Monday, July 22, 2024

“Sam Cooke was so smooth he was harder than hard”

(Liner notes by Michael Corcoran)


His father was a Holiness minister, so the child whose first words probably had a melody was born into his family’s gospel group in Chicago. But among the many ethics Rev. Charles Cook instilled in middle son Sam was that limits were self-imposed, that talent and dedication and knowledge would take him as far as he was strong enough to go.

Sam Cooke was determined to reach everyone with his music, regardless of race, age, religion or social status, and he did that with the first record he put out under his own name. The self-penned “You Send Me” launched Keen Records in a gorgeous shower of woah-woah-ohs in September 1957, selling nearly two million copies and perfecting a gospelized-pop template for soul music.

While Keen, founded in Culver City, CA by Greek-American aircraft parts manufacturer John Siamas, still had that new label smell when “You Send Me” b/w “Summertime” topped the charts, “Sam Cook” had been the top male singer in gospel the previous six years. As the vocal focal point of the seminal Soul Stirrers, Sam was a veteran at thrilling audiences with his acrobatic tenor. With a syllable-extending sheath of swoops, soars and hums, plus repetition to build sweet tension, the strikingly handsome quartet singer made churchgoers forget who they were there to worship.

No one was really surprised when Cooke, who added the “e” when he signed to Keen, became the first gospel star to go pop, though some were disappointed in his choice to “serve the devil.” In the gospel world of the ‘50s, you didn’t cross over, you defected. But why should this embodiment of God’s grace be withheld from the masses? For all its glorious talent, the segregated gospel field was the Negro League of music genres, so most of the African-American community pulled for the 26-year-old called up to the majors.

Before Cooke signed to Keen, very few whites had ever heard his voice. Specialty Records owner Art Rupe was one of them, overseeing the Soul Stirrers sessions on the label, including Cooke’s sensational March 1, 1951 recording debut. Sam’s first lead vocal that day on “Jesus Gave Me Water” ended up being the group’s biggest hit ever. Cooke’s gospel singing idol R.H. Harris had seemingly declared himself irreplaceable with his house-wrecking finale with the Stirrers, 1950’s “By and By” (featuring scorching back-and-forth with Paul Foster), but the protégé outsold the mentor right out of the gate. Teenagers started going back to church en masse, taking all the front rows usually filled by the most devout.

Through example, Harris showed Sam how to use vowel-elongating melisma to intensify a song’s emotion, but Sam slowed it down to add a sense of yearning. Cooke developed this modulated yodel while a Stirrer, initially using the technique to rescue him when he pitched a song too high. The reactions from audiences showed the singer he’d found something special and he kept embellishing that floating moan until it was part of him.

No one else could sing like Sam (“Nobody came close,” Ray Charles told Cooke biographer Peter Guralnick), but everybody could sing along. That was key to his musical appeal, but also to the life of a visionary who would look you in the eye, a standout who just stood there- and let everybody else make the ruckus. Sam Cooke was so smooth he was harder than hard.

If all these women were screaming when he sang about the Lord, what were they going to do when he sang about them? That’s what was going through the mind of Specialty Records staff producer Robert “Bumps” Blackwell when he recorded the Soul Stirrers on a gospel program at L.A.’s Shrine Auditorium in July 1955. Seattle native Blackwell, best known for helming the classic Little Richard period on Specialty, saw in Sam a singer too big for the church world. Considering that the Stirrers evenly split all proceeds six ways, it wasn’t hard to convince their superstar to go solo. A test of the R&B waters as “Dale Cook,” rewording the Soul Stirrers’ praise song “He’s So Wonderful” as “Lovable,” didn’t do much on Specialty in 1956, but Cooke had a grander vision than gospel knockoffs.

