few years with The Soul Stirrers, Sam was ready to cross the bridge into pop. He approached the transition with deep ambivalence because he didn’t want to disappoint his gospel fans, and probably felt more than a twinge of guilt for abandoning the spiritual for the secular. This is why “Lovable” was released under the name “Dale Cook,” one of the worst attempts at subterfuge until the Trump-Putin bromance. If Sam really wanted to sneak into pop through the back door, he should have called in David Seville for a chipmunk tune-up. Have you ever heard Sam Cooke sing a song and ask, “Huh, I wonder if that’s Sam Cooke?” Fuck, no! He has one of the most distinctive voices in recorded history! “Lovable” even features his signature “whoa-oh-ohs,” and nobody could whoa-oh-oh like Dale–er, Sam Cooke. “Lovable” isn’t much of a song and didn’t do dick in the charts, so I guess the Dale character gave Sam the opportunity to put some distance between himself and first-shot failure.
“You Send Me” (June 1957): No one in the studio thought much of this song when Sam recorded it. Clif White of the Mills Brothers played guitar on the piece and said, “I thought it was the most ridiculous song I ever heard in my life. Simply because it wasn’t saying anything. I mean, he just kept on singing, ‘You send me,’ and I thought he was out of his fucking mind. I said, ‘When is the song gonna start?’ I thought he was lost. I said, ‘Hell, I think he forgot the words to his song.’” (Ibid, p. 173). As a composition, it reflects the simplicity and conservatism of a young songwriter just beginning to dip his toes into pop music, which pretty much describes Sam at this point in time. “You Send Me” was released as the B-side to Gershwin’s “Summertime,” and all involved prepared for a life where “You Send Me” was little more than an afterthought.
The dismissive assessment of “You Send Me” ignored one of Sam Cooke’s greatest gifts: “He just made you feel like it was all about you.” DJ’s ignored the A-side and pushed the hell out of the B-side when they discovered a direct correlation between playing “You Send Me” and the phones in the radio station ringing off the hook. Miraculously, “You Send Me” would eventually top the R&B and Billboard charts, firmly cementing the notion of “crossover potential.” Clif White would rethink his position and go on to support Sam in many future recording sessions.
Not much of a song, but what a voice! Sam conveys such deep sincerity and palpable emotion that he even makes me feel that he’s singing directly to me! What’s equally amazing (and a lesson for singers whose performances are marked with deliberately sloppy diction), is Sam’s clean articulation, which sounds completely natural and does nothing to compromise the underlying emotion. The soul that characterized his gospel music comes through loud and clear, and the ebbs and flows of emotion mirror the natural flow of conversation. This is a perfect vocal performance, technically sound and emotionally engaging, and allows you to ignore the atrocious background singers who do their best to turn the song into an Easy Listening bore.
“Summertime” June 1957: The “A” side is one of the better versions of the Gershwin aria, though you’d never know it from its peak chart performance at #81. The highest charting version was Billy Stewart’s manic, cubist rendition in 1966, which destroys any connection to the lyrical imagery in DuBose Hayward’s poetry. When you listen to Sam do the tune, you can feel the Southern heat and humidity, the lure of the cool river and the natural torpor of a hot summer day in the South. Sam over Billy by a landslide.
“You Were Made for Me” (June 1957): Guralnick waxes lyrical about this song in the biography; I find the recitation of perfect fits (fish-ocean, grape-vine, boat-sea) more than trite. Recorded in the same session as “You Send Me,” Sam sounds just fine but those background singers—a white quartet known as The Pied Pipers—-are now a major distraction. If producer Bumps Blackwell’s intention was to make the songs sound whiter to maximize crossover potential, he couldn’t have picked a whiter group than The Pied Pipers, whose claim to fame was their alliance with the sanitized jazz of Tommy Dorsey. Definitely a skipper . . . if it weren’t for Sam’s voice.
“I’ll Come Running Back to You” (November 1957): This was the follow-up to “You Send Me,” a so-so song with production made to order. Art Rupe, the owner of Specialty Records, ordered Bumps to duplicate the sound of “You Send Me” with the same instrumentation and same horrid background vocals. This was recorded before Sam’s “you’ve got to feel it” manifesto, so I’ll give him a pass for being a young kid still learning the ropes.
