Monday, March 3, 2008

Friday, January 22, 1960: Cookeville

According to information that can be found on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame website, Sam Cooke signed with RCA Victor Records on Friday, January 22, 1960. By this time, of course, he’d had a couple of highly successful singles. “You Send Me,” and “I’ll Come Running Back to You” were both #1 on the domestic R&B Charts in the late 1950s, while “Only Sixteen” had reached #23 in the UK. Yet I have to admit that Sam Cooke has always been something of a mystery to me, primarily because it seems that outside of the major singles and the singles made when he was a member of the Soul Stirrers (subsequently released for members of my generation on compilation albums after his death, otherwise we would have never had the opportunity to hear them), his recording career has been poorly documented, or at least in terms of its variety of musical forms, misrepresented, and outside of the major singles, I don’t fully understand the extent of his contribution to rock and roll, or why he's inscribed as a key figure within its history. I'm not sure my ignorance of this matter is entirely my fault, for reasons I'll explain.

For instance, Cooke's debut album for RCA, Cooke’s Tour (LPM/LSP-2221) has—if my research is accurate—never been released on CD. It seems extraordinary to me that at this late date an artist of his stature would have an album or albums yet unreleased on compact disc, but it is so—unless the album is, in everyone’s assessment (everyone that matters), not especially significant. I observed a few blog entries ago that the music industry in the late 1950s and early 1960s, at least insofar as "rock" and "pop" was concerned, was clearly focused on singles rather than albums, and therefore it seems ironic that Cooke’s early singles for RCA did not do very well, let alone his first album: none of Cooke’s singles released immediately after joining RCA were successful. His first hit single (#12) in 1960, “Wonderful World,” ironically, was released by Keen—not RCA—and had been recorded in March, 1959 while Cooke was still recording for his earlier label. “Chain Gang,” one of the two songs attempted during Cooke’s first recording session at RCA on January 25th, had been abandoned, but returned to a couple of months later, and eventually released to hit #2 in early October, 1960, to become his second million-selling single.

But to return to Cooke’s first album for RCA, Cooke’s Tour, which doesn’t seem to get much mention so far as Sam Cooke’s recording career is concerned, and indeed, has never been digitally remastered--especially strange, it seems to me, given its putative significance. Moreover, only three tracks from this album have been, to my knowledge, subsequently released on the many compilation albums RCA released after Cooke’s death. The track listing for Cooke’s Tour (named as such because the songs on the album are set in locations “around the world”) is as follows, followed by the popular singer—by no means the only popular singer to have recorded the song or had success with it—who had a major hit with the song. It hardly seems like a “rock and roll” album to me, or even a “soul” album for that matter:

1. Far Away Places--Bing Crosby
2. Under Paris Skies
3. South Of The Border--Frank Sinatra
4. Bali Ha'i--Frank Sinatra (originally from South Pacific)
5. The Coffee Song--Frank Sinatra
6. Arrivederci, Roma--Perry Como
7. London By Night--Frank Sinatra
8. Jamaica Farewell--Harry Belafonte
9. Galway Bay--Bing Crosby
10. Sweet Leilani--Bing Crosby (Waikiki Wedding, Paramount, 1937)
11. The Japanese Farewell Song (aka "Sayonara")
12. The House I Live In--Frank Sinatra

As I indicated earlier, to my knowledge only three tracks from this album were subsequently released on compilation albums, and these three can only be found on The One and Only Sam Cooke (RCA Camden, RCA’s budget label, 1967): “Far Away Places,” “Bali Ha’i,” and “Jamaica Farewell.” Apologists have attempted to explain away Cooke’s Tour: yes, it’s a pop album, yes, the song selection is rather banal (with, perhaps, the exception of “The House I Live In”), and yes, the honeyed strings are laid on a bit too thick. But it is worth pointing out that the songs were arranged and conducted by Glenn Osser, at the time Johnny Mathis’ musical director, which gives us an enticing clue as to what RCA had in mind for Sam Cooke. No wonder Peter Guralnick, in his biography Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke (Little, Brown, 2005), has a difficult time explaining Cooke’s often saccarhine taste in the arrangements of his songs.

