#106 on Rolling Stone's Top 500 Albums Of All Time
'Sam Cooke's yours; he'll never grow old.'
The cruel double-truth of this statement, muttered by soul DJ The Magnificent Montague in concluding a 1964 interview with the singer, would quickly become all too apparent with Cooke's untimely death two weeks before Christmas. Now, if Otis Redding's death was a tragedy; Sam Cooke's was doubly so. Like Redding, Sam Cooke was a superstar when he died. Unlike Redding, the legend of Cooke' wasn't. The rights to license his music were divided between two companies, both of whom refused to compromise with the other. Sam Cooke's music wasn't reproduced on any great scale for a long time, until 1986, in fact with the issue of The Man And His Music, a double-LP anthology which quickly went out of print again. It wasn't until 2003 that a satisfactory replacement would become available, the ultimately superior Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964. So begins the history of soul music as an identifiable art form.
Now, In The Beginning there was gospel. Gospel became secularised, became soul. Soul was the sound of gospel and the passion of gospel channeled outside of the gospel. Later, soul became godless, became the sound of sex. Marvin Gaye would have sex with your wife; Isaac Hayes would have sex with your entire family and Prince would have sex with your ears before moving on to your wife, your sister, your daughter, her boyfriend and all four grandparents and rap about it on his next record. Dogs, all of them. In between, there was Sam Cooke. Now, don't get me wrong; Sam Cooke would just as easily have sex with your wife, but you'd be willing to pay to watch.
The future wife-stealer's career in music began with a bang as a teenager in Chicago, when he was chosen to front legendary gospel singing group the Soul Stirrers, at the time entering their fourth decade as an ensemble, albeit with a revolving membership. In 1956, after six years with the group, he released his first solo pop single, "Lovable," under the badly concealed pseudonym Dale Cook. The Soul Stirrers, along with everybody else, became aware of their man's infidelity and promptly asked him to leave. And so, Sam Cooke 'outed' himself as a pop singer, a pioneer of what would soon become known as 'soul.'
Between 1957 and his death seven years later, Cooke recorded an average of one Top Ten single ever four months; a stunning feat then as now. And Cooke did write singles; it's an important point. Though he did produce one fully coherent album, 1963's Night Beat, he was first and foremost a hit-maker. Which leads us to Portrait of a Legend: a career anthology; this collection brings together thirty of his hits, from his very first cut with the Soul Stirrers to his final recordings on RCA.
Cooke's dream of pop stardom was quickly realised, and some, by his second single, "You Send Me," which sold fully 1.7 million copies upon its release in the US. It's a showcase for Sam's most distinguishing feature, his voice. The song revolves around one repeated line, 'Darling, you send/thrill/move me,' invoking one of his favourite songwriting techniques, repetition of a simple, relatable phrase over and over. The track is embellished by a basic rock n' roll beat and melody and female backing vocals, but this track is all about Sam. This same formula is repeated five or six times on Portrait, with "Only Sixteen," "(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons," "Cupid" and more, but in none of these songs is the melody so sweet, so full of intention, nor is the lyric so personal and engagement but, crucially, the vocal is consistently tender and insecure, knowing but desperate. Simply, his vocals are superb, here and everywhere on this CD. Preference be ****ed.
Pop songs pop songs pop songs. This is a collection of pop songs. Some, like "You Send Me" owe as much as crooners like Dean Martin than they do gospel. Others are just 'blacker'- "Chain Gang" is Cooke's first stab as civil activism, albeit hidden behind a upbeat rhythm and playful group vocals. "Everybody Loves To Cha Cha Cha" is arguably the least 'necessary' song here. It's a meaningless song about dancing and is generally frowned upon by many of his 'serious' fans, but it plots an important stage in Cooke's development, from a quasi-crooner to a quasi-rock n' roller.
Similarly 'unnecessary' are two later classics, "Shake" and "Twistin' The Night Away." The latter bears more than a passive relation to "Cha Cha Cha," though it's infinitely more raucous, featuring an ear-splitting sax solo which, amusingly, seems to respond to commands from a conductor. "Shake" is dangerously close to being a funk song, featuring furious upbeat guitar, loose rhythms and large, edgy-sounding horns. Cooke seemed to be heading in this direction towards the end of his life, so this may be the most accurate representation of what 'could have been,' but the next track provides a far more exciting prospect.
Shortly before his death, inspired by and in response to Bob Dylan's anti-war plea "Blowin' In The Wind" and his arrest for attempting to check into a 'whites only' hotel, Cooke composed his magnum opus, civil rights anthem "A Change Is Gonna Come." Comparable only to King's 'I Have A Dream' speech in both gravity and intensity, this is Sam Cooke's best moment as a singer and writer, and easily so. If you want to hear soul, bare soul, gospel without the gospel, you listen to this song. This is Sam Cooke telling us how he really feels; telling us how it really is. It's been a long, long time coming, but I know- a change is gonna come. Poetry; poetry for them that's not good with what words.
Now, there are notable omissions from this collection, songs far better than those included, and there are songs on this collection which really don't match up to the rest. "Soothe Me" and "Rome Wasn't Built In A Day" are the equal of just about any track here, but the purpose of this collection isn't to collect the best thirty songs and shove them onto a disc; Portrait is just that, it's a 'portrait.' Its purpose is to represent Sam Cooke on disc - and that means everything. "Everybody Loves To Cha Cha Cha" may be crude and trivial and "(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons" may be trite, but they were necessary and logical steps in the development of an artist whose short career saw artistic maturity on a scale matched only by greats like the Beatles and Stevie Wonder (both fans, incidentally). They're included not because they're the best material on offer, but because without them the portrait would be incomplete. Now would Mona Lisa really be as beautiful is da Vinci had decided against using brown?
There's several indispensable cuts which space and time have disallowed me from analysing in equal detail, but let it be said that "That's Where It's At" is every song Rod Stewart ever sang; "Bring It On Home To Me" is as uplifting as a corset for an egg-timer and "Wonderful World" is the best song ever written to contain the words 'science book' and 'trigonometry' - all the measure of one man's refined talent and reasoned penchant for diversity. Yet it's probably fitting that this collection is book-ended by the sole Soul Stirrers songs on the record; beginning with the Cooke composition "Touch The Hem Of His Garment" and, on a similar thematic footing, finishes with the gospel standard "Jesus Gave Me Water." A subtle summary of soul music, perhaps? Are we to deduce that soul music begins and ends with the gospel? Or, perhaps, we're to conclude that soul music begins and ends with Sam Cooke. Neither case is strictly true- but it's a nice thought, right?
And this is where Montague's seemingly throwaway remark, 'Sam Cooke is yours,' realizes its own significance. History has done its best to make us forget about Sam Cooke, his unfortunate demise, the tainting of his legacy and the unavailability of his material, yet Sam Cooke survived because he was so important. Sam Cooke was in every soul singer who came after him. Otis Redding made his name singing Sam Cooke songs; Al Green was seduced by Cooke and dragged away from the gospel only to return years later. Who knows where Cooke would have ended up had he not managed to get himself killed aged 31? One can only guess.