Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Cookeville: Follow-up

Yesterday, the day after I posted my blog entry on Sam Cooke, I received a lengthy comment from Cooke’s nephew, Erik Greene, correcting a factual error I’d made and also adding some additional information about Cooke’s career. (Comments are posted as a link to the blog entry, but I also receive a copy of the responder’s post via email. For those who haven’t read his response, click on the “Comments” link at the end of the “January 22, 1960: Cookeville” entry below.) After receiving his response, I wrote to Mr. Greene thanking him for taking the time to post a detailed comment, and also asked him if he minded me posting an update to clarify a couple statements I’d made in the blog. He wrote back a cordial response saying yes, by all means, that he would appreciate having a dialog in an open forum. I should point out that Erik Greene is the author of Our Uncle Sam: The Sam Cooke Story From His Family’s Perspective (for further information, visit his website, As I told Mr. Greene, I’d every intention of referring to his biography just as I had to Peter Guralnick’s, but I just simply forgot to do so. I’ll claim as an excuse fatigue and the lateness of the hour for the oversight. (I should point out that the time stamp at the end of each entry is the time the blog entry was first saved in the system, not the actual time—normally much later—I formally post it.)

Mr. Greene pointed out that the date of January 22 as the date of Sam Cooke’s signing with RCA is incorrect; the date of the signing was actually January 6. I took the January 22 date from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame website, which I’d assumed—wrongly, it turns out—would be factually correct. January 22 was actually Sam Cooke’s birthday (he would have turned 29 years old in January 1960). Mr. Greene also indicated to me that there are several other factual errors on the RRHOF Sam Cooke page, and hence he admitted to me that his frustration was really directed at this vast conglomerate (a corporate venture to be sure) that disseminates such shoddy information. Nonetheless, I should have followed my usual practice of corroborating factual information with the various print sources I have, which I failed to do in this case, an oversight for which I apologize, and something I will not fail to do again.

The actual date, of course, is a matter of trivial significance; more significant is the historical importance of his signing with RCA in the first place. I don’t believe Mr. Greene disagreed with my overall observation about how poorly Sam Cooke is represented on CD. In my original post I’d focused exclusively on Cooke’s first album for RCA, Cooke’s Tour, in order to make two general points: 1) although RCA is hardly a “minor” label, the album remains unavailable on CD, and 2) close scrutiny of the album reveals that RCA had in mind transforming Sam Cooke into either Johnny Mathis or Harry Belafonte, both successful at the time as “cross-over” artists. And if I’m wrong about this assertion regarding specifics (Mathis or Belafonte), the general point is the same. Although it is true I raised some hesitations about certain of his songs later in the blog, my point in bringing up Cooke’s Tour was not to criticize either the artist or the album but to illustrate the complexities of the music industry at the time, not only how RCA was trying to “market” Cooke to a white audience through a “concept” album (a similar concept, incidentally, that was used by Ray Charles later in the year with The Genius Hits the Road) but his own strained relationship with a black audience which felt he had betrayed his calling as a gifted gospel singer. I suspect that Mr. Greene took offense at my characterization of certain of Cooke’s arrangements as being “saccharine” (which, in yet another embarrassment, I misspelled in the original blog entry) an admittedly pejorative term that suggests that Cooke’s arrangements are somehow atypical of, rather than consistent with, the arranging practices of the time. What I should have said, and what is more accurately said about some of his music, is something Simon Frith observed about twenty years ago in his essay, “Towards an Aesthetic of Popular Music” (included in R. Leppert and S. McClary, Eds., Music and Society: The Politics of Composition, Performance and Reception, Cambridge University Press, 1987, pp. 133-149), that the most successful popular music has always been sentimental. While Frith was not referring to Sam Cooke in the context of this remark, his observation applies as much to the music of Sam Cooke (e.g., “Wonderful World”) as it does to the Beatles (e.g., “Yesterday”) and many hundreds of other popular music artists. To characterize certain of his songs this way is, I hope, not in any way dismissive of it, which is to say I’m now trying to make an argument of definition rather than one of quality.

Still, I can’t rid myself of the impression that the poorly documented career of Sam Cooke on CD makes his case remarkable, in the sense that it should be remarked upon. To be completely honest about the matter, I’m not at all a fan of either compilation albums or “greatest hits” albums. I’m fully aware that many people disagree with me, and that from an industry standpoint “greatest hits” albums generate significant revenues. (Case in point: in terms of sheer numbers, The Eagles’ Greatest Hits is the biggest selling rock album of all-time.) In the case of Sam Cooke, compilations (whether those be titled greatest hits, best ofs, or any number of other innumerable retitlings) by far dominate his current catalog available on CD. I’ll illustrate the situation as follows, indicating whether the original RCA album is currently available (or ever available) on CD:

Cooke’s Tour (RCA, 1960) No
Hits of the 50s (RCA, 1960) No
Swing Low (RCA, 1961) No
My Kind of Blues (RCA, 1961) No
Twistin’ the Night Away (RCA, 1962) No
Mr. Soul (RCA, 1963) No
Shake (RCA, 1965) No

Again, for an artist of his stature, this is astonishing. I did a quick search on eBay for these records, and if in fact the album is available for sale at all, one will pay, as the saying goes, “a pretty penny” for it. As I wrote to Erik Greene: “. . . there are a great many poor or even terrible albums that have been released on CD in gloriously remastered form in order to fully document the career of a major recording artist. Some bad films by some famous film directors are available on DVD in order to properly document the director's career; even failures are revealing, even as much as grand successes. I think the same rule ought to apply to popular recording artists. Even some early 70s budget compilations of rather insignificant material by Elvis exist on CD. . . Cooke's Tour . . . ought to be available, if for no other reason than to document the way RCA was trying to "market"--or "mis-market" perhaps--Sam Cooke.

Mr. Greene responded (referring to Cooke’s Tour in particular):

While it's true Sam was out of his element on most of the album, I have to honor that it was an experiment--and a miscalculation by both Sam and RCA--of what the listening public wanted to hear. . . . With Sam’s limited number of releases, you are correct in assuming "Cooke's Tour" deserves to be digitally transferred to CD, for its historical reference if not its artistic value.

I heartily agree with him: these albums are of great historic value and should be released. It is worth noting that albums of the most arcane sort have been issued on CD through labels such as Collector’s Choice Music, but RCA hasn’t yet been compelled to release on CD seven of the original albums Cooke recorded for the label (and an early inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) thus making them available to a new generation of listeners.

I can’t help but think--cynically, perhaps, I don’t know--that the manner of Sam Cooke’s death has harmed his subsequent historical reception, an unhappy situation that Erik Greene, in Our Uncle Sam, attempts to redress, by looking closely at the details of his uncle's shooting. I hadn’t considered the implications of this when I wrote my initial post, but it surely has to be taken into consideration as one of the factors that have affected his popular, if not critical, reputation. For Sam Cooke did not die romantically, the Romantic myth being essential to the proper image of the rock and roller as artist. He did not die by suicide, like Kurt Cobain, or a martyr, like John Lennon, or by a drug overdose (and hence an emblem of the self-destructive artist) like Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison; instead, he died rather like Elvis Presley, that is, in a wholly unflattering light. The difference in their subsequent historical reception is that RCA has released virtually everything save the most obscure outtakes and alternate takes by Elvis; in contrast, Sam Cooke’s recordings, if released at all, have been issued in a slipshod, ad hoc basis. Perhaps the recent biographies by Greene and Guralnick will help redress this oversight.


No comments: