Sunday, January 24, 2010

... and then there's the unadorned soul of Sam Cooke ...

With so little attention given to soul on this blog, it seemed somehow wrong to just let things rest with the blue-eyed work of Dusty Springfield yesterday and, in any event, the brilliant artistry of her music led me flicking through the embarrassingly small soul section of my CD collection for something else to keep me in the mood. I didn’t have to look far and, when I put Sam Cooke’s Night Beat into the player I realised why I have so little soul to choose from – it’s just impossible to find much that’s as good as this.

Sam Cooke’s output was pretty extensive for someone whose life was as tragically short as his but, even with a couple of dozen albums to his name, nowhere is his astonishing voice, dripping with that matchless mix of beauty and heartfelt, tell-it-as-it-is emotion that I have always found to be the trademark of soul, more wonderfully, nakedly on show as here on Night Beat.

There is little to listen to on this album other than Sam Cooke’s voice. The accompaniments are sparse, discreet – there to support the voice or, at most, to complement it, but never to intrude upon its simple, unembellished beauty. Listen, for example, to ‘Lost and Lookin’’, almost a capella, with its bass and cymbals beating slowly, unobtrusively in the background as if they, too, have been hushed, awe-struck, by the spell of Sam Cooke’s voice. And what makes that voice so unique, so memorable, is the way it weaves its way through the music, bleeding out its innermost pain to you, in such an unadorned way, without ornamentation, without affectation. It creates an intense, lasting bond, a holy trinity, between itself, its music, and you.

Really good soul always has a feeling of improvisation about it – a feeling that the music is growing as it’s sung, each note dying for the next one to be born, music that breeds from within itself, and that draws you in there too, so you are a part its birth. This is the way Sam Cooke sings these songs, right from the opening lines of ‘Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen’, where his voice wavers and wanders, finding notes in unexpected, unexplored places – notes that touch just the right spot, showering you with emotion not by histrionics but, simply, by music.

Night Beat is a superbly structured album – songs that sneakily seduce you into sharing their sadness; songs that make you cry, that carry you along a journey of quiet, gentle sorrow but that don’t leave you depressed and yet, as if to assure you that all is ultimately well, farewell you with the album’s closer, the wonderfully upbeat ‘Shake Rattle and Roll’.

I can't help thinking that Night Beat is the album that the human soul, when it is at its most heartbroken and forlorn, would choose to take onto its desert island – not to wallow in its misery but rather because then, with Sam Cooke’s glorious artistry, it would at last feel understood and, despite its sadness, never really alone.


  1. Great album choice. It showed a side of his music beyond his pop and gospel works, and is considered by many "Cookies" to be his finest compilation.

    Erik Greene
    Author, "Our Uncle Sam: The Sam Cooke Story From His Family's Perspective"

  2. Thanks for your comment Erik. Your book sounds amazing - I plan to order a copy soon, but just have to wait for my PayPal account to be reactivated after being put on hold for a while because of someone having hacked into it recently.

  3. Thanks, Ian! I'm on as well.

    I felt Sam's pionering acheivements were worthy of being told in an accurate light, as were the misconceptions about his death. Thank you for this blog and for your future support.