Sam Cooke kept moving on

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OK, I'm a gay atheist (or really anti-theist) but I love the black gospel music of the golden age (not quite sure when that was: probably ended somewhere in the 1960s, not sure if it travels any farther back in time than the 1950s).

Sam Cooke's work with the Soul Stirrers was among the first gospel music I bought that wasn't part of an anthology and I could barely stop nattering about how much I enjoyed it. Cooke had two rare virtues as a singer. His voice was lovely. I don't mean sexy, charming or any allied quality. Ignoring any other qualities the tone was lovely in itself. And Cooke had the gift of original formulation. In jazz this is called improvisation (whether secretly rehearsed or as spontaneous as it often believed to be). In gospel singing it appears in melisma.

Sam Cooke's twin gifts as a gospel singer could make me weak at the knees.

The first time I bought a secular disk by Cooke I wasn't happy. The beautiful voice was still there; the distinctive variations in tone were gone. Worst of all was the thick gunk of background music, the product of two men I thought more evil than Mitch Miller was during his days at Columbia: Hugo & Luigi.

I'd grow up and learn that Sam Cooke had chosen his producers. No one had forced him down that path; there was no seduction. Rather Cooke aimed to seduce the white majority audience by giving them what they wanted. Jerry Wexler who made Atlantic Records into a major label had discerned what it took to make an R&B song a hit. Cooke was only expanding on Wexler's insights.

Not to suggest that Cooke was making aesthetic compromises. Maybe he liked the strings and things. Perhaps he didn't care. Probably his root desire was to succeed. Berry Gordy who would have the Supremes follow Cooke to the Copa nightclub was the next black man who was canny enough to sell black music to a white audience decades before rap became mainstream pop.

There's been lots of weeping and accusing about that. How much of it by people who were black, adult and trying to crawl up back in the times before black men could dare to hold a white woman's hand in public?

My tax refund came. I treated myself to Sam Cooke, Keep Movin' On. A few years ago when I bought The Man Who Invented Soul I thought the box set plus the collection of his recordings with the Soul Stirrers would be all I'd ever own.

Some of Keep Movin' On is sappy, there's even a really bad trad jazz number. Enough of the twenty-three cuts swing (rock) to make it a fine companion to the box set. It is all late work so almost none of the tracks are in the Man Who Invented Soul.

If I reduced to only one Sam Cooke disc it would be his gospel work. Of his secular discs I'd say Live at Harlem Square is the one essential disc. Jazz singers aside I'm not a big fan of live recordings but in Harlem Square Cooke's charisma comes through clearly time after time. Decades later he charms and seduces you, you can't help but feel you can see his smile.


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