Tomorrow (Saturday January 22nd) Sam Cooke would be 80. It’s hard to imagine what Cooke would be like as an old man, as he died perhaps at the pinnacle of his career in December of 1964. Perhaps as a result of becoming bored with contemporary artists, in the past few years I’ve developed quite an interest in soul music. The more I listened to soul, Sam Cooke always seemed to tower above the rest. Like Bob Dylan, Cooke has not only become one of my favorite artists of all time, but his songs have continued to be more rewarding with each listen.
Unlike his contemporaries like Ray Charles , Cooke has never really received a renaissance in recent years. Yet he has never really gone away. Anytime a hip-hop artist or R&B soul sings about God, Cooke is there. At a time when artists such as Little Richard struggled with secular music and religion, Cooke proved that you could make Gospel music accessible and exciting in modern music with such songs as “Jesus Gave Me Water” along with the Soul Stirrers version of “Peace in the Valley”. His clear, and distinct vocal style was a template for almost every soul singer afterward from Curtis Mayfield to Al Green. Cooke was one of the first African Americans to actually partake in the business side of music – he set up his own label SAR records. So anytime you see a hip-hop artist venturing into business ventures, Cooke is also there. With “A Change Is Gonna Come” (inspired by Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in The Wind”) Cooke became of the first socially conscious pop-singers paving the way for the likes of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and much of Bob Marley’s career. James Brown’s Live At the Apollo is usually considered to be one of the definitive live soul albums. But Cooke’s own Live at the Harlem Square Club recorded in 1963, is even better. Cooke delivers a tight, sweaty, and sexy set of classics such as “Cupid”, “Chain Gang”, and “Bring It On Home To Me”.
Of course, Cooke’s influence isn’t just limited to African American artists and soul music. Van Morrison famously covered “Bring It On Home To Me” on his double live album, It’s Too Late To Stop Now, and Bruce Springsteen’s “Mary’s Place” off The Rising is directly inspired by Cooke’s own “Meet Me at Mary’s Place”. And Rod Stewart once claimed that he would study Cooke’s vocals for hours in his room as a teenager. In 2008, Colin Meloy of the Decemberists released Colin Meloy Sings Sam Cooke, a tour-only EP of Sam Cooke covers. Amy Winehouse also covered “Cupid” on the deluxe version of Back to Black.
Cooke’s death at age 33 was one of music’s tragedies. Who knows what he would have recored had he lived. But Cooke still lives on through his music. And it still sounds as fresh and exciting as it did some 40-50 years later.