Sam Cooke – The Man and His Music

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

I guess I first heard Sam Cooke through the Animal House soundtrack, which for reasons I will never understand, was very popular with the cool kids when I was in middle school (it was a very white, very affluent place – sorry). I know I also heard “Wonderful World” as a youth and was captivated. Much later, I was stunned at just how many amazing songs Cooke not only sang but wrote. I can’t think of any male artist (though possibly just any artist at all) with a better, more beautiful voice. Born Samuel Cook, he started his singing career as a child and gained fame in the gospel world with the Soul Stirrers in the 1950s. With some hesitation, he crossed over into the secular market, and was a central figure in the development and popularization of soul music. He also started a record label and publishing company, and was actively involved in the civil rights movement. Cooke had over thirty top 40 hits in a very short recording career (from 1957 onwards); he was shot under disputed, controversial circumstances in 1964 at the age of 33. What an amazing talent.

What I Think of This Album

This is an excellent, 28 song compilation that fails to provide any real information about either Cooke or the songs, but insofar as it serves as a vehicle for hearing those songs, it is fan-fucking-tastic. In fact, it is arguably the only single-disc compilation of Cooke’s work that spans almost all of his career; since then, the different record companies that own the recordings from different time spans have issued their own collections.

Basically moving chronologically from Cooke’s Soul Stirrer days into his pop songs and his soul numbers, this album is basically hit after hit after hit after hit. And if you didn’t know some of the songs before, Cooke’s clear, smooth voice (to which he could add grit on a moment’s notice) and supreme melodicism will win you over. This is a jaw-dropping collection.

“You Send Me” is perfectly lovely. “Just For You” is similarly pretty and romantic, with great interplay between Cooke and the backing vocals. “Chain Gang” avoids crossing over into novelty, and the way Cooke sings “gang” is magical. Cooke captures teen love and heartbreak on “Only Sixteen,” relying on more doo wop style backing vocals. Has anyone’s voice ever sounded better than Cooke’s does on “Wonderful World”? I am not confident about the songwriting credits on this album, but this was actually written by Lou Adler and Herb Alpert, with lyrical contributions from Cooke. I love the Latin rhythm. “Cupid” rivals “World” for the beauty of Cooke’s voice, with the help of some angelic strings and another Latin rhythm. “Rome Wasn’t Built In a Day” adds some horns to the mix.

That’s Darlene Love in the background to “Everybody Loves to Cha-Cha-Cha,” a song I find a bit silly (though, on the other hand, I am not entirely sure Cooke is talking about the dance). The notable drumming on “Another Saturday Night” is by the legendary Hal Blaine; drumming duties were often handled by Earl Palmer (Little Richard, Fats Domino, Righteous Brothers). Meanwhile, the arrangers for most of these songs were Belford Hendricks, René Hall, and Sammy Lowe (individually, not together).

Cooke’s childhood friend Lou Rawls sings backup on “Bring It On Home to Me” and “Having a Party.” I like how “Having Party” starts out all sedate and then slowly builds in intensity. The vocals on “Good Times” – Cooke’s last big hit before his death – are wonderful. The Stones covered this one shortly thereafter. You can’t have more fun than on “Twistin’ the Night Away,” with a fantastic saxophone part; the Wrecking Crew were the studio musicians on this track. “Shake” – posthumously released – takes things to another level, with a Stax approach of full horns and pounding drums. There is an ingratiating bossa nova sound to “Ain’t That Good News.”

“A Change is Gonna Come” was the B-side to “Shake,” which doesn’t make any goddamn sense at all. Cooke played this song live once, on The Tonight Show. It just so happened that two days later, the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, stealing any attention Cooke might have otherwise gotten. He was troubled by the song, and refused to play it live again. He had written it as a response to Dylan’s “Blowin’ In the Wind,” which he found fascinating.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Wonderful World” almost brings a tear to my eye.

Release Date

February, 1986

The Cover Art

Again, a typical record company compilation album cover. It’s fine. Whatever.

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