Friday, 23 March 2012

She was only sixteen, only sixteen But I loved her so But she was too young to fall in love And I was too young to know

Hip to be Square

“Only Sixteen” by Sam Cooke 1959

John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Ain’t Even Done With the Night” says, “You got your hands in my back pockets, and Sam Cooke's singin' on the radio”. There is a mystique about Sam Cooke.  He is a legend: a dream-like spirit of something past. His influence was deep and strong. His life was short and brilliant.

Known as the ‘King of Soul’ Sam Cooke had a profound influence on people like Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, and Marvin Gaye and many to follow  His soaring voice and delivery – smooth as silk; vulnerable yet strangely strong and able to take you away with it.

His was born in Mississippi in 1931. His father was a Baptist minister and was sent to Chicago in 1933. Sam went to the same high school that Nat King Cole had gone to a few years earlier.  Starting in a gospel group with his siblings he soon joined the soul group the “Highway QC’s” and then well known gospel group the “Soul Stirrers” after the lead singer R.H. Harris (his mentor) left the group.  

Sam took the Soul Stirrers commercial and on ‘Specialty Records’ they recorded a string of gospel songs including “Peace in the Valley”. Hordes of adoring teenage girls would mob the barely more than teenage Sam himself him at concerts.

His first cross-over pop hit was “Lovable” in 1956 recorded under the name Dale Cook, so as not to offend his gospel music fan base – it fooled no one. Sam’s voice was distinctive and distinguishable.
This was the end with Speciality though as Sam was expected to produce the kind of music they were selling: gospel music. When they found out he was messing around with Gershwin, a fight ensured and Cooke left the Specialty label. I suspect he might have been recording “Summertime” which he would release very soon. There was only downside to Specialty with this decision.

In 1957 he sighed with “Keen Records” and released “You Send Me” with the B-side, “Summertime”. “You Send Me” spent 6 weeks at number one on the R&B charts and 3 at number one on Billboard.
He would not look back.

Many of his songs that are staples now did not start off at the peak of the charts: He released “Only Sixteen” in 1959 at BB #28, “Wonderful World” in 1960 #12, “Chain Gang” 1960 #2, “Cupid” 1961, #17 and “Twistin’ the Night Away” 1962 at #9.

The RCA recordings of ‘Cupid’, “Twistin’ the Night Away’ and then the back to back single “Bring it on Home to Me’ and “Having a Party” gained Sam great in-roads with RCA  -  he was second in record sales only to Elvis Presley at the time for them. His importance is lost on many now.  His stage presence was graceful, sensual and powerful.

He loved his family and often had them around him. He was a supporter of the civil rights movement. In his relationships things were not as rosy however. Allegedly abusive to his wife (who called him a ‘whorehopper’, Sam knew what the blues really were. He knew right from wrong but struggled. Such was the age-old rocky road of temptation of the unprepared rock star; instantly thrust into the arms of success – which often looks like drugs, woman and booze.  

In 1963 his 18 month-old son wandered away from his mother when Sam was on the road and drown in the front yard pool. This drove a permanent spike into their already troubled marriage due to both Sam and his wife’s extramarital affairs. Sam would take any and all dates to keep busy and away from home.

This most insightful and possibly his best album is 1963’s “Night Beat”. His “Fool’s Paradise” seemed to be theme song for the cautionary tale of Sam’s life:

“I often think of the live I've led
And oh, It's a wonder, I ain't dead
Drinking and gambling
staying out all night
Living in a fool's paradise
My mother told me and my father told me too
Said my child, it's all catch up with you”

There was a beautiful presence behind Sam Cooke songs. He prided himself on making sure the message was clear to the listener – seemingly not as important these days. I think this is an influence from Nat King Cole.   

In December ’64 his personal problems and challenges seemed to be the death of him. So the story goes; after chasing a prostitute out of a hotel room in a drunken rage he pounded on the hotel manager’s door where he thought she had fled to.  He allegedly attacked the surprised manager who shot him dead in self defence.

The influence of Sam Cooke lives on.

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