“(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons” (1957): Oh, man, why on earth did they dig up this old turkey? The answer is simple: it fit the early-period formula, where Sam croons simple lyrics in his endlessly charming voice and squeezes every last drop from the so-so melody. In the opening passage, Sam repeats the phrase “I Love You” sixteen fucking times; if a guy did that with me, he’d be out the door on number four.
In this stage of his career, Sam’s reliance on his natural singing talent reminds me of the hot young prospect with a great fastball who wreaks havoc on the league until the hitters realize he’s a one-trick pitcher. They figure out how to time the fastball and start knocking his precious heater into the seats. Sam’s voice could only carry him so far, and his so-so chart performance on this turkey told him he needed to come up with another pitch. In this case, what he needed better was better material, and there was no one more qualified to meet that need than Sam Cooke himself—just give the man a little time to get his songwriting chops down.
“Win Your Love for Me” 1958: Harry Belafonte had turned calypso into something more than a craze, though I doubt very much that the anti-Communist listening audience had any idea that calypso was originally a method of subterfuge, a way for slaves to share information in coded form in defiance of their masters. While the rhythms are irresistible, the more relevant aspect of calypso is its status as a story-telling genre, and Sam would soon begin to balance straightforward love songs that melted hearts with stories that moved hearts and minds.
Written by his younger brother L. C., Sam has no problem navigating the modified calypso beat, imbuing the song with a joyful earnestness reflecting the hope of the narrator in his quest to win over the girl. The mix is a bit off, with Sam’s voice pushed slightly to the rear of the sound field, and I do wish they’d honored tradition by using congas instead of bongoes—but overall, “Win Your Love for Me” is a pleasant listening experience.
“Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha” (January 1959)”: Sam’s first shot at writing song stories is somewhat compromised by the obviousness of the commercial motive to capitalize on yet another dance craze. The story is as corny as hell: Guy takes gal to dance. Everybody’s doing the cha-cha. Gal doesn’t know how to do the cha-cha and doesn’t want to embarrass herself on the dance floor. Guy teaches gal the steps. In the end, gal does the cha-cha better than guy. I keep expecting to hear canned laughter after the too-cute punch line. For the first time on the disk, Sam’s phrasing sounds a bit forced, like the guy who has a great joke and wants to make absolutely sure you get it by telling it so slowly and precisely that you start to feel insulted at the implication that you’re too thick to appreciate the humor. By the time you arrive at the denouement you’re more pissed than pleased.
“(What A) Wonderful World” March 1959: While James Dean captured teenage angst on film, the pop music of the era was more concerned with the lite version: teenage awkwardness. Sam became a solid purveyor of tales of teenage naïveté, often spun with a slightly humorous twist. In “Wonderful World” he took the original version written by Herb Alpert and Lou Adler and tinkered with the lyrics to emphasize the educational theme, creating one of the most delightful and memorable pop tunes of the era. Sam made the recording in March 1959 while still at Keen Records, a session so unmemorable that even his detail-oriented biographer can only speculate that the background vocalists are The Pilgrim Travelers with J. W. Alexander, Lou Rawls and Oopie McCurn. The song languished in demo tape purgatory for over a year; in the meantime, Sam had moved onto RCA. Keen unearthed the demo and released it just in time to compete with one of Sam’s early RCA singles. “Wonderful World” crushed the competition by hefty margin, becoming Sam’s biggest hit since “You Send Me.”
Here the use of African-American background singers pays huge dividends, giving a fairly light song more heft. Sam delivers the lines with sincere humility, playing the part of the boy who is slightly ashamed of his academic shortcomings. The implication is he fell in love with a broad with brains, so good for him! Compared to the cover version by Herman’s Hermits . . . well, there is no comparison. Peter Noone just recited the words; Sam Cooke makes you feel the boy’s insecurity so keenly that you want to get out of your chair, hug him and tell him everything will be all right.
“Only Sixteen” (May 1959): Sam originally wrote this for an up-and-coming singer named Steve Rowland, but Steve’s producer didn’t like the song. Steve was crushed but got over it, going on to produce hits by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich, The Pretty Things and others. Sam went ahead and recorded it himself, complete with the softball story line and too-cute resolution (“But I was a mere lad of sixteen/I’ve aged a year since then”). The single barely cracked the Top 30, the B-side was a forgettable tune called “Let’s Go Steady Again,” so the experience served as a wake-up call that over-targeting the white teenage demographic was unlikely to produce consistent dividends. Despite his distinctive voice and first-date appeal, Sam was competing in a very crowded market space, and desperately needed a song that would separate him from the pack.
