A Young Man’s Tenderness: Sam Cooke’s Portrait of A Legend and Nightbeat

By Daniel Garrett

Sam Cooke, Portrait of A Legend
Abkco, 2003

Sam Cooke, Nightbeat
Abkco, 1995

I always think of Sam Cooke as a suave figure of pleasure, but he had a sound that was both mellow and melancholy, something I’m reminded of when listening to his Portrait of A Legend 1951-1964 (Abkco, 2003) and Night Beat (Abkco, 1995; originally released in 1963 by Tracey Ltd.). Portrait of A Legend collects songs such as “You Send Me,” “Only Sixteen,” “Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha,” “Cupid,” “(What A) Wonderful World,” “Chain Gang,” “Bring It On Home to Me,” and “A Change Is Gonna Come.” The devotion and thrill of gratified infatuation, in which love creates serenity and security rather than anxiety or frantic intensity, is the subject of “You Send Me,” and disappointment in young love, ending in sad regret and understanding is the subject of “Only Sixteen.” Cooke’s songs—whether an affirmation of dance, a wistful call for help, a humble declaration of love, a recognition of prison as a fact, or an expression of sexual assurance—were a young man’s testament and they often carried a young man’s tenderness. Cooke’s phrasing bears traces of the sung spiritual, but his is obviously not a voice that could ever be anonymous, buried within a tradition.

Peter Guralnick suggests in Dream Boogie (Little, Brown, 2005) Sam Cooke’s native gifts and his dedicated effort to develop his craft and appeal, as well as the sometimes unhappy private life that accompanied his work. That Cooke wrote many of the songs he sang is not only admirable: it is the fulfillment of the individuality one hears in his voice: an imaginative and empathic sensibility with a masculine strength and a sweet softness that is almost feminine.

Cooke sings as part of the Night Beat collection songs by men such as Charles Brown and Willie Dixon and songs like “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” as well as his own “Mean Old World,” in which he says it’s a mean old world without someone to love, and “You Gotta Move,” in which he demands respect in love. Cooke had a singular range and moved acrossed it coolly, without excessive emphasis, without strain. Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 (originally released on vinyl in 1985, and re-released by RCA on compact disc, 2005), recorded in a Miami club, captures the singer on the cusp of a new era, allowing feeling and raw sound to reign over the beauty of form. Cooke, inspired by men such as Louis Armstrong and Charles Brown, himself inspired artists like Aretha Franklin and Smoky Robinson, and the Supremes did a tribute album to Cooke. Sam Cooke was a marvel.

Daniel Garrett is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, AllAboutJazz.com, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Muse-Apprentice-Guild.com, Offscreen.com, Option, PopMatters.com, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, WaxPoetics.com, and World Literature Today. He has written fiction, poetry, drama, journalism, and criticism; and his comment on Sam Cooke previously appeared as part of his long piece entitled “ICONOGRAPHY: Ideas, Images, and Individuals in Film, Books, and Life” (Offscreen.com, 2006). Contact: D.Garrett.Writer@gmail.com and dgarrett31@hotmail.com