Thursday, 25 February 2010

The elusive man and his accessible music: Sam Cooke

I'll return to the subject of Stand By Me (last two posts) with an additional entry of related links or by revising those posts at a later date. Probably both, actually. But as Sam Cooke featured so prominently in them, now seems a good moment to include three pieces about Cooke written earlier.

First is a review of Peter Guralnick's 2006 biography, Dream Boogie, headlined as above:
As you might expect from Elvis Presley's definitive biographer, this tale of one of soul music's pioneers can be highly recommended. I haven't reread the earlier biography of Sam Cooke, Daniel Wolff's You Send Me, since its publication ten years ago, but my impression is that that Guralnick's account is more vivid, taking into account a wider range of points of view.
Be warned that the Sam Cooke who emerges in these pages is not a wholly likeable character, though if he seems more elusive than Guralnick's earlier subject that is, perhaps, intrinsic to the man rather than any failing on the author's part. His widow, Barbara, features prominently: a childhood sweetheart whom he eventually married in order not to lose his daughter to another man, she seems to have been the victim of the introspection and anger concealed from others in his compartmentalised life. A frequent theme of many, less close, interviewees is the charm he exerted which made them feel the sole focus of his attention during a conversation, though many seem to stumble when trying to define that appeal more precisely.
This is not a sensational book, though it doesn't flinch from describing Cooke's sexual adventures. But finally it's the music that is left and it's clear that Cooke, despite his boundless professional self-assurance, was always pushing himself, always trying to develop further. This undoubtedly meant crossover success, so even though some people have lamented the fact that he signed for RCA and not the indie Atlantic, it's debatable how much change there would have been had he recorded elsewhere: commercial success meant producers Hugo and Luigi learnt to trust his instincts, and the greater freedom engineered by new manager Allan Klein (painted in a wholly positive light) allowed him to take as much time as he needed to get the results he wanted. Cooke had also been warned off Atlantic by a disaffected Clyde McPhatter, so it seems it wasn't simply a question of RCA having more money.

Guralnick fills in as much of the background as you could possibly want, giving us life on the road and the odd mixture of offstage cameraderie and onstage warfare that characterised the gospel quartets. If you’re fascinated by Cooke’s story,as I am, you will devour every morsel, although details in parenthesis can break up the flow: at times you need to go back to the start of the sentence to make sense of the whole thing. But this is a tiny point: Sam Cooke is probably as present as he could ever be in this book and if you care about his life or the development of soul music you owe it to yourself to read it.
Images above come from the SAR Records Story booklet, taken from a site which also reproduces Peter Guralnick's liner notes, here.

In fairness to Daniel Wolff, I have still not reread his biography so the comparison remains only an impression. I can certainly testify that Wolff has written some excellent liner notes about Cooke's vocal development for some of the single volume CD issues of Soul Stirrers material. This link will take you to an extract from Wolff's notes for the Specialty box set and onwards to some pages from his book. I do remember, as this review by Michael Eric Dyson  confirms, that Wolff's biography was very good on the church background.  In the interests of balance, you can read Robert Christgau's detailed critique on the limitations of Guralnick's book here.

The next piece is a review of the 2002 box set The Complete Specialty Recordings, comprising studio and live gospel recordings and his first essays into pop. I originally entitled it, perhaps a little sweepingly, "Soul music begins here":

This box set of Sam Cooke's gospel recordings is the one to buy, even though there are lots of other permutations of the recordings out there. Most of those other collections (the Ace label issues aside) are public domain and therefore likely to be of lesser sound quality; this set, however, is an earlier, official release. It is in chronological order and apart from one or two omissions and the retention of 70s overdubs on a few tracks it is, indeed, complete, including the handful of pop sides he cut and some thrilling live gospel recordings. There were some later gospel recordings which he produced or participated in for his own SAR label - see Sam Cooke's SAR Records Story CD set - but those are considerably tamer so only worth seeking out if you have everything else.

You don't know the Sam Cooke story until you've heard these gospel recordings: they're well produced and clear (all credit to the owner of Specialty Records, Art Rupe) but rawer and more passionate than the later pop/soul sides for Keen and RCA; one critic said that Cooke sang more passionately to his God than he later did to his girl.

