Sam Cooke’s 80th birthday

January 22nd, 2011

Sam Cooke in the Studio

Today would have been the truly incomparable Sam Cooke’s–called the Inventor of Soul–80th birthday. He started singing in soul groups and ended up in the influential Soul Stirrers.

Eventually he took that gospel sound into secular music, first in 1956 with a reworked gospel song called “Lovable” released under the pseudonym Dale Cooke in order to hide his identity from gospel fans who might not like his foray into secular music.

He left the Soul Stirrers in 1957 to pursue pop music. By 1960, years before Motown and Stax were churning out soul hits, he was putting out iconic songs like “Chain Gang.” When he was killed by a motel manager in 1964, some news reports described him as a “teen pop idol”, but I think he’s rightly come to be regarded as much more than just that in the time since.

Here are some of my favorite songs by him to celebrate this day.

  • Sam Cooke – Cupid (mp3) (buy)

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    “Cupid” is one of my all time favorite songs. It’s so beautiful and melancholy at the same time. Perfect orchestration married with Cooke’s truly soulful croon to make an amazing song.

  • Sam Cooke – Were You There (mp3) (buy)

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    This is a unique take on the African-American spiritual. I love the arrangement–the rough guitar and those fantastic background vocals–and Sam’s anguished squeal throughout.

  • Sam Cooke – Chain Gang (mp3) (buy)

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    It’s so hard not to sing along to this song. It’s such a catchy song. And the lyrics are simple and heartbreaking as well “My work is so hard// Give me water// I’m thirsty// My work is so hard”; they’re even more devastating when Sam sings them.

  • Sam Cooke – A Change is Gonna Come (mp3) (buy)

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    A discussion of Sam Cooke would be incomplete without discussing his only major effort in “protest” music, “A Change is Gonna Come”. Reportedly written after Cooke heard “Blowing In the Wind”, Cooke wanted to write his own anthem addressing the situation at the time. And what a fantastic effort it was. Simultaneously hopeful and mournful and sympathetic. The opening lyrics (“I was born by a river// in a little tent// and just like the river // I’ve been runnin’ every since.”) I often find stuck in my head.

  • Sam Cooke – Having a Party (live) (mp3) (buy)

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    If you have never heard any of Cooke’s live recordings, you need to listen to this and then get the album it’s off of (Live at the Harlem Square Club). As smooth and polished as Cooke is on his recordings, he lets loose on the live recordings. This song is practically unrecognizable from the studio version. In this version, when he sings about everyone swinging at the party you feel it.

  • Sam Cooke – Sad Mood (mp3) (buy)

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    He may not have had the rough, angsty voice of someone like Otis Redding, but Cooke could show anguish in his music. There’s almost no better sign that a song is personally meaningful than it comes to mind because of personal events. And this song has come to mind nearly every time I was sad or heartbroken in the last few years.

I hope you listen to and enjoy all of these like I have.