“Chain Gang” January 1960:
“We was driving along the highway, man,” said Charles, “and we saw these people working on a chain gang on the side of the road. They asked us, ‘You got any cigarettes?’ So we gave them the cigarettes we had. Then we got down the road about three or four miles, and we saw a store. Sam said, ‘Go in there and get some cigarettes for them fellows’—you understand? To take back to them. So I went in the store and bought five or six cartons, and we carried them back to the dudes that was working on the gang, it wasn’t but a few miles—and I asked the guard if it was all right to give them the cigarettes, and they thanked us, and that was it. And Sam said, ‘Man, that’s a good song. Right there.’ And just started singing, and then we went to the hotel and I put in a few words, and Sam said, ‘Why don’t you do it, man?’ But he was so good singing it I never did.”
Guralnick, Peter. Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke (pp. 319-320). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.
Elder brother Charles’ description of this detour taken while traveling with his brother through North Carolina speaks volumes regarding Sam’s perspective on life and art: every experience is an opportunity to tell a story, to write a song. Whether it was Lou Rawls’ sister turning sixteen (“Only Sixteen”) or watching family members doing the cha-cha at a New Years’ Eve family gathering (“Everybody Loves to Cha-Cha-Cha”), most of Sam’s best songs are the result of immediate, spontaneous reaction to experience. Encountering these prisoners on the backroads of the Tarheel State was a particularly fortituitous moment because it inspired Sam to write about something other than heterosexual interactions.
While the basic structure and a good chunk of the lyrics came easily, the recording process proved to be more of a challenge, and after twelve takes, they left the song for another day. That space allowed Sam to make some critical adjustments to the lyrics that helped strengthen the empathetic connection to the men on the chain gang. The original first verse contained these lyrics:
All day long they work so hard
Till the sun is goin’ down
Thinking of their women at home
In their silken gowns
You hear them moanin’ their lives away
Then you hear somebody sa-ay
While the male half of the population could empathize with the pain of imposed celibacy, female listeners would just shrug and say, “Men! They’ve only got one thing on their minds!” Sam’s correction universalized the experience, shifting the focus to a subject that everyone can relate to—the drudgery of work:
All day long they work so hard
Till the sun is goin’ down
Working on the highways and byways
And wearing, wearing a frown
You hear them moanin’ their lives away
Then you hear somebody sa-ay
The contrast between the grunts and groans of the men and Sam’s empathetic voice intensifies the listening experience, presenting both the ignoble and noble tendencies of humanity in a single, vivid picture. When Sam slips into the role of prisoner on the final verses, we feel the pain in his muscles, the sweat from the oppressive heat, the ache for his woman and the utter helplessness of the situation:
(Can’t ya hear them singin’)
Mmm, I’m goin’ home one of these days I’m going home
See my woman whom I love so dear
But meanwhile I got to work right here
(All day long they’re singin’)
My, my, my, my, my, my, my, my, my work is so hardGive me water, I’m thirsty
My, my, my, my, my work is so hard
I’ve never heard anyone ask, “What did the men do to earn themselves a spot on the chain gang?” Sam manages to move us past our ingrained fear of criminals to help us see the men as human beings who caught a bad break. Bottom line: there are few songs in pop music history as dramatic and compelling as “Chain Gang.”
“Sad Mood” October 1960: The title pretty much sums up how Sam and his recording team felt about the song: meh. Literally no one involved liked the finished product. After the brilliance of “Chain Gang,” all Sam had to offer was “I’m sad because my baby left me,” a theme that I believe . . . let me check . . . yes . . . a theme that had been covered by 1,298,337 artists prior to Sam’s meager contribution.
“Just for You” (1961): Guralnick calls this song “bright and bouncy.” I call it “boring and blah.” The record-buying public agreed with me and stayed away in droves.
“Cupid” April 1961: Finding a follow-up hit to “Chain Gang” would prove to be more difficult than anyone expected, but Sam finally made it back to the Top 20 with a golly-gee-whiz-love-sure-is-a-funny-thing song specifically designed to appeal to the zit-infested segment of the population. The funny thing for me is no matter how silly the premise and no matter how trite the lyrics, Sam Cooke’s beautiful voice saves the day. The live version (below) sounds better to my ears, as Sam throws a touch of grit into his vocal to balance the saccharine:
“Twistin’ the Night Away” December 1961: Damn. Here’s Sam again, paying close attention to what’s hot, ignoring the trail-blazing what’s not option and trying to cash in on the #1 dance fad of the 1960’s. All that potential, pissed away in a meaningless competition with Chubby Checker and Joey Dee. Damn.
