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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Basic Biittner: Music and Book Review

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Sam Cooke's last recording was a live performance at the Copacabana Night Club in New York City
I recently finished the book "Dream Boogie," by noted rock and blues writer Peter Guralnick. Guralnick's previous works incude two bios about Elvis Presley, a book on the Memphis Blues scene, and a small book on the brief career of the mysterious Robert Johnson - whom some say is the "father of the Blues."

Like his other works, Guralnick's take on Sam Cooke, the subject of "Dream Boogie," is based on thorough research and numerous interviews with key figures in Cooke's life.

Cooke, of course, was the singer and composer of such pop classics as "You Send Me," "Wonderful World," "Chain Gang," "Cupid," "Bring It On Home To Me," and "Another Saturday Night," among others.

His greatest composition and performance, though, was probably "A Change Is Gonna Come," one of the first anthems of the Civil Rights movement. "Change," unfortunately, was a posthumous release as a single, as Cooke was killed in a rather sordid incident on December 11, 1964, just seven years into what would most likely have been a long and influential career, at the age of 33. The son of a minister, Cooke (Cook is the actual spelling of the family name) began his career as a Gospel singer. He was the lead singer for one of the top Gospel groups in the country, The Soul Stirrers, in his early twenties, before deciding to enter the "pop" field of music.

One thing that Cooke and Elvis had in common was a failure at a particular venue early in their careers- and both came back to overcome those early flops. For Elvis, it was Las Vegas, where his show did not go over in his first try in the Fifties. After his career comeback in the late sixties, he went on to totally conquer Vegas, of course.

For Cooke, he performed at the Copacabana night spot in New York City in the fifties, and his show did not go well. He continued to build his fame and fortune as an attraction for teenagers, but was determined to go back to the Copa with a new show, and win that crowd over. In July of 1964, he appeared at the famed night club for two weeks and was a smash hit. Five months later, he was dead, so we will never know what path his career might have taken. We can speculate, if we so choose, by listening to and enjoying two very different live recordings which have both been digitally remastered.

The first, recorded at Miami's Harlem Square Club, is a great showcase for Cooke's soul /gospel /r & b side, as he sings like no one else was doing at the time- a few years later, Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett would- but at that time, Cooke's move away from his pop persona back to his gospel roots showed that had he lived, he, not James Brown, might have become known as the Godfather of Soul. Or ... the other remastered live CD is the afore-mentioned show at the Copa, from july 1964. At this show, Cooke is introduced by none other than Sammy Davis jr., who calls Cooke a "swingin' cat," as only Sammy could. Cooke starts his show with a rendition of "The Best Things In Life Are Free," and finishes close to an hour later with an uptempo version of "Tennessee Waltz."

Sam Cooke may have gone on to be a soul giant, or he may have been another Sammy Davis jr. He was interested in a career in movies, too, and had even done screen tests as a first move in that direction.

What would Sam Cooke's legacy have been? Like Buddy Holly (who dropped an "e" from his family name of Holley, rather than adding an "e" like Cooke), Hank Williams sr., James Dean, and other screen and music stars who died young, we can only speculate.

I highly recommend both the book , "Dream Boogie," which I believe is now available in paperback, and the two live CDs, "Live at the Harlem Square Club" and "Live at the Copa."

Dan Whitney
Basic Biittner