It's not a one man show, either: the Soul Stirrers had earlier pioneered the use of alternating leads (and expanded the gospel "quartet" to what was actually a five-man group), and the baritone of Paul Foster (above, right) shares most of the vocal duties here. On the earliest recording, Peace in the Valley, you can even hear Foster getting the better, vocally, of the young Cooke, whose voice cracks at one point - but then again that's from the same session where he sang Jesus Gave Me Water, a stunningly mature performance for a twenty one year old.
June Cheeks, the rasping lead of the Sensational Nightingales , was in the Soul Stirrers for a while, and these recordings are featured too, including an amazingly raw, and hypnotic All Right Now (not the Free song). Although Cooke takes part, you can hear that it's not really his thing: I forget the source, but someone said that he "didn't want to be that deep, pitiful singer", unlike Cheeks, tearing his vocal chords to shreds with every performance. The perfect example of the balance between Cooke and his usual fellow lead, Paul Foster, is Must Jesus Bear The Cross Alone: after Foster's opening, Cooke interpolates a bit of Amazing Grace, and he's all liquid and lightness, not trying to - not having to - compete. There are lots of examples of gospel singing at its finest throughout this 4 CD set.

Not every track is a masterpiece, however - some sides do sound a bit samey - but the chronological presentation and use of alternate takes and breakdowns means that you get to hear him developing his style. And quite apart from the inherent pleasure in hearing these recordings, they also provide a masterclass in soul/gospel singing.

Again, I forget the source, but someone said Sam Cooke's voice was a perfect blend of sandpaper and honey. If you've ever felt that there's a bit too much honey on the poppier RCA sides or on his versions of sentimental standards on Keen, then buy this to hear a more finely judged balance of passion and control.

If you're simply looking for the hits then the Sam Cooke Legend set is the no-brainer single disc choice. If you want something more than the hits then the 4 CD The Man Who Invented Soul can be given a qualified recommendation: it includes a lot of sentimental stuff but also has his Live at the Harlem Square Club performance, the best recording of Cook live, singing his hits with a looseness which recalls his gospel days. Depending on marketplace prices, it may be worth getting even just for that recording.
Details about recordings omitted from the Specialty box set are comprehensively covered on the Sam Cooke Fan Club site, here, although I think I'm right in saying that the master take of The Last Mile of the Way has not been issued on any CD without overdubs - if it has, I'd like to know about it.

There are alternate takes of The Last Mile of the Way both on the box set and a single CD compilation of that title but the overdubbed version of the master has been retained, those extra backing singers now more firmly welded to the Stirrers by a mono remix. When first issued on an album in the seventies (1972 UK version, left) at a time when mono was seen as outmoded this was Track 1, Side One, with additonal backing singers coming out of either channel, Art Rupe hoping to ensnare us "with-it" pop kids not only with the "stereo" effect but the suggestion we were buying a complete album of a fashionably large Edwin Hawkins-type group. (The Two Sides of Sam Cooke was released in America in 1970; Oh Happy Day had been a huge hit both in Britain and America the previous year.)

This is not simply a trainspotterish detail, as the leads of Cooke and Foster on that take are outstanding. I admit it's one of the more successful overdubs (and the first Sam Cooke gospel lead I ever heard); even so, I'd like to hear their interaction just once without the multitudinous hangers-on.

Finally, a few notes about an excellent radio play about Sam Cooke, A City Called Glory, written by Neil McKay, well known in the UK as a serious but resolutely unsensational  (I mean precisely that) TV dramatist. His See No Evil: the Moors Murders, as described here, was written with the cooperation of the families involved and won the 2007 Writers' Guild Best Original TV Drama award (McKay is pictured above with producer Lisa Gilchrist). A recently screened film about the late British politician Mo Mowlam has also drawn praise, for example here,  from those who knew her.

The Sam Cooke play was originally broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in the mid nineties (ie before either biography had been published) as part of a series about musical icons including Roy Orbison, also written by McKay. It was repeated in March 2009 on Radio 7, a mainly archival station. Below is a tidied-up version of messages posted on a BBC board at the time of the repeat - not so much a review as an encouragement to listen:
I cannot recommend highly enough the two plays by Neil McKay about Roy Orbison (Take the Night) and Sam Cooke (A City Called Glory). Originally in a series on Radio 4 in the nineties called All Shook Up, directed by Andy Jordan, they are an object lesson into how to do this sort of thing: genuine explorations into what may have been driving these men rather than cut-and-paste biopics as an excuse to play the records.