But damn if this isn’t the best twist record of them all! Sam rocks as hard as he’s ever rocked before, and his enthusiasm is downright dazzling! As for the competition, the truth is Chubby Checker couldn’t sing worth shit and Joey Dee was nothing more than the Limp White Hope.
“Sugar Dumpling” February 1962: This unremarkable, incredibly sexist song was pulled from the Twistin’ the Night Away album and released posthumously as a single in 1965. The too-busy arrangement seems to want to mirror the pre-Spector girl-group sound but turns out way too bouncy and devoid of gum-popping attitude of The Shirelles. As for the sexism . . . it’s all right there in all its ugly glory:
Oh, whenever I tell her, honey I’m hungry
Now go and fix me something to eat
This girl rushes in the kitchen
And fixes me a dinner
With seven different kinds of meatIf I call her up at two o’clock in the morning
And say, come on over if you can
Before I hang up the telephone
She’s sitting beside me
With a cup of coffee in her hand, oh
“Bring It on Home to Me” May 1962: I covered this song in the Dad’s 45 series, so I’ll take the liberty of quoting myself here: “In ‘Bring It On Home to Me,’ he managed to integrate the feel and structure of gospel into a popular music format, and the result is one of the great songs of the era. Incredibly, the song barely made it out of the gate—Dee Clark turned it down when Cooke offered it to him, and when Cooke released his version, “Having a Party” was the A-side. It’s obvious that both Sam and his old gospel buddy Lou Rawls are in the groove, but they avoid trying to match each other note for note, giving the song a more natural, let’s-sit-around-the-piano-and-sing kind of feel. The song has been covered a billion times (okay, not a billion, but it feels like it) but no one has surpassed the original and no one ever will.”
“Having a Party” May 1962: This was the A-Side? Wow. Doesn’t come close to “Bring It on Home to Me.” This is a party song? With that slow, loping music? Sounds like one dreary party to me! All you got is Cokes and popcorn? No booze? Fuck that shit—I’m outta here.
“Nothing Can Change This Love” September 1962: Nice performance, but the chord pattern is too-close, too-soon in relation to “Bring It on Home to Me.” This was another song that Guralnick thought was the bees knees, but it does nothing for me, and I find René Hall’s syrupy arrangement downright offensive . . . but only half as offensive as one that comes later in the program.
“Little Red Rooster” February 1963: Sam’s version of the Howlin’ Wolf classic is way too slick for my tastes, and Billy Preston’s attempts to channel Perez Prado with animal sound effects on the organ turn this one into something that belongs on Dr. Demento. Sam! Tell me a story! I like it when you tell me a story!
“Another Saturday Night” February 1963: With his looks, bod and irresistible charm, Sam Cooke could have gotten laid within an hour upon arrival in any town in the U. S. A., and the history shows he pretty much did just that. On one occasion he wound up at a prim-and-proper establishment and was informed by management that entertaining ladies in his room violated both decorum and hotel policy. While Sam still managed to get his rocks off that night by relocating to a less stuffy establishment, the experience stuck with him, and through the unusual alchemy in his creative mind, he transformed his inconvenience into an empathetic story of a guy who lacks the means and circumstances to pass the night between the legs of a delectable female.
What I love about the song is that it’s grounded in the world where people live paycheck to paycheck and choose to spend their earnings on having a good time instead of saving for a future they can’t see or a retirement they can’t imagine:
Another Saturday night
And I ain’t got nobody
I got some money ’cause I just got paid
To a single male working stiff with a few bucks in his pocket back in 1963, the first option was always to use the money to impress the chicks in the hope of eventually hitting the poontang jackpot. Plan B was to piss it away doing dumb shit with the guys. Sadly, our hero is an out-of-towner and despite repeated efforts all he can come up with his a blind date with a chick who resembles “a cat named Frankenstein.” Hmm. While I’m uncomfortable with people making fun of other people’s looks (beauty is in the eye of the beholder, after all), I’ll accept his status as a product of a highly conformist society, take Sam’s lead and empathize with the feeling of being all alone in a strange town. That fucking sucks, and Sam’s acting performance here makes you want to (again) give the guy a hug. Sam Cooke truly had a gift for awakening the empathetic gene in others.
