Sam Cooke
December 11, 2014 9:37 AM   Subscribe

50 years ago today, on December 11, 1964, Sam Cooke died at the age of 33.

Wikipedia sums up his career:
Samuel "Sam" Cooke (January 22, 1931 – December 11, 1964) was an American recording artist and singer-songwriter, generally considered among the greatest of all time. Influential as both a singer and composer, he is commonly known as the King of Soul for his distinctive vocals and importance within popular music. His pioneering contributions to soul music contributed to the rise of Aretha Franklin, Bobby Womack, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Billy Preston and popularized the likes of Otis Redding and James Brown. AllMusic biographer Bruce Eder wrote that Cooke was "the inventor of soul music", and possessed "an incredible natural singing voice and a smooth, effortless delivery that has never been surpassed."

Cooke had 30 U.S. top 40 hits between 1957 and 1964, plus three more posthumously. Major hits like "You Send Me", "A Change Is Gonna Come", "Cupid", "Chain Gang", "Wonderful World", and "Twistin' the Night Away" are some of his most popular songs. Cooke was also among the first modern black performers and composers to attend to the business side of his musical career. He founded both a record label and a publishing company as an extension of his careers as a singer and composer. He also took an active part in the Civil Rights Movement.
(Sam Cooke has been previously on Metafilter, but none of the video links in that post work anymore.)

Here's "Good News," followed by a short interview of Sam Cooke (by Dick Clark), in which he tells "the secret" to his songwriting.

Cooke wrote "Chain Gang" after meeting some chain-gang prisoners on a highway while Cooke was on tour. Covered by the Nylons and the Supremes. (Chain gangs have been almost entirely abolished from the United States.)

Cooke concisely answers the question: "What is soul?"

That recording shows that Cooke wasn't the most technically perfect singer — his voice breaks a little. And he didn't have the biggest range. As one Mefite, "easily confused," has said in response to a chart of vocal ranges of popular singers:
Justin Beiber may have a slightly wider range than Sam Cooke (they're both down near the bottom), but Sam Cooke proves its what you do with it more than how wide your range is.
Now, listen to this — a scorchingly intense performance of "Bring It on Home to Me," with an extended intro that brilliantly includes some of "You Send Me."

"Bring It on Home to Me" is probably one of Cooke's most covered songs — it's been done by Wilson Pickett (who gave a shout-out to "the late Sam Cooke" in the beginning of that 1968 recording), Aretha Franklin, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and She & Him.

Cooke clearly brought something extra to his live show that isn't on the studio recordings — here's "Twistin' the Night Away."

Though he generally wrote his own songs, he was also a gifted interpreter of classics, like "Summertime" (by George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward) and "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" (a traditional spiritual). (The latter is from Cooke's second-to-last album, Night Beat. He's much better known for his singles than his albums, but Night Beat is an outstanding soul/blues album.)

Before Cooke switched to pop, he sang gospel with the Soul Stirrers. Here's a rousing, 9-minute "Nearer My God to Thee."

But to many people, the most soul-stirring Sam Cooke song is his civil rights anthem, "A Change Is Gonna Come." He recorded it in January 1964, a little less than a year before he died. (Background on the song.)

When Rolling Stone ranked Cooke the 4th greatest singer of all time, Van Morrison wrote this for the magazine:
If a singer is not singing from the soul, I do not even want to listen to it — it's not for me.

Sam Cooke reached down deep with pure soul. He had the rare ability to do gospel the way it's supposed to be — he made it real, clean, direct. Gospel drove Sam Cooke through his greatest songs, the same way it did for Ray Charles, who came first, and Otis Redding.

He had an incomparable voice. Sam Cooke could sing anything and make it work. But when you're talking about his strength as a singer, range is not relevant. It was his power to deliver — it was about his phrasing, the totality of his singing.

He did a lot of great songs, but "Bring It on Home to Me" is a favorite. It's just a well-crafted song with a great lyric and melody. It's a song that's written to allow you to go wherever you can with it. "A Change Is Gonna Come" is another song I covered; it's a great arrangement.

