Sam Cooke:

    Lost & Lookin’
    Trouble Blues
    From Night Beat (RCA, 1963)

    It’s Got The Whole World Shakin’
    From Shake (RCA, 1965)

(Editor’s Note: The following post was written by Eric Luecking who wanted to speak on the remarkable voice of Sam Cooke. Enjoy. –O.W.)

Written by Eric Luecking:

    Where to start? Sam Cooke arguably has the greatest voice on record you have ever heard. Period. But to categorize him as a singer does the man injustice. He was a songwriter, lyrical interpreter, showman, businessman, label owner, and producer. As if that isn’t enough, he penned the song that would become the unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.

As a kid listening to oldies radio with my mom in the car, I always thought Sam Cooke sounded too goody-two-shoes. Radio tends to only remember him for about four tunes: “You Send Me,” “Cupid,” “What A Wonderful World,” and “Chain Gang.” After digging deeper into his catalog a couple of years ago, I discovered an artist who poured his being into creating and interpreting an assortment of styles and songs. While history remembers him as the man with the golden voice singing svelte supper club songs and pretty ditties, he had the ability to flip the script and hit you with some of the most soul-wrenching blues and catchy, horn-filled dance floor stormers.

    In February 1963, Sam started to cut Night Beat after his brother, L.C., turned down covering Howlin’ Wolf’s “Little Red Rooster” during a recording session. Even though RCA had only recently released Mr. Soul, that didn’t stop Sam from going in a new direction – a bluesier, more gutsy collection of songs combining the west coast blues of Charles Brown with the midwest gospel fervor of the Soul Stirrers that Sam himself helped to bring to further national prominence.

    With a minimal set of session players including a teenage Billy Preston along with longtime collaborator and arranger René Hall as well as a half-dozen others, they cut an indelible classic soul album at a time when albums were not the format of choice for labels. Amazingly, only one single was released from this set – the previously mentioned “Little Red Rooster” b/w “You Gotta Move” (RCA-8247). As an album, this collection of songs is marred only by the Turner cover. It would have made a much better b-side than album cut for this mood-filled opus.

    The first selection from this release is the haunting plea, “Lost & Lookin’,” in which you can practically hear Sam fall to his knees and beg an ex-lover to come back to his arms. Accompanied by only an upright bass and a cymbal, Sam’s voice flies over this beautiful piece like a flock of birds soaring through a sunset-filled sky. His intonation and enunciation are immaculate and his ability to go into falsetto and back are unmatched. Close your eyes and prepare to be entranced.

    “Trouble Blues,” a cover of the 1949 Charles Brown Trio tune, finds the arrangement expanding upon the mainly piano-laden Brown version. Sam opens with a solemn hum before being joined by Clifford Hill’s upright and Hal Blaine’s drum kit for the opening half minute. Preston’s organ can later be heard providing a steady back rhythm before opening into a leading solo in the middle.

    The year 1964 saw Sam expanding his sound. The craze of dance songs that instructed you how the dance was performed was kicking into higher gear. To start the ‘60s, Chubby Checker had his cover of Hank Ballard & The Midnighters “The Twist” (of which Sam even had a cover on 1962’s “Twistin’ The Night Away” that included several other twists on the twist) while Bobby Freeman had “C’mon & Swim.” This song, in particular, spurned a keen interest in Sam so much so that he wanted to record his own version of it. He turned that inspiration into “Shake” – a relentless stormer featuring in-your-face drum work by Earl Palmer as well as a more upfront rhythm section. The tempo was the most aggressive Sam had recorded in his career.

    Equally as aggressive was “It’s Got The Whole World Shakin’.” Similar in rhythm, this cut was recorded during the same session as “Shake” in mid-November 1964. The sound is very much Muscle Shoals as it shows Sam putting his velvet voice on the backburner and letting more grit emanate, something we had not heard much of in his studio work although his chitlin circuit shows (see Live At The Harlem Square Club album) certainly revealed this side.

    Unfortunately, Sam would not see the release of these songs as he was killed less than a month after the session. RCA released “Shake” b/w a shortened edit of “A Change Is Gonna Come” just over a week after his death in December 1964. Both shake tunes would be featured on his posthumous final album Shake released in the spring of 1965. Eerily, the classic “A Change Is Gonna Come,” a song that Sam described to prized apprentice Bobby Womack as sounding “like death,” would be his swan song – closing out a career that started by praising the Almighty and ended with condemning the establishment.

    It’s an impossible guessing game as to what would have happened in the long term for Sam musically. He had so many ideas and only so much time. Would he have continued to write and perform more political songs? He was certainly an avid student of African American studies and constantly borrowed books from radio DJ pioneer Magnificent Montague’s huge archival collection on black history. Would he have continued to tweak his sound? We know that in the days leading up to his death he had spoken with longtime friend Lou Rawls and producer Al Schmitt about a downhome blues album, certainly a departure from the frantic “Shake.”

    While many may only remember him for ‘50s high school dance love songs, he should also be remembered for his artistry. It’s a testament to his variegated interest in sound and texture as well as his honest soul in being able to relay so many styles that can make you weak in the knees with a cappella to strengthening you with songs of pride to knee-smackin’ backporch Dixieland with your countrified buddies. Sam walked all those lines while helping to narrow the color barrier in popular music. After all, he was the second highest selling RCA artist eclipsing everyone except Elvis on his label.

    For all these reasons, we can simply remember him as “Mr. Soul” and enjoy the sounds his sweet tenor makes us feel. He truly was… the man.

–written by Eric Luecking for Soul-Sides.com