Only six weeks passed between Cooke’s last recording as a Soul Stirrer until the June 1, 1957 session that produced “You Send Me,” “You Were Made For Me” (another original) and the lively version of Gershwin’s “Summertime” that all involved thought would be the hit. Producer Blackwell and arranger Rene Hall nailed the sophisticated sound that was going to get Sam those swanky club gigs. But Rupe, who had his first big hits with Guitar Slim and Lloyd Price, was thinking Chitlin Circuit, not supper clubs. As told in Guralnick’s Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, Rupe unexpectedly dropped by the session at Radio Recorders in Hollywood and became livid when he saw four white singers adding mellow harmonies. This wasn’t what they talked about in pre-production. “I don’t go for that stuff,” he barked. Within two weeks Sam and Bumps, who’d become his manager, were released from Specialty (in lieu of paying several thousand dollars owed Blackwell), and given the “worthless” masters from the June 1 session.

Rupe’s gaffe was a gift to Keen, whose maiden A&R man was former big band clarinetist Bob Keane,  hence the name. Keane was gone by the end of the year when he wasn’t made a co-owner, but he just started his own Del-Fi label in 1958 and discovered and developed Ritchie Valens. Blackwell stepped into Keane’s role, but by Cooke’s third studio album, he was gone, too. Sam didn’t need an A&R man.

Specialty still had Cooke under contract as a songwriter, so the singer assigned writing credits to his brother L.C. Cook or wife Barbara Campbell. Rupe did end up making some money off his former act by hitting #1 on the R&B chart with “I’ll Come Running Back to You,” a dressed-up demo from the “Dale Cook” sessions in New Orleans. The faux follow-up did slightly better than Keen’s second Cooke single “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons,” which peaked at #5 R&B, #17 pop.

Cooke was a sophomore at Wendell Phillips High School in 1946 when Nat King Cole had his first #1 hit with “Sentimental Reasons.” Sam crooned that one for girls in the same hallways that Cole had walked as a Phillips student 12 years earlier. One day Sam was  overheard by members of the Highway QC’s, who asked him to join their teenaged gospel group. Four years later, at age 19, he was recruited to be lead singer of the most influential gospel quartet of them all, but “even as I was singing exclusively in church, I was listening to all the pop singers,” Cooke said in the liner notes to 1959’s Tribute to the Lady“ LP. “Billie Holiday moved me the most.”

Like Lady Day, Sam had a pretty voice too honest to be cute, sending the words on paper through a spiritual journey before coming out of a mouth fluent in both sorrow and triumph. But he didn’t sing those songs her way, following his own instincts. “He had the audacity to change a standard to his way of thinking,” Cooke’s close associate J.W. Alexander of the Pilgrim Travelers told Guralnick.

On these Keen recordings you can hear the pleasure of freedom in the voice of a natural singer finally allowed to sing about the love and pain between a man and a woman, among other secular subjects. The Bible would no longer be the only book to turn to for songwriting inspiration, as he read everything from Aristotle to Zane Grey, from the African-American experience to world history. Cooke had an overhead interior light installed in his white Cadillac so he could read on the long drives between gigs.

Most of all, Cooke was a student of human nature and wrote with an ear for how people communicated. Not wanting to be just another “colored boy singer,” he stopped straightening his hair, wore Ivy League clothes and studied diction and poise. He still could hang out with militants Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali because Sam didn’t want to make it big in just the white world, he wanted to shake up the whole world.

The smoky timbre, effortless phrasing and impeccable timing inspired some to call Cooke the Sepia Sinatra. He was also the Black Elvis, but Cooke needed only to bite his lower lip and slap his thigh to make the women lose it.

Gospel taught him how to let a song get deep inside, but he was learning new ways to let it out by exploring swing, romantic ballads, rock n’ roll, pop, blues and other styles previously forbidden. The Soul Stirrers were a capella until late in Sam’s tenure, but on Keen he was backed by orchestras or top session players and working with new rhythms. His voice of “trumpet brightness,” as Lou Adler described, cut through even the busiest arrangements. Especially revelatory is the second LP Encore, consisting of heavily-orchestrated studio versions of the songs Cooke had been playing live. It could be called Sam Swings Better for the way he cuts loose on songs made famous by Frank Sinatra, the Mills Brothers, the Ink Spots, Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters.