Not many people can play this music anymore, not the way Sam Cooke did it, coming directly from the church. What can we learn from a singer like him, from listening to songs like "A Change Is Gonna Come"? It depends on who the singer is and what they are capable of, where their head is and how serious they are. But Sam Cooke was born to sing.
posted by John Cohen (24 comments total) 72 users marked this as a favorite
Wow, thanks, awesome post.
posted by mareli at 9:47 AM on December 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

It is a crying shame that the two most talented soul singers of the 1960s--Sam Cooke and Marvin Gay--each died by gunfire in sordid circumstances. Sam was and remains my favorite, the best singer of them all. I was fourteen when he was killed, and I still regret his passing.
posted by rdone at 9:48 AM on December 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

The circumstances surrounding Cooke's death have always been incredibly murky but the one thing that seems hard to dispute is that slanderous accusations against Cooke, combined with the systemic racism that was a given at the time meant that the case was rapidly closed and we'll probably never understand what really happened.

If that sounds distressingly familiar, well, it doesn't take a lot of imagination to link the 50-year-old shooting of Sam Cooke with accounts of some of the killings of black men that are in the news today.
posted by Nerd of the North at 9:49 AM on December 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh, and.. "A Change is Gonna Come" is one of the most inspiring songs of its era, from its perfect opening lines to the very last note. But it's pretty bittersweet to listen to it 50 years after the fact and realize that for a great number of people that change has yet to come.
posted by Nerd of the North at 9:57 AM on December 11, 2014

Thanks for the post! One of the greats. An absolute giant.

Here's another version of Summertime. It's called Summertime Part 2 here, but on the record of it I have it's just called "Summertime". Quite different than the one above, but just as good.
posted by dirtdirt at 10:03 AM on December 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Love, love, LOVE Sam Cooke. "Live At The Harlem Square Club" is a must-listen for anyone who even slightly enjoys his music. He is almost a completely different performer live -- raw, full of power and sex, really works the crowd hard.
posted by briank at 10:08 AM on December 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

I *LOVE* Sam Cooke. Without a doubt, my favorite vocalist of all time. Favorite track would have to be his absolutely exultant cover of Tennessee Waltz. The definitive version of that song, if you ask me.
posted by evil otto at 10:14 AM on December 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm only a little embarrassed to admit that the magic and power of Sam Cooke wasn't real to me until I saw the opening of Michael Mann's Ali, which famously intersperses several different scenes to set the stage for the film, including audio of the performance of "Bring It On Home To Me" linked above.

The "anchor" bits are of Smith-as-Ali training for his first fight with Sonny Liston (2/25/1964), along with flashbacks of earlier times in Clay/Ali's life, but scenes from a Cooke performance in a night club are also pretty prominent. They use an actor, but the audio is from Cooke's 1963 recording at the Harlem Square Club, and it plays behind all the rest of the establishing footage to create a pretty amazing opening sequence.

That sequence is so beautiful, I swear to all that's holy it's worth renting or buying the DVD just to watch that first bit. No word of it a lie. (I'll warn you that the intro goes pretty smoothly into the actual Clay-Liston fight, and before you know it you'll have watched the first half hour of the film, but worse things can happen to you than that even if the Sam Cooke music stops after the first 8 or 9 minutes.)

From there, of course, I sought out the recording of that 1963 show in Harlem, and it's playing now in my office, and I'm finding it hard to type on account of the dancing.

Great post.
posted by uberchet at 10:37 AM on December 11, 2014

Wonderful post.
posted by Aizkolari at 10:44 AM on December 11, 2014

Still missed.
posted by Sassenach at 11:01 AM on December 11, 2014

Seconding Live at Harlem Square Club. In my opinion - one of the greatest live recordings of all time. Maybe THE greatest.

Just listen to him whipping the crowd into an absolute frenzy in the sublime two and half minute lead in to the brilliant performance of "Bring it On Home." He even weaves in a sly vocal reference to You Send Me, one of his biggest hits. I mean, the guy knew how to work it.