“That’s Where It’s At” August 1963: If any song could be cited as evidence supporting the “King of Soul” moniker, it’s “That’s Where It’s At.” Sam had written the song a couple of years before for the Sims Twins and wasn’t entirely happy with the semi-sparkling mood of their version. The final recording you hear is the result of thirty-two takes, with Sam struggling to find the right vocal tone, rhythmic integration and horn support. Once Bobby Womack switched to higher notes on the scale with his tremolo guitar and Sam ordered the band to pick up the pace a bit, the song started to come together. Sam approaches the vocal with a combination of grit, gentle humor and heartfelt soul, beautifully integrated with subdued, almost funereal horns and Womack’s delicate guitar work. The result is far more Atlantic than Motown, more Otis Redding than Marvin Gaye, but the final version is a pure soul number that influenced the direction of the emerging genre. Withheld from release for more than a year, “That’s Where It’s At” barely cracked the top 100, but has endured as one of Sam’s greatest contributions to music. Absolutely love it.
“A Change Is Gonna Come” January 1964“: Many consider this song Sam’s masterpiece, and once you get past René Hall’s ludicrous, cinematic introduction that resembles an introduction to a Cecil B. DeMille extravaganza, you can understand why. Once the grandiose introduction passes into history, Sam takes over with a beautiful vengeance, his voice peppered with a touch of grit that expresses the exhausting agony of the black experience in the United States as profoundly as any singer before or since.
In the opening verse, he places himself beside a river, that powerful, multi-faceted symbol of American mythology. Here the river is superficially the symbol of journey and escape, but the more important meaning is found in the subtext: the river is also a place where a man can reflect on the journey and his place within the passage of time:
I was born by the river in a little tent
Oh and just like the river I’ve been running ev’r since
It’s been a long time, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will
We see the manifestation of self-reflection in the second verse, where Sam expresses not only his deepest feelings but stunningly admits he has begun to question one of his most cherished beliefs: the existence of god.
It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die
‘Cause I don’t know what’s up there, beyond the sky
The doubt he experiences is not an uncommon experience for Christians; the four gospels contain several stories of doubt concerning Jesus, from John the Baptist questioning whether or not he was the true messiah to “doubting Thomas” and his refusal to believe in the resurrection until he could touch the wounds of crucifixion. Sam had spent his life immersed in those stories, and knew that Christ never criticized or judged anyone who expressed doubt, instead engaging in dialogue with the skeptic, letting his actions speak for themselves. When you consider the line through that lens, you realize that Sam hasn’t abandoned his faith, but is expressing deep pain caused by the extreme challenges that life often presents to the faithful. In Sam’s case, those challenges included the recent accidental death of his young son Vincent and the perpetual challenge of his blackness in a society steeped in racist traditions.
After attempting to reassure himself that “a change gonna come, oh yes, it will,” he describes the shared experience of the black person in American society (instead of the personal experience of his arrest in Shreveport for “disturbing the peace” a few months before):
I go to the movie and I go downtown
Somebody keep tellin’ me don’t hang around
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will
Then I go to my brother
And I say brother help me please
But he winds up knockin’ me
Back down on my knees, oh
The dehumanizing experience of racism and the violent response of the racist to the cry for help would make anyone doubt there’s a better life ahead. The front-line non-violent soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement lived with brutality and the threat of death every day of their lives, but this was the first time Sam had placed his own career on the line to support that movement. That courageous step leads to the uplifting conclusion, where Sam realizes that one change has already come: the change in himself. He has come to grips with the humiliating experience of the black man in a racist society, releasing his pain through the medium of music, as so many of his kind have done for over a century:
There have been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will
Curiously, after the song was put to disc, Sam performed “A Change Is Gonna Come” only once in his lifetime, and did so very reluctantly (on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, at the insistence of his manager, Allen Klein). An NPR piece on the song cited a conversation with Bobby Womack that sheds some light on Sam’s resistance: “When he first played it for Bobby Womack, who was his protégé, he said, ‘What’s it sound like?’ And Bobby said, ‘It sounds like death.’ Sam said, ‘Man, that’s kind of how it sounds like to me. That’s why I’m never going to play it in public.'” It is likely that Sam was justifiably concerned that going too far on the “race issue” would alienate his white audience (consider what happened to Nina Simone), but I think it’s equally true that the soul-shattering experience of doubt had as much to do with it as the desire for a reliable revenue stream. Despite his abandonment of the song, “A Change Is Gonna Come” has become one of the most cherished songs in American music, and one of Sam’s most remarkable achievements.
