Back in the late fifties, when I was in grade school, my mom gave me a table radio that I promptly ensconced by my bed. Every night I listened to it—to the late-night programming on the pop station WSAI—only instead of making me sleepy, the music woke me up.
Cincinnati was still, effectively, a segregated town back then—most American cities were—but the late-night radio waves of WSAI were something else entirely. While AM stations devoted endless hours to the soul-killing harmonies of The Four Freshman, the Lennon Sisters, the Johnny Mann Singers, for a few hours each night WSAI turned off the spigot of pabulum and turned on what—to my nine-year-old ears—was a fire hose of excitement.
There were Elvis and Jerry Lee, of course. But there was also—and this was what was so excitingly new—a taste of the music that Elvis and Jerry Lee got their beat and bearings from. For the first time, I heard black singers who weren’t Ed Sullivan Show staples. I heard the Silhouettes’ funny “Get a Job,” Chuck Berry’s ecstatic “Sweet Little Sixteen,” The Chordettes’ delicious “Lollipop,” The Drifters’ lilting “There Goes My Baby.”
As the fifties edged into the sixties, the music just kept getting more danceable, more energizing, more varied, filled with a sexuality already implicit in “Sweet Little Sixteen” and “Lollipop,” mixed with gospel, doo-wop, blues, rock ’n’ roll, and r&b. It was music that would branch out in many directions, from Motown girl groups to Hendrix jazz-rock to Clinton funk to Booker T r&b and, above all else, to soul—to Aretha, Sam and Dave, Otis, Marvin Gaye.
But before there was a category called “soul,” before there were any of these vital things, there was “Mr. Soul” himself—Sam Cooke, who elegantly embodied every one of these interrelated musical threads in songs like “You Send Me,” “Chain Gang,” “Bring It on Home,” “Twistin’ the Night Away,” “Shake,” and “A Change Is Going to Come.”
His roots were literally in gospel but he had the looks and grace and ambition to successfully cross over into the mainstream. (“Chain Gang” was No. 2 on Billboard’s Pop chart, “You Send Me” No. 1.) And he had a voice that “caused men to sit up and women to swoon.” There was plenty of power and pathos in that silken tenor, though Cooke wasn’t a shouter like Otis. He was more poised and polished, a sophisticated artist, who seduced in a lower (but no less ardent) key.
Who knows all Sam Cooke might have become had he not been gunned down in 1964 at the age of thirty-two in the office of a seedy South Central LA motel? He spoke to my generation so memorably that he was among the very first inductees in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Thanks to Analogue Productions’ 45-rpm reissue of Cooke’s 1963 RCA album Night Beat he still speaks to us—eloquently. The sound is opulent; the songs excellent; the singing nonpareil; the mood, oh-so nostalgic.
I just hope that this reissue meets with the success it deserves. Maybe then we’ll get a reissue of Cooke’s even better 1964 bell-ringer Ain’t That Good News.