The real roots of soul, exposed on a three-disc set of Cooke’s early recordings.
David Quantick 2011
Sam Cooke is one of the most important figures in the entire history of popular music. Everyone knows, or should know, how the music most of us grew up listening to is a hybrid of black and white influences. Sometimes that influence was the blues and country music, which gave us Elvis Presley; sometimes it was a rawer version of gospel (Ray Charles, Little Richard); and in Sam Cooke’s case it was something that was at the same time rough yet elegant, classy yet exciting, spiritual and even sexy. Cooke’s greatest early recording, You Send Me, had its roots in gospel music – where he had begun his career with The Soul Stirrers – but added not just the freedom of secular music but the unique ingredient of his own extraordinary voice.
There never was a singer like Sam Cooke before Sam Cooke – his voice is pure, yearning, and alive. It’s emotional but charged with intelligence; and it’s the first true ‘soul’ voice. Cooke pretty much invented soul music, adding the pop element that would take it into the mainstream charts and distance it from the shaggy bomp of rhythm and blues. His sophisticated vocal style and sheer sense of style – these are not records made in a shack or a swamp – must surely have inspired Berry Gordy’s Motown sound. And his greatest disciple, Otis Redding, took Cooke’s early soul notions even further. You are, therefore, lacking in something if you do not own at least one Sam Cooke recording.
This three-volume set collects Cooke’s earlier work with Keen Records and it’s a varied lot, to say the least. Cooke is never less than professional, but anyone expecting a vault of soul will be surprised by covers of tunes like Danny Boy, Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha and The Bells of Saint Mary’s. But there is also his LP of Billie Holliday songs, Tribute to the Lady, as well as familiar classics like (What a) Wonderful World and Only Sixteen.
This is a collector’s set, as it’s both very full but also lacks Cooke’s later RCA recordings like Bring it on Home to Me, and the marvellous, posthumous A Change is Gonna Come. But here one will find the real roots of soul.