Happy 80th, Mr. Cooke, wherever you are.
If you’re a fan of music — of the best music America has had to offer — well, today would’ve been Sam Cooke’s 80th birthday. Just thought you’d like to know. (Just as I don’t picture my father as the 80-year-old he is, I can’t picture what Mr. Cooke would look like as the 80-year-old he never got to be.)
I could just spiel about how magnificent the man’s voice was. How his career spanned from the gospel of the early ’50s to the his smooth, secular pop of the late ’50s/early ’60s, to his deep awareness of the civil rights movement that didn’t become evident to the public until one of the best songs of the era, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” was released shortly after his untimely, mysterious death in December 1964.
Or I could preach to you about how you absolutely need to hear his “One Night Stand: Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963” album. The show, recorded in a Miami nightclub, showcased a more soulful, rougher-around-the-edges Sam than most of us had ever heard. And the first time I played the record, when it came out in 1985, the sound quality was such that I thought he was singing in my room, right there next to me. It was that scary good.
But instead, I’ll just share my favorite Sam single with you, one that you might never have heard (although one you’ve definitely heard, “Twistin’ the Night Away,” is a very close second). It was part of the earliest part of this music fiend’s musical education.
When I was about eight years old, my father brought up a record player and a stack of 45s from the cellar for my brother and me. It was one of those classic RCA 45 players from the mid-’50s, with a pink plastic grille, and the huge spindle could hold about a dozen records to play in succession.
The records were outdated things I never would’ve heard, or heard of, in the era of The Beatles — or on my parents’ old-folks radio station. There were some songs that were famous: A bunch of David Seville (including “The Chipmunk Song”); Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song” (with the Day-O B-Side, “Star-O”); Ned Miller’s country classic “From a Jack to a King.” But most were obscure (“The Worryin’ Kind” by early-’60s teen idol Tommy Sands, later recorded by Robert Gordon), or obscure tracks by better-known artists (Bill Haley’s “It’s a Sin”/”Mary Mary Lou” and Bobby Helms’ “Love My Lady,” a song I thought Stevie Ray Vaughan would’ve done a wonderful job with).
And there was this one single on a very colorful and bouncy label called Keen. It was by a guy named Sam Cooke, backed by The Bumps Blackwell Orchestra. The A-side was “You Were Made for Me” — the follow-up to his secular debut smash, “You Send Me” — but it was the B-side that reeled me in. It eternally set a mood (which I knew all too well in the ensuing years) and a time period (early-’60s New York) for me.
It was called “Lonely Island.” Happy birthday, Mr. Cooke, wherever you are …