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SAM COOKE'S - NIGHT BEAT

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SAM COOKE'S

NIGHT BEAT

I could tell from all the way across the local newspaper's marbled lobby that something was wrong with my friend who worked in the coffee shop. She was going about her usual business, wearing the uniform dress and disposable apron our Little Rock newspaper deemed appropriate for 'kitchen help,' but there was a look of profound sadness on her face instead of the usual radiant smile, and her eyes were brimming with tears. And there was something else about her, something she'd never let me see before: maximum anger, held in check under maximum pressure. I thought of a song, Sam Cooke's 'Laughin' and Cryin'' -'I keep on trying to hide my feelings,' he sang, 'trying to hide my soul.' My friend was trying hard.



 It was the winter of 1964, my friend and I were bath in our teens, but in certain ways we were strangers. She was, as far as I knew, the newspaper's only black employee; I worked part-time after school, moving immense rails of newsprint around the basement. What we had in common, the whole basis of our friendship, really, was music. It was all we talked about when we got together on coffee breaks or after work. We each had our individual heroes and solid senders, our 'wait-til-you-hear-this' discoveries, but when it came to naming the greatest of them all, we were ja in complete agreement: Sam Cooke ruled. And now my friend was telling me, 'They shot Sam.' Who shot him, I asked, knowing there was only one Sam that meant that much to her, or to me. 'I don't know,' she said, no longer able to hold back her tears. 'They said -Who cares what they said? SAM COOKE IS DEAD.' And with that she straightened her dress, wiped away the tears, and went back to work, serving hamburgers and cokes to people who were utterly unaware that anyone of importance had passed. Most people who grew up in the sixties remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they learned of the Kennedy assassination; the day I recall with such preternatural clarity is the day we lost Sam Cooke.

Cooke meant many things to many people. To some, he was the most gifted pop vocalist of his time, no more, no less. He was a spellbinding performer; my friend and I had seen him play in Little Rock a few short months before his death, and we weren't just captivated, we were utterly entranced and illuminated, along with everyone else. It was the gritty, soulful sort of show captured on Live at the Harlem Square Club, chock full of hits, most of which Cooke himself had written, arranged, and in effect produced. But seeing him that night was more like going to church than going to an r&b show.

 I didn't realize at the time that from 1950 to 1957, before he'd ever made a pop or r&b record, Sam Cooke was already a star in the world of black gospel music as lead singer with the Soul

Stirrers, one of the most popular and respected groups of its time. Many of his earlier pop fans, after he made the switch to secular music with his spectacular first hit, 'You Send Me,' had seen him sing in their own church or town hall; some resented his abandoning gospel for the more lucrative world of pop, but many more cheered him on. Whether the text was addressed to 'my Lord' or 'my baby,' people continued to attend Sam Cooke shows expecting to 'have church,' and church, at its most inspirational and transcendent, is what he gave them. His music was so spiritually resonant and nurturing, it preached so eloquently and prayed for a better dav with such contagious fervor, that it could penetrate the deepest despair, find a glimmer of hope even in the heart of darkness. After far to many disappointments and casual indignities had bruised the spirit and sapped the will, Sam Cooke's music could actually make life seem worth living again.

And he was inspirational in other ways. While paying his bills playing r&b shows on the 'chitlin circuit,' he was slowly and methodically working up a more 'uptown' presentation he could take into a Las Vegas hotel or a major club like New York's Copacabana. His first attempt at playing the Copa was a disaster; Cooke learned from the experience and returned to the Copa in triumph. Similarly, he started his own record label, SAR, as another step in the crossover of pop and gospel music -a crossover Cooke first conceptualized, then worked to make a reality. He was one of the first popular artists to take a firm stand against the segregation of concert audiences by race-and the first with enough earning power, determination, and sheer charisma to have his way and make it stick. White record-buyers were largely unaware of this side of Sam Cooke, but to many black musicians and would-be record business tycoons, Cooke was a hero and a role model. The battles he fought were their battles as well, and he opened doors many more black Americans would walk through in the coming years.



Much of what Sam Cooke meant during his tragically foreshortened career is history, now. Thankfully, the music remains. The best of his singles, collected on The Man and His Music, are as original and virtuosic as one could wish. He wrote most of them, gave his arranger Rene Hall specific rhythm section, horn and string parts to orchestrate, and served as de facto producer at all his sessions, whether for his own records or for releases by other artists on his SAR roster. The problem with the best of Cooke's own recordings is simply that there aren't enough of them. There are the singles; his earlier gospel singles with the Soul Stirrers (Cooke at his very best according to many aficionados); and two splendid live albums, one from the Copa and one, considerably more muscular, from a black dance hall in Miami, the Harlem Square Club. But when Cooke was making records, singles were the name of the game. Even the Harlem Square album went unreleased until more than twenty years after Cooke's death. In those days, an 'album' was usually one of several hit singles and a lot of 'filler.' In Cooke's case, the 'filler' was often Broadway-style tunes and standards for which he seemed to have little natural affinity. He could certainly hit the notes, as the more carefully chosen and sympathetically arranged standards on the ­­Copa album handily demonstrate. What is lacking in the less successful album tracks is same evident emotional connection between the singer and his material. What isn't lacking but should be is overdone orchestrations and chirpy 'pop' vocal choruses, which only made matters worse.

