“(Sam) Cooke had an enormous natural talent — but he mined a narrow vein, one in which restraint was prized over embellishment. So Cooke sang direct and clean lines, never pushing or straining his voice, always perfectly in time and tone with thoughtfully arranged instrumentals. No flailing, cathartic vocal runs, no bursts of horns, just precision filigreed with the occasional, sighing ‘whoa-oh-oh-oh’ like the one that punctuates the chorus of ‘You Send Me.'”
–Jacob Ganz, “Sam Cooke At 80: The Career That Could Have Been,” January 21, 2011
Sam Cooke would’ve turned 80 years old today. All things considered, it’s not that old. If anything is still surprising, it’s the fact that he’s been dead for 46 years. His murder in December 1964 left a gigantic void in the music of the 1960s and he remains one of the biggest what could’ve beens of the 20th century. He’s in my Top 10 with the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Jimmie Rodgers, Charlie Parker, Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, D Boon, Kurt Cobain, Buddy Holly, and Otis Redding.
Which is why Jacob Ganz’s NPR feature on Sam Cooke, while celebratory to some degree, is also a deceptive hatchet job. It’s obvious Ganz is a Sam fan and his two paragraph conclusion about “Bring It On Home To Me” is well worth reading. But, his appreciation of Sam extends only as far as his double secret racism will allow. The racism of which I speak isn’t obvious “KKK in three-piece suits” brand prejudice, but rather the peculiarly liberal, academic phenomenon that couches itself in tsk-tsk disapproval of integrationist accommodation.
For example, Ganz critiques the epic One Night Stand/Harlem Square Club live album (giant red flag) by addressing Sam’s “absurdly perfect pronunciation” as “the facade Cooke and his producers are building.” He further notes, “Cooke’s singing is always careful, a display of studied perfection and control that’s the opposite of his notoriously wild private life.” First of all, how can you listen to Harlem Square and find it lacking in any way? How is that even an option??? But, if you were to find a criticism of the recording, how could you possibly suggest that it was too studied and careful?
Don’t get me wrong, I understand the argument against “supper club Sam.” Songs like “Everybody Loves To Cha Cha Cha,” “When A Boy Falls In Love,” and even “You Send Me” are lacquered in saccharine. Live At The Copa isn’t very good. There’s treacle in the catalog, no question. But, cut the dude some slack for figuring this shit out as he went along. It’s not like there was an undergrad program at UCLA, “Navigating the Music Industry in Jim Crow America.” There was Nat King Cole and Ray Charles and that’s about it … and I think Sam successfully split the difference between those two. This sellout mindset also ignores the fact that beginning with “Wonderful World” in 1959, Sam’s songwriting and production slowly began to work its way into the classic R&B wheelhouse.
Ganz’s greatest affront isn’t that he all but plays the Uncle Tom card. The most mind-boggling sentences are these: “It’s difficult to hear (Sam’s) songs and not feel a nagging desire for the fulfillment of a promise that’s never quite met” and “With a few stellar exceptions, he doesn’t have perfect songs in his catalog. To listen to a Sam Cooke song carefully, to hold it close to you, is to feel a shred of disappointment, in his choice of songs, in their subject matter.” Say what?!?! Does anyone seriously think this when listening to Sam Cooke? I can set aside “Chain Gang,” “Bring It On Home To Me,” and “A Change Is Gonna Come,” and still have two albums worth of note-perfect brilliance. Don’t believe me? Let us count the ways:
Sam Cooke – Wonderful World
Structured like a Soul Stirrers song, but cleverly disguised in teen angst. Also sounds like the kind of song that would’ve influenced the songwriting sensibilit of a 20-year-old John Lennon. Great drumming from the legendary Earl Palmer and beautiful, layered vocal harmonies. NPR says the song should’ve been about the Nixon-Kennedy debates, so it only rates 2.5/5 mochaccinos.
Sam Cooke – Nothing Can Change This Love
This track directly anticipates “Bring It On Home To Me.” This may not be much to write home about lyrically, but tell that to a young Aretha Franklin, who’s furiously scribbling notes to herself.
Sam Cooke – Meet Me At Mary’s Place
I could’ve put “Rome Wasn’t Built In A Day”, “Another Saturday Night”, or “Having A Party” in here, but “Meet Me” will work. This is Sam providing source codes for the Stax sound. NPR apparently finds this appalling blackface. I don’t see it, but they know their minstrels, who am I to argue? How can you not hear the greatness? Is it just me? It can’t just be me.
Sam Cooke – Good Times + Shake
Both songs clearly prefigure high points in the catalogs of The Stones and Otis Redding. Solid big-band R&B.
Sam Cooke – Twistin’ The Night Away
On a scale of 1-10, “Twistin'” is a 12.
Sam Cooke – Someday Have Mercy
Directly anticipates early Marvin Gaye songs like “Pride And Joy” and “Hitch Hike,” which means it directly anticipates early Velvet Undergound. Yeah, no one wants that.
Sam Cooke – Ain’t That Good News
I could’ve opted for “Sad Mood” or “Soothe Me” and there would’ve been no drop in quality. But, “Good News” is the sound and vocabulary of soul music taking shape. This is also what’s overlooked when reviewing the career of Sam Cooke. The tragedy is not just that he had some hits, was a pioneer, and died too young. It’s that we were also denied his response to the different developments in ’60s music upon which he had a direct influence: Motown, Stax, The British Invasion, Dylan, and of course, soul music itself.
Happy birthday, Sam. Hope they’re having a party in heaven.