Label: Not Now Music Limited NOT2CD202 (2007)
though his life was to end
tragically in 1964 at the age of just 33, Sam Cooke was a key figure in the
early development of soul and pop. His later career on the RCA label saw him cross over and appeal to the lucrative white teenage market -Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye were just two to follow his example,
paving the way for Michael Jackson and the stars of today -while still commanding a core audience of
black listeners of all ages to whom he was a role model.
Born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, on the second day of January 1931, Sam was raised in Chicago where his clergyman father had moved to preach. He was one of a family of eight, and sang alongside two sisters and a brother in a junior gospel group, the aptly named Singing Children, at the age of nine. This collection of songs captures Cooke a little later when he was a member of gospel group the Soul Stirrers.
The catalyst for him joining this respected and established outfit, formed in Texas in 1934, was RB Robinson, their baritone singer, who had been mentor to the teenage Highway gCs in which Sam had featured.
The Soul Slirrers had frequently rubbed shoulders with the Pilgrim Travellers on the gospel circuit, and when that group's JW Alexander became A&R man for the Speciality label's gospel department he brought Cooke and company to California in March 1951 to audition. Alexander would subsequently become Sam's business associate and mentor.
Owner Art Rupe was immediately struck by the young man's range and delivery, in the words of noted critic Clive Anderson 'singing and wailing righteously like he'd lived a millennium,.. world weary, cuffing off the sweat and finally soaring sanctified,' The qualities apparent in his tackling religious material would be retained in his later career, a quality maybe only Mavis Staples could claim to rival.
Sam had proved a hugely
popular replacement for lead singer RH Harris, who had stepped down in 1950, but
Specialiy lelt he risked losing his audience when he set his heart on releasing
a secular solo single, The pseudonym of Dale Cook was therefore adopted but
fooled no-one, his pure voice an immediate giveaway, and orchestra leader Bumps
Blackwell had to sign away future royalties for his work with Little Richard to
gain Cooke his freedom. Blackwell had seen the Soul Stirrers at Los Angeles'
Shrine Auditorium and was immediately convinced of their lead singer's crossover
potential. 'My initial impression was "That cat should be pop",' he told Cooke's
biographer Daniel Wolff, 'That was just too much voice to be in such a limited
market.' A solo career began on the Keen label with a run of exquisite romantic
ballads including the two million -selling 'You Send Me' and '(What A) Wonderful
World'. But he split with Blackwell after being made to play the Copacabana
nightclub in a suit with tails -his first album had been slacked wilh jazz
standards, similarly to appeal to a white audience -and a new deal wilh RCA
followed. This included his own label and music publishing house, with JW
Alexander playing a major role throughout (the SAR label being an acronym for
Sam and Alexander Records).
A run of finely crafted pop songs such as 'Chain Gang' and 'Bring it On Home to Me' cemented his crossover appeal, but Cooke was not content just to entertain and was inspired to address civil rights
issues by the emergence of Bob Oylan. The majestic gospel spiritual 'A Change Is Gonna Come' bares
witness to this. But the song would be a posthumous hit as, in 1964, Sam Cooke met his end in a motel shooting resulting from his tangled private life. 200,000 fans turned out to pay their respects in two memorial services to a true musical giant. Many would rate him alongside Ray Charles and Jackie Wilson as one of the most influential founding fathers of what we now know as soul music.
The use of his music for a TV
ad campaign in 1986 took Sam Cooke back to the UK charts, while Steve
Miller, Rod Stewart, Cat Stevens and Aretha Franklin are among the many to have raided the Sam Cooke songbook for material. Van Morrison won a Grammy nomination with his 1994 live performance of 'You Send Me'. But there remains no greater thrill than to hear the man himself, whether singing secular songs or, as here, his firsl love, gospel. Prepare to have your soul stirred...
Sleeve notes by Michael Heatley
Compilatian produced by Tony Watts and Glenn Gretlund