Graded on a Curve:
Sam Cooke,
Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964

Sam Cooke is one of the prime architects of 20th century music. Concise accolades frequently falter into overstatement, but in this instance the praise is offered sans hyperbole. The easiest way to test this claim is through ABKCO’s Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964; initially released on compact disc in 2003, it immediately vaulted to the forefront of Cooke compilations, and that it’s now available on double vinyl in a gatefold sleeve retaining Peter Guralnick’s splendid liner notes is cause for celebration.

With due respect to Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett, Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Sam & Dave, and other worthy belters, the indispensible Soul Gang of Four, Male Division is constituted by Ray Charles, James Brown, Otis Redding, and Sam Cooke. It’s a quartet as firm as Gibraltar, but if a member of this group occasionally receives a nagging quibble, it’s the man born January 22, 1931 as Samuel Cook.

Right now some might even be openly questioning Cooke’s importance as an essential builder of modern music, mainly because much of his discography lacks both the immediate brilliance of invention and sheer virtuosity found in Charles’ best material and the grit and fervor that still partially defines the reputations of Brown and Redding.

All four have been described as soul’s rightful ruler, but Cooke’s the only one who doesn’t also possess an instantly recognizable sobriquet. The Genius of Soul, The Hardest Working Man in Show Business, The Godfather of Soul, Mr. Dynamite, The Big O, and Mr. Pitiful are nicknames of specificity; anybody with a basic knowledge of the genre will know exactly to whom they refer. Mention The King of Soul in a crowded bar after a few rounds of drinks and the debate on who most deserves that title could stretch beyond last call.

However, the argument over who invented the style comes tidily down to Charles and Cooke, and it’s ultimately less of a dispute than an acknowledgement that they were developing this new thing simultaneously. Once that’s understood, many do find themselves gravitating to the undeniable verve of the Genius.

It’s not that Cooke’s ‘50s sides aren’t enjoyable. No, the specific issue revolves around depth of feeling; to furnish just two instances, his first smash, ‘57’s “You Send Me,” and ‘61’s less commercially successful but now oldies rotation ubiquitous “Cupid” (it stalled at #17 on the Billboard Hot 100, though it did better in the UK, hitting #7 on the Singles chart) can be assessed as tame and not especially soulful.

This isn’t a contemporary phenomenon. Growing up in the ‘80s I distinctly recall Cooke’s rep as being that of a gospel singer gone full-blown pop, with his considerable success helping to soundtrack the years between The Day the Music (Supposedly) Died and the emergence of the British Invasion. Simply picking up second-hand albums didn’t really clarify the situation, since a fair portion of Cooke’s LPs range from good to spotty to questionable.

That’s the largest reason Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964 stands as a truly outstanding document. It provides expansive yet easily digestible illumination, greatly aided by Guralnick’s informative but trim cut-by-cut liners, of why this sadly truncated talent managed such a commendable achievement; additionally, casual listening to Cooke’s accomplishment brings simple pleasure as its continued relevance is coolly established.

As its title explains, the set runs the gamut of Cooke’s studio run, though it begins not with a selection from his first Soul Stirrers session, instead choosing “Touch the Hem of His Garment,” a crucial ’56 gospel track delivered not long before he elected to cross over into the secular market. Bluntly, this was dangerous territory; spreaders of the “Good News” (getting to the root of the word Gospel) had to be very careful when going pop, and Cooke wasn’t just any sanctified singer. As part of the Stirrers, he was famous in the field.

One play of “Touch the Hem of His Garment” makes clear why Cooke was held in such esteem by the devout and by extension, why crossing over was such a potential quagmire. The emotional power of gospel applied to rhythm & blues execution; plainly put, that’s the definition of Soul. As said, Cooke’s rep as a religious vocalist remained part of his background well into the ‘80s, but actually hearing the combination of intensity and control he displayed in the Stirrers directly followed by his secular debut is highly and tersely enlightening.

“Loveable,” an undisguised reworking of the popular Stirrers’ tune “Wonderful,” was waxed by Specialty in ’57 under the pseudonym Dale Cook; the fence-riding switch of moniker didn’t fool anyone, though the song wasn’t a hit. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t appear on 1962’s The Best of Sam Cooke, the first and one of the most popular in a deluge of compilations devoted to the artist.