Highlight #1: the guy in the audience yelling "HELL-O!" in response to Cooke at 1:32.
Highlight #2: Cooke says "i'm gonna leave that alone" after his big yell at 5:22
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 11:05 AM on December 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

Also, among it's great musical selections, one of the best sequences in Inherent Vice is set to Wonderful World.
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 11:06 AM on December 11, 2014

oh, just realized that that Bring it On Home recording is in the main post. There's so much good stuff in there I missed it! But it's worth hearing twice.
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 11:12 AM on December 11, 2014

Just listen to him whipping the crowd into an absolute frenzy in the sublime two and half minute lead in to the brilliant performance of "Bring it On Home. " He even weaves in a sly vocal reference to You Send Me, one of his biggest hits.

Yes, I said all that in the FPP.
posted by John Cohen at 11:12 AM on December 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yes, I said all that in the FPP.

I just corrected myself - it's such a good post! Somehow I missed that line in my first read through.
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 11:13 AM on December 11, 2014


One of my favorite bits of trivia is that Lou Rawls is the guy singing harmony and counter-"yeah"s on Bring it On Home To Me.
posted by Jon_Evil at 11:32 AM on December 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

Don't forget, too, that Cooke was the inventor of chicken slacks to protect your scrawny legs while twisting the night away.
posted by Herodios at 11:34 AM on December 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Muhammad Ali (a/k/a Cassius Clay) SINGS... with Sam Cooke. The combined charisma is unbelievable. Hat tip Sheila O'Malley.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 11:47 AM on December 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

It is a crying shame that the two most talented soul singers of the 1960s--Sam Cooke and Marvin Gay--each died by gunfire in sordid circumstances.

Just one pet peeve. Two most talented singers, period. I know that they're primarily referred to as "soul singers," but the reality is that Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye could mop the floor with any singer, soul or otherwise.
posted by blucevalo at 12:13 PM on December 11, 2014

The Will Sheff blog post linked a few posts down also talks about Live at the Harlem Square Club. I thought this was interesting:

According to Peter Guralnick’s excellent Cooke biography Dream Boogie, on this particular tour the usually more sedate Cooke was furiously trying to compete with Little Richard’s dynamic set on the same bill, and to that end he kept refining the exact same songs in the exact same order, with programmed banter that only changed slightly each night. When you hear Live at the Harlem Square Club, you’re hearing a band performing off of a script. At the same time, everybody who’s heard it knows that when you listen to Live at the Harlem Square Club that’s not what you’re hearing at all. You’re hearing something that’s both faker and truer than real life, you’re hearing genuine, surging emotion, organized and ordered for maximum impact on both the audience and the people playing it.
posted by amarynth at 12:54 PM on December 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

Our amazing local radio station played "A Change is Gonna Come" the other night on my drive home. It had been a few years since I last heard it, but damn was it more powerful than ever considering recent news in this country.
posted by mostly vowels at 2:38 PM on December 11, 2014

I had Night Beat in my car's CD player for over a year. While I listened to the radio, or music on my iPhone, too, I would obviously land on Night Beat while toggling between audio modes and I would just....stick with it. I must have listened to it hundreds of times, and I never got tired of it. I would think "aw, damn THIS song, okay, well, I'll just finish it and then switch to the thing I'd planned on," but I'd arrive wherever I'd been driving, and Night Beat would have played the entire time.
posted by missmary6 at 4:00 PM on December 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Dream Boogie is a good combo of biography and study on Cooke. Read it a couple years ago and it still sticks with me.
posted by lumpenprole at 4:39 PM on December 11, 2014

I finally paid five dollars for a MetaFilter account just to recommend Sam Cooke's Touch the Hem of His Garment to you nice people. But since I'm here I might as well also recommend his version of Frankie and Johnny and emphatically agree with everything said above about Night Beat.
posted by OnSecondThought at 7:27 PM on December 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

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