(Post originally published for The Vinyl District – 4/26/2010)
I could write volumes upon volumes on what Sam Cooke’s voice means to me. More so than any other vocalist – or musician for that matter – Sam Cooke has always hit my ears the hardest (and softest for that matter) – has pulled my heartstrings the most. To me, his voice epitomizes perfection. It sums up that unexplainable sense of nostalgic wistfulness; evoking memories of youth, heartbreak, and evocative restlessness. Somewhere within his golden vocal chords, Sam Cooke was able to emulate the power of the soul into heart-felt notes and heart-breaking melodies that captured the core of his emotional depth and sensitivity. His voice is spiritual and secular, sophisticated and effortless, passionate and strenuous, and is layered with an indefinable sense of feeling. Unfortunately, despite my attempts to try, the irrefutable beauty of Sam Cooke’s voice cannot be put into words.
Famed German writer, Goethe, put it the best when he said, “Music begins where words end.” Often, I find that the most beautiful things in life are also the most ambiguous. They defy logic and reason, and induce thoughts and emotions within us that cannot be rationalized or explained. They provoke us to reflect or react, and the music of Sam Cooke allows me to simultaneously do both.
Sam Cooke died violently under cheap and gaudy circumstances in Los Angeles in 1964 at the young age of thirty-three. At the time, Sam Cooke was called “The Black Elvis” for disguising soul and gospel music as mainstream pop music, the same way that Presley disguised pop music as soul and R&B. He was a prodigy across the board: a songwriter and a producer who owned his own publishing company and record label. He had more hit singles than most artist could ever wish for – most of which displayed gospel singing without reverence: “’Chain Gang,’ is one of the strangest pop records of all time and is taken for granted: a black-history buff moved by an actual Georgia road gang to purloin their sound and banalize their longing for freedom. “Who else but Cooke,” Talty asks, “could see this tableau, the prisoners chanting in a call-and-response pattern as old as slavery itself, and think ‘Top 40 hit’?” (The Village Voice).
At the height of his career, Cooke was at his lowest point in his personal life. He was lost spiritually, confused emotionally, and had taken comfort in excessive drinking and drug use. His indulgences led him to a lonely death in a shoddy motel room; a bottle of whiskey and a copy of The Bible found lying next to each other in the passenger seat of his car.
Perhaps the most charming aspect of Cooke’s music is also the most charming of his aspect of his life: it is both confident and tragic. It is both a representation of his glanderous pop dreams, and the internal emptiness of falling asleep next to cheap hookers; the righteousness of the Civil Rights movement and the swimming pool death of his one year old son. It is the embodiment of joyous late nights of infinity and bittersweet mornings of expiration; loneliness cloaked in bravado. If Elvis channeled the depths of gospel music through the soul stirring voice of a Southern white boy, Cooke held up the other half of the bargain. His voice and music is a poignant transparency that comes across as honest, naïve, and unpremeditated.