Besides Nat Cole, who had also crossed over from the finite jazz field to sing pop, Sam looked to Harry Belafonte and Johnny Mathis as models of black artists who drew huge white audiences, while keeping their identity. All three also had #1 pop hits in 1957, but Cooke was the only one whose big number “You Send Me” was also #1 on the R&B chart. Cooke’s singles on Keen, including “Lonely Island” by Eden Ahbez (who wrote Cole’s 1948 smash “Nature Boy”), and pop-aimed originals “Everybody Loves to Cha-Cha-Cha,“ “Only Sixteen” and “Love You Most of All,” always did as well, if not better, on the R&B charts.

The perception of the record business in the ‘50s was that blacks bought singles, not albums, so Cooke’s first three LPs on Keen were heavy on standards aimed at the white market, with “You Send Me” the only original tune. The debut album Sam Cooke (released March 1958) was a study in versatility, wrapping the big hit with such well-known tunes as “The Bells of St. Mary’s” (which Sam sang as “Any Day Now” with different lyrics in the Stirrers), “Moonlight In Vermont” and “That Lucky Old Sun.” He and Bumps- now also his manager- were casting for fans far and wide, also recording Irish-American anthem “Danny Boy,” “Canadian Sunset” for our friends up north and Sam’s silky takes on Ruth Brown’s “So Long” and the Debbie Reynolds hit “Tammy.”

Cooke also explored the harsh realities of African -American life on “Ol’ Man River,” to which arranger Hall gave a sprightly “rolling along” bounce to counter Paul Robeson’s somber 1936 reading. Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics (music by Jerome Kern), using a flowing river in contrast to the plodding toil of oppression, became part of the Cooke songwriting DNA. “I was born by the river in a little tent,” he started “A Change Is Gonna Come,” his 1964 masterpiece. “And just like that river I’ve been running ever since.” Later he paraphrased “Ol’ Man” with “- “I’m tired of living and scared of dying”- to set up the ungospel-like, “’Cause I don’t know what’s up there, beyond the sky.”

Cooke’s Keen singles, most written by the singer, were collected on 1959’s Hit Kit, which adds six stereo bonus tracks in this reissue. (The only album Keen ever released in stereo was Tribute to the Lady.) Though the label had signed several acts, including the Valiants and Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Cooke was the only one selling records. The financial stress of carrying the company, plus disappointing pop airplay on shoulda-been-smashes “You Were Made For Me” (#39), “Only Sixteen” (#28), “Win Your Love For Me” (#22), and “All Of My Life” (uncharted) had Cooke looking for a more substantial label home.

A link between his gospel glory and RCA heyday, the Keen years were a big part of the musical education of Sam Cooke; records he had to make before his songwriting caught up to his voice, and his message surpassed his manner. He was learning how to lead seasoned studio musicians, such as drummer Earl Palmer, bassist Ted Brinson and guitarist Clif White, who led Cooke’s live band.

Keen was a place for Cooke to learn everything he could about the music industry, and by his early graduation in summer 1959, he co-owned (with J.W. Alexander) a song publishing company (Kags) and a record label (SAR) to produce other acts, including his old group the Soul Stirrers.

The move to RCA did not prevent a reeling Keen from putting out a demo as Cooke’s new single in April 1960 and having its biggest hit since “You Send Me.” Written by Lou Adler, Herb Alpert and Cooke, who came up with the “Don’t know much about history/ Don’t know much of biology” opening, “Wonderful World” had been recorded more than a year earlier at his final two-day session for Keen. Considering his first two RCA singles- “Teenage Sonata” and “You Understand Me”- failed to reach the Top 40 early in 1960, “Wonderful World”’s success (#12 pop, #2 R&B) must’ve been bittersweet for Sam, forced to compete with his old self and losing. There’s no evidence he ever performed the song in concert, but “Wonderful World” is one of his most enduring classics, taken to the top 5 by Herman’s Hermits in 1965, revived in 1978 when it was prominently played in the lunchroom scene (pre-food fight) in Animal House, then hitting #2 in the UK in the ‘80s after its use in a commercial.