That disc’s luster was severely reduced by The Man and His Music. Issued in ’86, RCA’s 2LP/CD collection was thoughtfully constructed; also opening with “Touch the Hem of His Garment,” it helped to establish Cooke’s soul bona fides for younger generations. Nevertheless, Portrait of a Legend’s inclusion of “Loveable” quickly gives it the edge in Cooke comp terms. That it features all 15 tracks from The Best of Sam Cooke and is now in print on vinyl reduces the ’62 album’s usefulness to almost nil.

After Specialty’s owner-operator Art Rupe heard “You Send Me” as a work in progress he put the kibosh on the label’s relationship with Cooke. Somewhat curiously this decision came not over secular concerns (content) but was due to the avoidance of R&B earthiness and embracement of pop characteristics (form); in addition to entrepreneur, Rupe was a fan (but had he known the goldmine he was tossing away he surely would’ve reconsidered).

“You Send Me” appeared on the makeshift Keen imprint, inaugurating a string of retail triumphs, nearly all of them here. Not just “Cupid” but “(What a) Wonderful World,” “Chain Gang,” “Twistin’ the Night Away,” “Having a Party,” and “Another Saturday Night,” all singles that highlight the unabashedly populist side of Cooke’s personality; each is deeply weaved into the USA’s cultural tapestry.

Over the decades many have evaluated his later doings, more infused as they are with sweat and blues, as the throbbing heart of Cooke’s oeuvre, but it’s vital to note that three of his foundational influences were the Ink Spots, the Mills Brothers, and Nat “King” Cole. Nobody was twisting Cooke’s arm in relation to his smoothest pop gestures (as Rupe’s behavior shows), which makes the best of them quite impressive.

Portrait of a Legend importantly omits the multitalented vocalist-songwriter’s less vibrant attempts at the pop market as part of the RCA roster, motions that weakened his steady output of LPs into the early ‘60s. Included instead is Cooke’s productive utilization of Latin rhythms via the terrific non-hit “Win Your Love for Me” and “Everybody Likes to Cha Cha Cha,” the latter track combining with “Twistin’ the Night Away” (one of the stronger numbers in the Twist craze) and “Shake” to underscore Cooke’s ability in transforming explicitly dance-oriented stuff.

Along with writing and performance, 45s were Sam’s real strength, and ‘64’s posthumous “Shake” is the finest example of his pure soul luminosity. Lots of folks no doubt evaluate Otis’ studio and live versions as bettering their model and will subsequently cite ’62’s “Bring It on Home to Me” as Cooke’s deepest moment, but as magnificent as that tune remains, “Shake” still trumps it. The emphasis on sound rather than lyrics accents Cooke’s understanding, nicely detailed by Guralnick’s notes, of the direction soul (and music in general) was heading toward in the period shortly prior to his death.

Creative vigor was nowhere near abating when his life was cruelly taken from him. If the early “Summertime” and the later “Tennessee Waltz” illustrate his adeptness with older sources and “Little Red Rooster” displays a convincing if not jaw-dropping blues singer, the masterful “A Change is Gonna Come,” easily one of his biggest songs, shows a desire to write originals based on the breakthroughs of contemporaries (Dylan in protest mode) and a willingness to tackle uneasy subject matter (civil rights; RCA notably put it on the flipside of “Shake,” though it did break the Top 40 on its own).

“A Change is Gonna Come” doesn’t backslide on the pop ambition, opening with bold, smartly employed strings. The revelation is Cooke’s passionate yet focused delivery, his emotion conjuring the disciplined forcefulness of his work in the Stirrers. Portrait of a Legend’s conclusion of “Jesus Gave Me Water,” recorded in ’51 just two months after he’d joined the group, therefore presents Cooke’s career not as burdened by halted momentum and promise unfulfilled but liberated as a too brief but tightly-drawn circle.

By no means does this release encompass the totality of secular Sam. Regarding his studio LPs, inquisitive ears should seek out ‘63’s exceptional Night Beat and then perhaps look into ‘61’s My Kind of Blues and ‘62’s Twistin’ the Night Away. One Night Stand! Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963, taped in Miami in front of a primarily African-American audience and held in the vaults until the mid-‘80s, is mandatory. Less necessary is Sam Cooke at the Copa, which documents a far more docile show for NY’s tuxedo crowd, though it bears repeating that Cooke was totally invested in these safer forays.

If not the last word, Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964 is now the first stop for anybody looking to add a little Sam Cooke to their personal shelves. It’ll either satisfy that craving or instill a whole batch of fresh needs, but obtaining this grand narrative covers an extensive number of fundamental bases; it’s one of the smarter consumer choices a budding collector of American Music can currently make.


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