(Ain’t That) Good News” March 1964: The title track from Sam’s best-selling album since 1958’s Songs by Sam Cooke is an exuberant riff on an old gospel song, secularized by Sam to change the pending arrival from Jesus’ second coming to the return of his apologetic squeeze. The exuberance comes in part from Sam’s upbeat lyrics, in part from a snappy beat but mostly from René Hall’s arrangement mingling banjo with horn. As a card-carrying member of The Anti-Banjo League, I have no idea why the banjo works here, but it does!
“Good Times” July 1964: Borrowing a phrase from Louis Jordan’s jazzy blues hit “Let The Good Times Roll,” Sam tries to match Jordan’s enthusiasm and falls far short. Guralnick points out the “elegiac tone” in this song that completely contradicts the lyrics celebrating an all-nighter where “time means nothing to me.” That tone comes from the shift to a minor chord near the end of each rendition of the chorus, an odd choice indeed. Sam’s voice sounds unusually strained to me, as if he’s trying with all his might to overcome the mood he created in the musical structure. Though the single sold well, the song would not fully realize its potential until Phoebe Snow eliminated the minor chord when she covered it on her debut album—her version is sheer perfection.
“Tennessee Waltz” July 1964: What’s important about Sam covering this tired tune popularized by Patti Page is that it’s entirely out of place in the timeline: it seems to belong in the period following “You Send Me” when he was straddling the line between the R&B crowd and Easy Listening. Given the evidence of “A Change Is Going to Come,” “Good Times” and “Tennessee Waltz,” one can only conclude Sam’s music in 1964 reflected an internal struggle between the desire to please the crowd and the artistic urge for free self-expression. This track appears on Ain’t That Good News, where Sam explored a range of styles and musical possibilities, applying Blake’s wisdom that “Without Contraries is no progression.” Sorry, but this one’s a little too contrary for my tastes.
“Meet Me at Mary’s Place” July 1964: Recorded at the same session as “Tennessee Waltz” and “Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day,” this tender tribute to the generosity of gospel fan Mary Trapp also appears on Ain’t That Good News. Mary had a roomy place in Charlotte that served as the boarding house for many a traveling gospel troupe, and the song recalls the good-time feel of gospel without a single reference to religion and spirituality. The Soul Stirrers provide the joyous background vocals, and Sam responds in kind. Guralnick hears an “almost indelible atmosphere of regret” stemming from Sam’s departure from the gospel ranks, but what I hear is a semi-nostalgic remembrance of good times and no regrets whatsoever about moving on.
“Shake” November 1964: Guralnick calls this “as unapologetic a pure rhythm number as he had ever cut,” and the rhythmic intensity Sam brings to his vocal is off-the-charts. The immediate inspiration came from Bobby Freeman’s “C’mon and Swim,” but given his sensitivity to emerging trends, it should come as no surprise that Sam had a higher purpose—to move his sound in the direction he felt music was heading:
It was the definition of what Sam kept telling everyone who would listen was the coming trend in popular music and r&b, something that, like James Brown’s raw extemporizations, the Valentinos’ and the Rolling Stones’ rough-edged rock ’n’ roll, was conveyed as much by rhythm and attitude as it was by vocal technique. It used to be, he explained, that sound brought attention to the lyric, but what you needed to do now was to find sounds—as opposed to words—that could emotionally move an audience. And that was precisely what he had achieved here.
Ibid. p. 607.
Channeling the song through my deliciously filthy mind, what I hear is Sam’s unbound libido pouring out through the speakers. “Shake” is the hottest fucking thing he ever did.
It’s difficult to absorb the fact that Sam Cooke would be dead a month after recording a song as vibrant as “Shake.” After years of trying to forge a truce between the often conflicting drives involving the pursuit of commercial success and the motivation to produce work of enduring value, Sam Cooke seemed to be truly coming into his own, expanding the scope of his repertoire and imbuing his music with new-found energy. His late-stage music seemed to open up a universe of possibilities for him, and he was about to enter an era that celebrated originality, artistic diversity and non-conformity. It would have been glorious to experience Sam Cooke truly unleashed, leading the crowd instead of following it, applying his appreciable talent for storytelling and his extraordinarily expressive voice to the creation of music that moved minds, hearts and souls.
Alas, it was not to be.