And yet, during his discussion of Cooke, Donald Clarke, in The Rise and Fall of Popular Music (Penguin, 1995), suggests how complicated it was at the time for a gospel singer to become a popular music singer. Clarke writes: “Religious blacks were scandalized when one of their stars changed to secular music. Popular as Sam Cooke had been with the Soul Stirrers, he was booed when he turned up at a gospel meeting after having pop hits” (469). It seems to me what RCA wanted to do—based on the content of his first album—was to transform Sam Cooke into a “pop singer” because white audiences at the time were largely unfamiliar (for rather obvious reasons) with black gospel.

Nonetheless, I have a hard time hearing either “soul” or “rock and roll” in Cooke’s first hit for RCA, “Chain Gang.” I hear something very close to Harry Belafonte. Peter Guralnick would seem to agree, admitting that while “Chain Gang” ought to have been--given the “cruel realities of the situation” the song depicts--cast in a blues form. Oddly, Cooke instead “sets the song to a jaunty Caribbean beat,” which makes the song sound pretty “happy-sounding” (320).

Such is the curious musical legacy of Sam Cooke, whose career, at least for me, has never been suitably explained (unless it's simply the influence of his vocal style). Indisputably he was a great vocalist (for me, "Cupid" has one of most memorable and beautiful melodies in all pop music), but his contributions (in the sense of influence) to rock and roll have, to me, never been convincingly explained--unless, as I mentioned above, it rests entirely on the vocal style which has been--copied?--by so many.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Where do I begin? First of all, there's a TON of wrong information on Sam's RRHOF page (e.g. Sam's RCA contract was signed January 6, 1960; his birthday is January 22). As his great-nephew, I wrote my book in order to clear up a lot of misinformation, and to educate those like yourself who are unfamiliar with his many musical contributions. I agree--his career has been poorly documented, and it is for that reason I chose to set the record straight.

"Cooke's Tour" has never been put on CD for an obvious reason--save for a couple of songs, the compilation sucked. RCA really didn't know how to pursue the crossover market with an artist of Sam's caliber and musical range, and experiments like this album, along with singles like "Teenage Sonata" and "You Understand Me" failed miserably in the marketplace. It wasn't until the Cooke-written release of "Wonderful World" by his previous label sold a million singles did RCA turn to Sam for works he had written himself. The result was the million-selling single "Chain Gang" you mentioned.

Sam mastered not only the gospel circuit, but had 34 Top 40 R&B singles, 25 of which he wrote himself. These included "You Send Me," "Twistin" the Night Away," "Cupid," "A Change is Gonna Come," "Another Saturday Night," "Having a Party," along with many others. His 1963 "Night Beat" album is an excellent example of his Blues side, and "Live at the Copa" previewed his plans to conquer the sophisticated supper-club audience. Besides being a prolific songwriter, he arranged and produced not only his own music, but for other artists as well.

Off stage, Sam was a relentless pioneer who rarely succumbed to a challenge. He was the first black artist to form a successful record label when others told him it couldn't be done, signing R&B greats Bobby Womack and Billy Preston as mere teenagers. He was the first black artist to refuse to sing to segregated audiences, risking life and limb to do so in the racially-charged South. He was one of the first black artists to consciously pursue a crossover market (a quick listen to "Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963" will give you an sample of what he sounded like outside the mainstream). And by holding fast to his demand to retain his songwriter's royalties in negotiations with RCA, he empowered artists for generations to come. Remarkably, he accomplished all these things before his 34th birthday.

Other entertainers respected him for his independence as well as his ability to "get down" with the best of them. James Brown once said if he could sing like Sam, he wouldn't have to dance.

Finally, it's interesting to note that I have serious disagreements with how and why he died. From my own research, what's been whispered in my ear by valued sources, and what the family knew what was going on with Sam in his final years, my conclusion is that he was killed not in the silly scenario reported, but because to some parties he was worth more dead than alive. I've touched here on a few things in my book, but there's a lot more to the Sam Cooke saga both on and off stage which makes him the musical genius as deemed by many and the "prince of a man" to Aretha Franklin.

Respectfully submitted,

Erik Greene
Author, "Our Uncle Sam: The Sam Cooke Story From His Family's Perspective"