Saturday, December 11, 2010

December 11: Sam Cooke, "A Change Is Gonna Come"

Artist: Sam Cooke
Song: "A Change Is Gonna Come"
Album: Ain't That Good News
Year: 1964

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Bringing fans of different musical styles together is one of the more daunting tasks that a musician can tackle, as it is often a matter of structuring ones music to that it speaks to a wide group, yet at the same time stays true to that performers original sound so their core fan-base does not feel alienated.  While this is how it operates in a modern sense, there have been a few performers throughout the history of music whose music was so beautiful, so revolutionary, that it managed to speak to all people without sacrificing anything at all.  Though some genres have multiple people who can be seen as the "founder" of that style of music, there is no question that the sound of soul music began with any other than the late, great Sam Cooke.  Bringing stunning musical arrangements alongside his unparalleled voice, Cooke's sound reached audiences of every race, social status, and age group across the globe with a similar impact, and this is a feat that can rarely be seen elsewhere in music history.  Furthermore, the fact that Cooke never backed down from writing about "hot button" topics, especially civil rights, enabled his music to move beyond "just a song," and many of his recordings remain today as rallying cries for the disenfranchised across the world.  Though he had a number of amazing songs, there is simply no other recording in history that even comes close to the power and presence that one finds in his unforgettable 1964 classic, "A Change Is Gonna Come."

One of the most stunning aspects of "A Change Is Gonna Come" lives in the grand, orchestral musical arrangement, and the fact of the matter is, sounds like those found here are simply not found elsewhere in popular music.  The fact that with the deep sounds of the string section, sorrowful french horns, and the lone, marching snare drum are all that keep this song moving makes it almost impossible to explain how this song became a hit in any way, as it defies every norm of pop music.  However, this is also the genius that was RenĂ© Hall, as he was the individual that put together the arrangement on "A Change Is Gonna Come," as legend has it that Sam Cooke gave Hall free reign to compose the song as he saw fit.  Obviously, this worked in amazing fashion, and the opening musical slide stands as one of the most memorable moments in all of music history.  Hall's arrangement also sets the stage perfectly for Cooke's vocals, as there is a sense of deep sorrow and reflection that comes through clearly in the music.  The pain that the instruments are able to convey are truly unparalleled, and it is this aspect that gives the song an almost religious feeling.  There are points when the strings seem to be singing a duet with Cooke, and at these moments, "A Change Is Gonna Come" moves into a musical category all its own, as no other song in history ever achieved this sense of the dramatic through the instrumentation alone.

However, while the music on "A Change Is Gonna Come" is nothing short of extraordinary, there are simply not enough words that one can say that would do justice to the voice and performance that Sam Cooke brings to "A Change Is Gonna Come."  Without question, Cooke has one of, if not the greatest voice in history, as both in terms of pitch as well as emotion, there is never anything short of musical perfection.  Easily able to work the entire vocal spectrum, Cooke's voice often soars with a sound and energy that defines the idea of gospel music, as his singing is nothing short of a spiritual experience for the listener, and one can feel that he himself had a similar feeling during the actual recording.  On "A Change Is Gonna Come," Cooke holds absolutely nothing back, and the raw pain that one can hear in his singing is a result of both his exceptional talent, as well as the fact that the lyrics he wrote can largely be seen as referring to painful incidents he had experienced the same year the song was recorded.  Only a few months before the recording of "A Change Is Gonna Come," Cooke lost his eighteen-month-old son in a tragic drowning accident, and the pain that this brought Cooke can clearly be heard in both the lyrics and his voice when he sings lines like, "...there been times that I thought I wouldn't last for long, now think I'm able to carry on..."  In this simple lyric, one can understand the cathartic power of music, yet the pain he felt is something that clearly has not left him in the least.  The song also speaks to the still-present racism Cooke dealt with, and it is much the reason that "A Change Is Gonna Come" remains one of the most powerful and often used songs of civil rights across the world.

In quite literally every aspect, Sam Cooke's, "A Change Is Gonna Come" is a song that knows no equal or even any other song that comes remotely close.  From the phenomenal orchestral arrangement to the absolutely brilliant vocals from Cooke himself, the song transcends every social boundary, and it retains all of its power after countless listenings as well retaining its impact nearly fifty years later.  However, "A Change Is Gonna Come" is also notorious for being one of the most eerily prophetic songs ever released.  Truth be told, the song was not released as a single until ten days after Sam Cooke's tragic murder on December 11, 1964.  Serving as the "b-side" to his "Shake" single, the song began to take on a life of its own, and many see the song as Cooke's finest recording.  Though it was the b-side on the single, "A Change Is Gonna Come" found great success in the charts, and it is without question the stand-out track on the album.  As the decades have passed, many other artists have made their own version of the song, yet for a number of reasons, none of these covers even come remotely close to the overall power that one finds on the original.  This, in many ways, is the most clear sign of the genius that was Sam Cooke, as the power and pain one can feel in his voice are the true definition of what soul music was meant to be.  Though he had other songs that were more commercially successful, there is no other song in his catalog or anywhere else in music history that even comes close to the overall impact and influence that one finds in Sam Cooke's monumental 1964 song, "A Change Is Gonna Come."

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