Siamas put together a mix of singles and previously unreleased material, including gospel tracks, for The Wonderful World of Sam Cooke LP, which proved Sam’s leftovers were better than most singers’ main course. The lushly-produced religious numbers were recorded at Cooke’s final session at Keen- March 3, 1959- and initially released on the I Thank God compilation with Keen’s gospel acts, Original Blind Boys (of Alabama) and Original Gospel Harmonettes.

He came out of Keen the way he came in- as a religious singer. “He gave me lips to speak the simple truth/ And ears to hear the magic dreams of youth,” Sam sings on “I Thank God,” the last song he recorded for Keen. The shimmering number, delivered at an introspective pace, concludes, “Dear God, I know the miracle of life is mine.”

Also recorded at Keen’s final Sam Cooke session was “That’s Heaven to Me,” an original first cut at his last session as a Soul Stirrer, in April 1957. “The things that I see as I walk along the streets, that’s heaven to me” he sang, summing up how the wonder of the world became  the inspiration on his next journey.

There’s a scene in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull where Robert DeNiro as Jake LaMotta is showing his middleweight hands to his brother and bemoaning the fact that he’ll never be able to get in the ring with heavyweight Joe Louis. “I ain’t ever gonna get a chance to fight the best there is,” Jake says, solemnly. “And you know something,’ I’m better than him.” Sam Cooke could go only so far in gospel. but unlike LaMotta, he wasn’t restricted by class.

Nat King Cole showed that a kid from Wendell Phillips could make it to the top of the pop world. Sam would sing Nat’s songs, but do them his way: stretched out, soulful, silky and all around the beat. No doubt some kids would say, “Wow, you sing better than Nat King Cole!” But until he crossed over, Sam couldn’t compete with Cole. Gospel and pop were different universes, though they’re basically the same music, with different lyrical obsessions. Ray Charles showed that with his 1955 hit “I Got a Woman,” which stole gospel’s thunder, quite literally.

Cooke’s musical genius made him a heavyweight champion in the secular world, where he also established the fledgling Keen label as a contender in West Coast independent scene.

But Keen would be active only four years: 1957-1961. After Siamas went back to plane parts fulltime, Cooke was able to buy his masters with money Keen owed him. He then sold them to RCA, which devoted side one of 1962’s The Best of Sam Cooke to Keen singles, with side two containing newer Cooke hits including his first RCA smash “Chain Gang,” which reached #2 in October 1960.

In September 1963, Cooke’s new manager Allen Klein successfully negotiated a contract that guaranteed the full creative control his client craved, making RCA solely a distributor of Sam’s recordings. It was an unheard of deal for the time and Cooke delivered on his end with Ain’t That Good News, anchored not by Top 10 hit “Another Saturday Night,” but the conscious soul classic “A Change Is Gonna Come.” But by the end of 1964, Cooke was gone, taken away at age 33 in a senseless tragedy.

In his 14-year career, split evenly between gospel and pop, the singer conquered both genres and achieved the tremendous mainstream success of his dreams and plans. The posthumous  release of  “A Change Is Gonna Come” as a single was a cruel testament to all the great Sam Cooke songs and albums we’d never hear. Death couldn’t stop Sam’s vision, however. Forty-four years later, Cooke’s Civil Rights anthem would serve as the theme song to the election of Barack Obama as the first African-American President of the United States.

Sam was always a gospel singer, even when he took “Cupid,” “Twistin’ the Night Away,” “Bring It On Home To Me,” “Havin’ a Party” and others previously mentioned to secular glory on RCA. That church fervor was undeniably deep down in his soul. But he was also always a pop singer, a cabaret singer, a rock n’ roller and a romantic balladeer. He was a singer, pure and simple; that’s what the 65 Keen recordings prove.  With an unflashy presence befitting an easy-going, articulate personality, he wanted to show that a proud black man could be the “All-American Boy” without any sacrifice of dignity.


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