“Sam (Cooke) had a way of singing, it was like Mahalia Jackson. She could sing a Christmas carol and people would cry. Sam had that same communication line. He could sing to an audience and he would have their complete (attention). I would look down the rows from the stage and everybody would be looking him, man. They couldn’t take their eyes off him.”
–Leo Morris, drummer for Sam Cooke in 1960, to Peter Guralnick, Dream Boogie: The Triumph Of Sam Cooke, p. 328
We come here today to celebrate the force of nature that was Sam Cooke. Badass singer, songwriter, arranger, producer, live performer, black activist, gospel pioneer, soul pioneer, crossover pioneer as performer and label owner, the list goes on and on. Hell, Sam was the first music my daughter, Leilani, ever heard.
Longtime Loungers also know that I’m a huge fan of Doug Sahm. The other day I played “Be Real” and was reminded again how much it sounds like a Sam Cooke song. That got me thinking about Sam’s influence on Doug, their respective influence on later musicians, and how influence seems to travel where it damn well pleases. It refuses to conform to the needs of our record collection, which is to say, my record collection. I know, what about MY needs?
Sam Cooke – Good Times (1964)
The final Top 20 single released during Sam’s lifetime — it peaked at #11 pop — nods to Louis Jordan‘s 1946 hit, “Let The Good Times Roll” (click to watch video). However, the cadence more closely resembles the city for whom the phrase, “Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler,” is a badge of honor. That would be New Orleans, with its shuffling gait, bass on “the one,” and drums on the off beat. The subtle rhythmic variations characteristic of the Crescent City pervade “Good Times,” including the use of a marimba, which adds an unexpected (yet, geographically appropriate) Caribbean feel.
The song’s multiple vocal parts point to Sam’s years in gospel, not to mention his skills as a producer/arranger — an underappreciated talent I discuss in my analysis of “Bring It On Home To Me.” What’s so striking about the singing is that the high tenor parts (both foregrounded, but in separate channels) are not only harmonizing with each other, they’re also harmonizing with the backgrounded low tenor parts (also in separate channels). These interweaving vocal parts harken back to Sam’s pioneering work with The Soul Stirrers in the early-to-mid 1950s. But, by 1962-64, he was using his gospel know-how both on stage and in the studio as a way to redefine pop music and R&B, all but inventing that hot, buttery confection called soul. More of which, later.Doug Sahm – Be Real (1970)
Doug Sahm – Be Real
Recorded in Nashville in 1970 and released under the name Wayne Douglas, “Be Real” is the perfect marriage of Sam Cooke and country music, and it comes out sounding more than a bit like Elvis Costello. Unfortunately, it was not a perfect marriage of Doug Sahm and hit single, as the tune bombed in the country market. Stupid country market.
Produced by the great Jerry Kennedy — a guy who probably deserves his own Adios Lounge profile — the track features a murderer’s row of A-Team hotshots: Kenny Buttrey (drums), Bob Moore (bass), Pig Robbins (piano), Pete Drake (pedal steel), Buddy Spicher & Tommy Jackson (twin fiddles), Chip Young & Ray Edenton (guitars). A unique sleeper in the Sahm canon.
“Upon my first motel night in Los Angeles I was hoaxed into believing that I had been assigned the very room where Sam Cooke had been murdered. I didn’t sleep much until I found out in the morning that it had occurred in an entirely different location. Such innocence was short-lived, but the infamous Tropicana became the sight of many less serious crimes, indiscretions, and comedies.”
–Elvis Costello on “Motel Matches,” from the Girls Girls Girls liner notes
If “Be Real” was Doug’s blend of Sam Cooke and country music, “Blame It On Cain” has always struck me as Elvis’ blend of Sam Cooke and Doug Sahm. In fact, According to Augie Meyers, “Elvis Costello told Johnny Carson (that) Doug Sahm and Augie Meyers were his influences.” Good enough for me.
“We speed up and slow down and breathe together.”
–Gary Newcomb, LCT steel guitarist
Like Doug Sahm, Li’l Cap’n Travis call Austin home, where they mix sounds with little care for your tidy taxonomic needs. In an odd way, they remind me of a pop-friendly Neil Young with The Stray Gators, especially in their wobbly harmonies and keening steel sound. However, instead of being fueled by heroin, tequila, and wailing dissonance, the Cap’n vibe is more Brill Building, Brian Wilson, and “Hey bro, pass me a fish taco.”
As a studio band — and “Blue Chair” is no exception — LCT’s secret weapon is producer Michael Crow of Grand Champeen. The singers are more or less in key, the instruments are in tune, and while there’s a lot going on, the recording doesn’t come off as too busy because there’s plenty of space between the sounds. If you like this, I highly recommend their last two albums, …In All Their Splendor and Twilight On Sometimes Island. Laid back, off-kilter pop rarely sounds this good.
There is no reason on earth that this cover should work. Spindly-ass indie rock dude from Spoon taking on the mighty Sam Cooke??? No way. I was fully prepared to gulp down the haterade. But, I’ll be damned if Daniel doesn’t bring it on home. Mind you, it doesn’t compare to the original. But, that manages to be beside the point. For one thing, Daniel changes the key to fit his vocal range, so smart move there. He also doesn’t sing beyond his range, which has killed a few million songs. The real triumph, though, is that Daniel cleverly takes a page out of the Cooke Book and introduces consistent rhythmic variation in the arrangement, keeping things moving, and making the song his own. I don’t know how he did it, but score one for indie rock dude.
Sam Cooke – Nothing Can Change This Love
Harlem Square Club, North Miami, FL
Recorded January 12, 1963
Aside from being the greatest live album of all-time, Harlem Square Club (also known as One Night Stand) demonstrates why Sam Cooke was the greatest singer of all-time. Aside from maybe Ray Charles, Sam is the only singer who could be as silky smooth as Al Green and Marvin Gaye AND as gutbucket as Otis Redding and James Brown. He could give the white fans their crossover pop a la Nat “King” Cole, but he could simultaneously take his black fans to church, much like Brother Ray and JB. Really, any of these guys has a legit argument for greatest singer ever. I’m just sayin that when we start our R&B fantasy league, I’m calling dibs on Sam.
Harlem Square Club is also significant as a showcase for his red-hot backing band. Actually, the bulk of the band belonged to saxophonist King Curtis, with whom Sam was touring at the time. Curtis’ men were supplemented by Sam’s longtime bandleader and guitarist, Cliff White, and his tour drummer from 1960-64, June Gardner. Gardner was from New Orleans and I imagine that wasn’t coincidental. His predecessor in the band, the man quoted at the beginning of this post, in fact, was Leo Morris, later known as Idris Muhammad. He, too, was from New Orleans. Sam was smart enough to know that when you wanna laissez les bon temps rouler, it’s imperative to have a guy who knows how to keep bon temps.
“So come on and let the good times roll
We’re gonna stay here till we soothe our souls
If it take all night long.”