This brings us to Night Beat, an anomaly in the Cooke discography. Backed by a superbly supple and attentive small combo, Cooke sang his heart out on these informal, late-night recording sessions from winter, 1963; there isn't even a hint of filler. The result is a vocal tour-de-force, and just under the music's gracefully melodious surface, the emotional waters run deep.

The remarkably consistent mood of the album is a 2 a.m., last-call sort of feeling. It's a blues mood, but the diversity of the songs (from spirituals to bluesy ballads to Cooke's sophisticated gospel-rooted originals) and the singer's ability to make every song his own, regardless of genre, keep it from becoming a 'blues album.' Above all, this is a Sam Cooke album-his greatest, according to many. Of all his records, it's the one you'd put on to show the uninitiated what an extraordinary vocal musician and communicator the man was. It's also by far Cooke's most intimate album, sounding for all the world like you're sitting in a dark, late-night bar listening to a man pour his heart out. Even as he worries and embellishes the lines about “trying to hide my feelings, trying to hide my soul,' he's revealing, not hiding. We can only speculate as to what masterworks Cooke might have given us if he'd had the time and the opportunity to make more of his own albums in his own way, with only himself to satisfy. Thankfully, we do have one such album, this one, and a glorious album it is.

Even Rene Hall, the bandleader, arranger and session musician from New Orleans who worked with Cooke throughout the singer's career, speaks of his farmer associate in tones bordering on awe. “I rate him as being a genius,' says Hall, “as a person who was able to create as he did with no formal musical training whatsoever. He could hum a part to you, and what he would hum would be in perfect sequence with the orchestrational concept.




Or Sam would tell me, ‘I want the bass to play this,' and hum the part, and he was never musically incorrect. I never had to say, 'Sam, this isn't the right note for the bass'; it just never happened. He could hear the entire orchestra, the string lines, the bags lines, the horn lines, the background singers' lines. And as a spiritual singer, he had never dealt with these things betfre. Cliff White (Cooke's longtime guitarist) would hear Sam do things and think they'd never work, like the way he went from major to minor chords in his version of 'Summertime.' Things like that, Cliff was going, .Jesus Christ!' and then he'd do what Sam asked for, not believing that it would work, and when he tried it, it did. Even at the beginning of his career, just before he left the Soul Stirrers, he was trying to cut his first pop session, but he said he didn't get the feel of the songs. Then he told me that it I showed him a few chords on the guitar, he said, 'Maybe I can come up with a tune.'

So I showed him three chords, and on the three chords he learnt, he composed 'You Send Me.' He said, 'Man, this is gold; I can write a lot of these things.' I consider something like that a gift, a special talent.'

Cooke was such a protean musical figure that even though he can legitimately be considered the original soul singer, the first successful gospel artist to understand and effectively utilize hard gospel elements in a deliberately 'pop' context, this reputation rests on a relatively small part of his recorded output. Certainly his training and his most enduring stylistic orientation were in gospel, and Cooke-penned singles like 'Shake,' 'Another Saturday Night,' 'Soothe Me' and 'Bring It on Home to Me' were among the first and deepest soul hits. But as Rene Hall observes, 'Sam had a very strange ear, different from even gospel singers. Because most gospel singers deal in sevenths -like blues-type changes -and Sam dealt in sixths. Like you hear him do his yoohoohoo, that's sixths. I had played jazz, and we did a lot of sixths and ninths and so on, but it was strange for me to hear from a gospel singerbecause Sam wasn't actually singing gospel, he was singing a pop concept of his own. The entire concept or approach to melody that Sam used was completely original. Even when he did a standard tune, and he did quite a few standards in his day, he would approach them with his original version of the  melody,' Cooke altered melodies the way a jazz musician will, as a way of personalizing a tune. He drew on gospel, blues and related idioms for his basic stylistic orientation, but while his melodic embellishments had a gospel-ish fluidity and timing, the intervals he sang were more common in jazz than in gospel or blues-more sixths than sevenths, as Rene Hall put it.

What does it all add up to? None of our tired old genre cliches is inclusive enough to describe, let alone contain, the artistry of Sam Cooke. It's great American music -Sam Cooke music, a genre in itself. It may not have the special emotional relevance for you that it has for me, but I'm sure it will get to you, too, in its own way. Because as soon as you put on Night Beat and hear Cooke's first mellifluous tones, riding nothing but a light bags, an occasional tap on the snare drum, and his own sovereign command of rhythm and inflection, something magical begins to happen. Cooke and his musicians -who include pianist Ray Johnson, organist Billy Preston, lead guitarist Barney Kessell, alternating drummers Hal Blaine and Ed Hall, bassist Cliff Hils, and Clif White and probably Rene Hall on rhythm guitar –are going to take you to church. Just stand back and let the man sing.

  -Robert Palmer








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