Music Features

Sam Cooke: Strolling through the Night Beat

The standard 12-inch long player was introduced in August 1948, but many years passed before pop artists began to see its potential. LP's were the realm of classical music and Broadway cast recordings while the 45 rpm format that appeared in 1949 took hold of jukeboxes and radio stations, the twain refusing to meet. Frank Sinatra's albums for Capitol Records were notable exceptions; built around a theme or a mood, they were the forerunners for concept albums. This was also the heyday of hard bop and cool jazz, with seminal recordings from great musicians like Chet Baker and Miles Davis. Rock 'n' roll took a while to catch on. It was a singles market, and only artists with a proven track record were allowed LP releases. Most rock LPs were sold with little fanfare, their low-brow-art covers listing the artist's last hit on large letters and hiding the filler with small print. If artists like Elvis, Gene Vincent, and Buddy Holly managed to make good albums, it was despite an industry that saw no future in their type of music.

Night Beat was Sam Cooke's twelfth album. By the time of its release, he was miles ahead of his contemporaries, having gained control of his music and his career, and this had a definitive impact on the sound of his albums. It took him a while to get there. Before becoming a pop singer, he had been a seasoned recording artist as a member of the Soul Stirrers, the legendary gospel group. But gospel was a limited market, too small for Cooke's oversized ambition. His transition to the pop field came about with a reworking of a Soul Stirrers' hit, "Wonderful", which he retitled "Loveable". Though he was shunned by the gospel community, there was no time to make amends as the song raced up the R&B charts. This lesson in empowerment wasn't lost on him. Cooke's drive and keen mind helped him keep his career afloat while many fellow artists were duped by unscrupulous managers and labels. His lucrative signing with RCA in 1960 paid up handsomely with a string of hit singles, mostly self-penned, so the next logical move was to gain control of his publishing. By 1963, he had become a major force as live performer and a reliable hit maker for RCA records, second only to Elvis, yet for Cooke there was always a call for new artistic challenges.

Musically, there had been a change of direction since his signing to RCA. A series of up-tempo sides had placed him in the forefront as a soul pioneer; meanwhile, his albums, gaining thematic cohesion since the early sixties, allowed him to enhance his musical palette. Night Beat finds Cooke in a blues mood. Recorded over the course of three night sessions in February 1963 with a small group of musicians that included drummer Hal Blaine and a teenage Billy Preston, the frills and strings of previous recordings are gone. This is an album about naked emotions, and Cooke's golden voice doesn't hold anything back.

The album opens with the traditional "Nobody Knows The Trouble I've Seen", but Cooke's arrangement is non-traditional. He keeps the gospel inflections but adds West-Coast guitar jangle and piano frills to the mix, opting for a contemporary feel far removed from cotton fields and old-time-religion churches. Yet there is one emotion tying the song to the rest of the tracks. Sorrow, vented out as a way of release, is the common ground between gospel and the blues.

The blues immersion begins with "Lost And Lookin'", and the rendition here is almost a capella, with Cooke's vocalizing just supported by a walking bass and light cymbals. The song is a fine example of Cooke's style, in essence a mix of crooner cool and gospel intensity. His wide vocal range allows him to stretch notes and go up and down the scale without missing a beat. If all singers are actors, Cooke is strictly method school, his commitment to the emotional moment always there, everything internalized to create an authentic performance. For him, all emotions are valid, so the despair of "Trouble Blues" gives way to the elation of "Shake Rattle And Roll". The LP format allowed him to tie everything together.

Cooke's originals preserve the late-night, closing-time mood. "Mean Old World" is a hard-boiled view of life sung as a warning; "You Gotta Move" is a hip-shaker that delivers a putdown. Cooke's lyrics are conversational, person to person, conveying complex feelings with straightforward words. "Laughin' And Clownin'", for instance, is serious stuff, its drama conveyed with a judicious use of falsetto. One can imagine fledging artists like Otis Redding and Rod Stewart rethinking their approach to singing after listening to this track.

Even Cooke had his heroes. At the center of the album are five songs made famous by Charles Brown during his late-forties, early-fifties heyday. What appealed to Cooke was Brown's unique approach to the blues, done in a smooth club style that was the antithesis to the hard-edged Chicago sound. Cooke tips his hat to him while making the songs his own. He's at ease tackling the dark feelings of "I Lost Everything" and "Fool's Paradise", finding in them a rich vein of emotions compared to the hollowness of so many contemporary pop songs. His version of "Get Yourself Another Fool" is definitive; here he builds a film-noir scenario where desire is still latent after disappointment and heartbreak.

If Cooke has found a bridge between pop music and the blues, there's no better example than his version of "Little Red Rooster". Howlin' Wolf's intense rendition for Chess was a tough act to follow, but Cooke takes the song out of the Delta blues milieu, giving it an urban feel with keyboards and a swinging rhythm. His vocals are smoldering, certainly more sensual than Wolf's, turning the playful innuendo of the lyrics into an unambiguous invitation. It's hard to believe this became a pop hit in the straitlaced early sixties, but it did.

Along with Ray Charles, Cooke was creating the idiom of soul music. For both men it came to fruition organically, just as their exploration of contemporary genres was underway. Of the two men, Cooke was the visionary. Where others saw boundaries, he saw connecting strands. He saw value in America's deep musical heritage while being curious about new trends, be it folk music or beat groups. Deep down, he understood that the aim of all good music is to make an emotional connection, which could serve as an instrument for social change. His untimely death in 1964 truncated this journey, but we have an inkling of what might have been in latter songs such as "Keep Movin' On" and "A Change Is Gonna Come". This new direction, deeply rooted in gospel and the blues, would be followed by artists like Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin. Though Cooke was gone, his legacy would endure.