Friday, December 11, 2009

December 11: Sam Cooke, "Ain't That Good News"

Artist: Sam Cooke
Album: Ain't That Good News
Year: 1964
Label: RCA Victor

There was The Originator, there was The Philosopher, there was The Genius, and there was The Godfather, all making legendary music and serving as some of the most important influences on the entire world of music. Then of course, there was Sam Cooke. Without question the most important soul singer in history, and the man who is largely responsible for the entire genre, there are truly few artists worthy of being mentioned in the same breath. A man who needs no nickname, Sam Cooke represents one of the most stunning and tragic stories in music history, and his songs remain unparalleled on this, the forty-fifth anniversary of his death. Combining fantastic songwriting and his absolutely peerless voice, Cooke was also massively influential as he was one of the first artists to fully engage in the business aspect of making music. Releasing a string of absolutely phenomenal albums before being brutally murdered on December 11, 1964, the Sam Cooke catalog is by far one of the greatest collections of music in history, and there are so many classic songs within, it is hard to single out one record as his finest. However, one can make the case that, due to the musical diversity he was showing, as well as the presence of one of the most awe-inspiring performances ever, the true beauty of Same Cooke can be found on his final studio effort, 1964's Ain't That Good News.

Truth be told, there is one song on Ain't That Good News that is so stunning, so absolutely overwhelming, that even after listening to it hundreds of times, Cooke's performance on "A Change Is Gonna Come," still stops me dead in my tracks, whatever it is that I am doing. This song, and this version represent everything that it means to sing with soul and emotion, and the truth of the matter is, no artist has ever come even remotely close to the power and mood that Cooke creates on the track. Throughout the track, Sam Cooke soars and croons, as the song fuses together elements of blues, soul, r&b, and finishes it off with a brilliant sense of the protest movements that were beginning to gain ground throughout the country. Upon its initial release in early 1964, the song was quickly overshadowed by the four guys from Liverpool, yet the song refused to be ignored, and after gaining some airplay, the song cracked the top ten on the singles charts in the U.S. The song itself was a result of Cooke's reaction to hearing Bob Dylan's "Blowin' In The Wind," and it would go on to become one of the songs that defined the civil rights movement, as well as the overall mood of the country throughout the 1960's. Four decades later, the song still resonates as powerfully as it did when it first appeared, and since its release, there has yet to be a song that brings a similar level of intensity and passion alongside a voice as beautiful as Cooke's.

While the voice of Sam Cooke is without question the focus on every song of Ain't That Good News, on all fronts, he was backed by some of the most talented players of his day. For many reasons, few artists of the time could command such a large number of backing musicians, yet Cooke's voice, along with his involvement in the business aspect of his music, afforded him to pretty much hand pick any and all of the musicians he wished to have on his record. The fact that he has a string section, a large rhythm section, a full horn section, as well as a number of backing vocalists serves not only as a testament to the power he held with his record label, but also to the amazingly diverse styles of music found on Ain't That Good News. The way in which Cooke pulls the sorrowful strings into "A Change Is Gonna Come,' yet simultaneously gives them a bright, hopeful feel shows his prowess as a composer, and many of the songs on the album feature such fantastic displays of musicianship. From gorgeous ballads like "Falling In Love" to the swinging, almost Spanish feel of "Meet Me At Mary's Place," to Cooke's classic, "Another Saturday Night," there are very few albums that display such a wide range of styles, yet remain wonderfully cohesive. This ability to run the musical gamut, yet keep the end product a single sound shows the amazing musical knowledge that lived within Cooke, yet it is somewhat tragic, as one can only image the music that could have been, as the seeds for countless new sounds from Cooke are on display throughout Ain't That Good News.

The musical arrangements throughout Ain't That Good News would influence generations that followed, yet it was the voice of Sam Cooke that truly stopped the world. Cooke's voice shines across the entire vocal range, as he is equally capable of the moodiest, deepest notes as well as the most spectacular, emotive high parts of the vocal spectrum. Regardless of what notes he is singing, Cooke has a naturally smooth, light, yet powerful voice that is unlike any other in music history. Able to bring a funky hipness akin to that of Little Richard, as well as the most tear-jerking feelings with his lightest touch, there has simply never been another voice like that of Sam Cooke. Further distancing himself from a majority of his peers, Cooke wrote nearly all of his own material, and throughout Ain't That Good News, his uncanny ability as a songwriter shines nearly as brightly as his voice. From dance anthems to some of the finest social critiques ever written, Cooke was one of the most fearless performers, as writing and singing some of the things he did during that time most certainly put his life in danger. As one of the earliest civil rights songs, Cooke turns the pen on what was at the time, an unlikely subject, as he cries against "black on black crime" when he sings, "...then I go to my brother, and I say "brother help me please"...but he winds up knockin' me, back down on my knees..." Such poignant statements are the norm throughout Ain't That Good News, and the way in which Cooke delivers each line makes the overall impact of the album far beyond that of anything else ever recorded.

There is a saying within music that the finest songs and performances are often birthed as a result of great tragedy. If this is true, then there it should come as little surprise that Sam Cooke's Ain't That Good News contains some of the greatest and most powerful songs ever committed to recorded tape. Standing as his final recording session before his brutal murder, but also his only recording session following the equally tragic drowning death of his eighteen month old son, there are few artists that were in as devastating a position as Cooke was in 1963 when he recorded the album. The resulting music overflows with power and emotion, and though Cooke had already set the standard for "what" it meant to be a soul singer, his performances here serve as one of the most stunning final works from any artist in history. Throughout the record, Cooke begins to branch off into other genres, and one can only imagine the music he would have created had his life not been ended prematurely. Though Ain't That Good News did not chart as well as his previous efforts, many of the songs from the record stand today as absolute classics, and the overall impact of the record was one of the key aspects that gave Cooke the posthumous distinction of being one of the charter inductees into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. Though "A Change Is Gonna Come" is without question the showstopper moment on the album, the overall record is equally as fantastic, and Sam Cooke shines as bright as ever on what would be his final recording, 1964's absolutely monumental and indispensable Ain't That Good News.

Standout tracks: "Another Saturday Night," "A Change Is Gonna Come," and "The Riddle Songs."

1 comment:

Sam's Neph said...

Wow, what a sincerely heartfelt rememberance of Sam! It's truly flattering to think of the number of lives he's touched in his relatively short time on earth. Thank you for sharing your feelings.

December 22nd marks the 45-year anniversary of "A Change is Gonna Come," by the way. It was released in late '64, not early '64.

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