Sam Cooke – Night Beat

Sam Cooke – Night Beat
Released August, 1963

So far this year we’ve listened to James Brown, the Godfather of Soul; Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul and Otis Redding who sang soul on his blue album. More than any of this, Sam Cooke WAS soul. Possessing a voice many would kill to have, including your humble reviewer, Cooke’s exquisite control and effortless delivery influenced singers all over the world. He was born without the ‘e’ on the end of his surname in Clarksdale, state of Mississippi, in 1931. One of eight children to a Baptist minister and his wife, Cook(e) formed a band with three of his siblings called The Singing Children shortly after the family moved to Chicago. Although they were bound to exclusively sing gospel music, Cooke’s appreciation of popular vocal groups of this era would become evident in his early solo singles. In 1950 Cooke joined The Soul Stirrers, one of the USA’s top gospel groups. The first 78 of theirs to feature Cooke, ‘Jesus Gave Me Water’, became a big hit and such was his appeal that the gospel circuit found their first sex symbol in him.

Cooke longed to record popular music, which was not the done thing if you sang gospel. Singing to God was seen as a divine responsibility and crossing over to rock n’ roll, pop or R&B would alienate you from the gospel audience. Cooke recorded the pop single ‘Loveable’ in 1956 under the name of Dale Cooke, in an attempt to deflect any connection to The Soul Stirrers. It didn’t work and he was dropped from the group, but able to record using his own name. His first single ‘You Send Me’ sold over two million copies topping the US pop and R&B charts at the same time. Cooke’s popularity would span across black and white audiences of all ages in the years to come.

A string of songs infused with gospel, soul, pop and R&B sensibilities followed including such classics ‘Cupid’, ‘Chain Gang’ and ‘Twistin’ the Night Away’. “Night Beat” was where Cooke found his groove as an LP artist, and it was his attempt at one of the first ever concept albums. The resounding theme here is loneliness and longing; as if the parties and good times he sang about previously were over and he was now stuck with the downhearted aftermath. The real treasure here is Cooke’s voice, which is front and centre, turning these blues classics into pure soul. There’s not even any vocal harmonies until the album’s closer ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll’ attempts to lift the mood and, astonishingly, it was all recorded in three sessions over one weekend.

When the opening track ‘Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen’ started my heart sank. That long bass drawl and those low drums had me thinking we were in for a long and slow rendition of this traditional tune. Thankfully, the guitar brings a bit of rhythm and Cooke’s voice soared in to show me the best version of this song I’ve ever heard. It’s just Cooke, a bass and a drum cymbal on ‘Lost and Lookin”, but it works brilliantly. A lesser artist would struggle to be so engaging. That playful organ work on the wonderful performance of ‘Little Red Rooster’ comes courtesy of the late, great Billy Preston, who had reached the ripe old age of 16 when this was made. There’s not a bad song here, and I’m hard pressed to name a favourite, but I think the moments when Cooke shifts into his falsetto on ‘Mean Old World’ win it for me. I also really dig ‘Get Yourself Another Fool’.

Despite his success, Cooke’s personal life was in turmoil, as he struggled with depression, sex addiction, a rocky marriage and the death of his infant son. Tragically, Cooke was shot to death following an altercation with a woman and an L.A. motel night manager in December 1964. He was 33. Despite the mysterious circumstances, no formal investigation was ever entered into. His stirring ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ was released the following year becoming a worldwide hit and is now held to be one of the most important songs ever to come out of the civil rights movement. We are lucky that he left us such a wonderful legacy.

Sam Cooke is known as one of the original Soul guys. He was massively popular with twenty nine Top 40 hits over an eight year span. Not only was he a singer but also wrote songs and founded a record label and publishing company. The dude had talent. Cooke not only had success in the R&B charts but also had cross-over success in Pop charts. The album “Night Beat” had more of a blues feel to it and is not only considered to be his finest recordings but also one of the best soul albums of that period. As a fan of blues I had moments with this album where it felt a little too polished. Blues is meant to be raw and a little dirty. Its saving grace though is the believability in Cooke’s vocals. It’s evident that he had a troubled life and can relate to the lyrics. He imbues them with a certain vulnerability that seems so effortless. The album is quite minimalist in its approach, which allows this to shine even more. There were moments where it did start to feel a little samey but it’s hard not to fall in love with Cooke’s simple and honest approach. Favourite songs for me were ‘Lost and Lookin’’, ‘Trouble Blues’ and ‘Get Yourself Another Fool’. There is an old-timey feel about “Night Beat”. I imagine it as the kind of album my mum would have listened to as a young lass. It’s an album that perfectly encapsulates that time around your early 20s… where you are old enough to have a bit of an idea about the world but still young and naive enough to not yet be cynical and worn down by it. This really is a solid album that is perfect as a late night wind down album.

I wonder if anybody could dislike this album. “Night Beat” is nothing like what I usually listen to, and not once out of my several listens did I not find myself tapping my toes. It’s such a quiet album, all the instruments are really understated, allowing Sam Cooke’s voice to be the star of the show. I don’t know many musicians who would be willing to do that! The only thing that stands out at all is the piano, and what mighty fine pianoing it is. (Though I must admit that I was disappointed when I found out it wasn’t Cooke himself playing… I guess this project has set my standards high…) My favourite part of “Night Beat” is the opening two tracks, ‘Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen’, and ‘Lost And Lookin’’. ‘Nobody Knows’ is another one of those traditional slave songs that I love so much, and this arrangement is excellent. Just bass with piano fills. This same arrangement was carried over to ‘Lost And Lookin’’, just minus the piano. I’ve always thought that bass sounded ridiculous as the only instrument (a shocking statement from a bass player), but this track proves that theory wrong. No fancy runs, not trying to overcomplicate anything, just on the beat, single notes. And it is spot on. We get another version of ‘Little Red Rooster’, and now I’m torn, because I love the Howlin’ Wolf version, but Cooke’s arrangement (minus the organ. Yuck.) is so smooth. The album finishes with a version of ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll’, made famous by Bill Haley and the Comets, but forget about that, the “Night Beat” version destroys Bill Haley’s, for the same reason this whole album is so great: it is smoooooooth. Simple, refined, and not trying too hard. “Night Beat” was all class.

Holy smoke, what a delightful listen this album was! The first thing I really noted was Sam Cooke’s voice. It’s certainly velvety-smooth and chocolate coated and I totally dug it. Largely made up of heartfelt 8, 12 and 16 bar blues cuts peppered with rhythm guitar riffs, organ solos and honky tonkin’ pianos, Cooke’s 1963 release “Night Beat” serves up a thematic double-helping of trouble, misery and sorrow with a side of heart break and a garnish of remorse. Just take a look at the track names – from ‘I Lost Everything’ to ‘Trouble Blues’, to ‘Find Yourself Another Fool’ – and let me assure you, Cooke was not being ironic! As if Cooke was aware of the blues overkill, the album concludes with the perfectly-placed ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll’ which ends the album on a lighter, more positive note. The album flows seamlessly from one track to the other- not that it is without dynamic- and is very easy going, in fact it just sort of washed over me, in a good way.  Listening to this album after having recently listened to Otis Redding’s “Otis Redding Sings Soul”, you can see that Cooke laid some of the foundations for the development of the rhythm and blues style that was then continued and popularised by Redding, and I actually prefer the tones of Cooke to Redding’s. There is a certain vulnerability to his lyrics and his tone which take the album to another level of believability.  Overall I enjoyed listening to what I feel is a completely timeless creation that would not be out of place in the charts even today.

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