Even if you're not particularly besotted with either star these are well worth the effort; and if you do happen to know anything about either man you will know that their lives were packed with plenty of material for drama. But these plays have been expertly fashioned and repay repeated listening. (McKay had the chance to make contact with the Orbison family during or before the writing, incidentally, and chose not to, in order to retain his objectivity.)

McKay uses Orbison's son and Cooke's friend, sometime Soul Stirrer June Cheeks, as choric figures. Cheeks, who never deserted the gospel field - he became a preacher in tandem with his singing - is the touchstone for Cooke as he wavers between two worlds.

This device is particularly effective in A City Called Glory: first a friend and confidante to the young Sam, Cheeks is then split into two as the play approaches its climax: a voice in Cooke's own head as well as the real man desperate to tell his tale, give his subjective but privileged take on what may have happened on that fateful night Cooke was shot.

Although Cheeks was briefly in the Soul Stirrers, he is best known as the lead singer in the Sensational Nightingales, screaming himself hoarse in performances, so it's a neat idea that he is the polar opposite of Cooke in more ways than one. And although Cheeks had been dead for several years by the time of the first broadcast, so presumably it was less complicated to use him as a narrator figure, the choice of a character who is and is not of Cooke's world was inspired.

I have read the two biographies of Cooke (Daniel Wolff and Peter Guralnick) since first hearing this play; it really does still stand up. Both are good but the Guralnick one in particular brings out the sense of his contradictory, elusive nature as he pursues success: capable of immense warmth and charm yet taciturn and dissatisfied in private (Cooke's widow Barbara contributed to the Guralnick book). You emerge from the book not really knowing him fully, wondering whether it's possible to know him, but Neil McKay's play - and I don't know how much information was available to him at the time of writing - feels right: if it wasn't that way then it's still a convincing conclusion to draw from what is known about his life.
Another entry in this blog refers to Larkin's assertion that if you play Louis Armstrong's record of St Louis Blues the walls will begin to move by a certain chorus. I can't remember which one, but if you listen through all the versions of All Right Now, led by Cheeks, on the Specialty box set I could swear you'll hear a disorientating point well into one of the takes where the space the singers are inhabiting seems to be expanding or changing in some strange way, in direct proportion to the building frenzy of the performance.
Art Rupe's knob-twiddling or on on-the-hoof mike rearrangement, if he'd already given up that take as a master? The combined hypnotic force of the unrelenting pounding of Cheeks' lead and the Stirrers' support?

Or could that be what they call feeling the spirit? Therein the listener must minister to himself.

A biography of Julius "June" Cheeks, which reveals that his brief time in the Soul Stirrers was about financial necessity as the Nightingales weren't making any money, can be found here.

To close, one of Cheeks' finest moments in the Sensational Nightingales, a world away from Sam Cooke's approach, even before he crossed over. I doff my cap to gospel authority Viv Broughton, as I first heard it on the compilation Black Gospel (above), a 1985 tie-in with his book of the same name, later updated as Too Close to Heaven and linked to a documentary series (described here, although it currently seems to be priced with institutions in mind).

I'm assuming Broughton selected and sequenced the album (known to me via the cassette I played in those dear dead Walkmen days), which features the muted celebration of the Sensational Nightingales' It is No Secret (later covered by Elvis) to lift you gently  after the luxurious pain of their song below. Not a comprehensive collection, as I later realised - as far as I can tell it seems to be drawn exclusively from Peacock and related labels - but with some stunning performances.

It is not available on CD but a collection entitled I Come to Praise Him duplicates much of the choice The only significant omissions are two early 60s sides from Duke-Peacock subsidiary Songbird: Inez Andrews' I'm Glad About It and In the Need of Prayer - a great pity as both are superb. Luckily, the Pilgrim Jubilee Singers' astonishing Child's Blood - a recitation, as the rest of the group sing Precious Lord, about a daughter whipped to death for saying she knew Jesus -  has been included; see the CD's full track listing on that well-known shopping website here

But the highlight for me on Black Gospel, as on this CD compilation, is the recording below by the Sensational Nightingales, even if it's difficult to tell whether the other group members' rough-hewn harmonies are actually supporting Cheeks or goading him into an ecstasy of torment:

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