Portrait Of A Legend 1951-1964

Sam Cooke

ABKCO, 2003


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


A lot of people say Sam Cooke invented soul music.

Now, I don’t see it quite like that.  Not because Sam Cooke wasn’t the most pivotal figure in the early history of the soul genre -- he absolutely was -- but because I don’t entirely buy the idea that individual artists “invent” genres.

Like other similarly singular and vital figures in music history, Cooke didn’t so much invent soul music as see clearly and harness effectively its potential before anyone else.  It’s a vision thing, you see, and that, Sam Cooke had in abundance. 

Cooke emerged from the gospel tradition, having been a member of the Soul Stirrers, one of the nation’s leading gospel groups, since 1950.  His years singing inspirational music paralleled the rise of artists like Chuck Berry and Little Richard, who employed the emerging sound of rock and roll to bridge the gap between white and black audiences and appeal to both.  By 1956, Cooke had established himself as the lead vocalist and chief songwriter of the Soul Stirrers – and he was eager to move on to bigger challenges.  He was determined to reach a broader audience, and to do that he would have to break the gospel community’s greatest taboo and sing secular music.

His first foray into pop music in 1957 launched him full force into the mainstream, as “You Send Me” shot to #1 and sold over two million copies.  The music was pop in the style of the day, an unthreatening midtempo tune with bland (and suspiciously white) female background vocals, but Cooke’s delivery drew on both gospel and rhythm and blues influences, pushing his sophisticated, rather Nat King Cole-ish voice into stratospheric “woa-oa-oa-oa”s on the chorus, suggested unplumbed depths of feeling that Cooke would tap into more and more as time went on. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Primarily a singles artist during his brief career, Cooke would go on to score one hit after another with early soul classics like “Everybody Loves To Cha Cha Cha,” “I’ll Come Running Back To You,” “(What A) Wonderful World,” “Bring It On Home To Me,” “Another Saturday Night” and “Twistin’ The Night Away.”  Each found Cooke using his gospel chops to push the vocals higher, harder and stronger, to pour more and more emotion into the grooves he was laying down.  At the same time, he was one of the first artists in music history to seek and gain control over his own artistic and financial destiny.  He wrote his own songs, founded his own publishing company to handle the rights, and founded a record label to distribute the works of fellow artists.

Between 1957 and 1965, Cooke scored 29 Top 40 hits on the U.S. charts, the last coming months after his untimely 1964 death in a shooting at a Los Angeles hotel.  Portrait Of A Legend 1951-1964 embraces Cooke’s entire legacy, gathering 30 tracks on a single remarkable CD.  The tracklist focuses on his chart-topping solo years, but bookends the hits with two of his most notable gospel recordings with the Soul Stirrers, 1956’s “Touch The Hem Of His Garment” and 1951’s “Jesus Gave Me Water.”  This sequencing works beautifully, framing Cooke’s mainstream career with examples of the source from which it grew.

In the vast middle section you get the aforementioned bushel of immortal crossover hits, plus landmark proto-soul numbers like “Sugar Dumpling,” with its accelerated, finger-snapping rhythm, and “Shake,” propelled by a frenetic beat, dynamic horns and Cooke’s deliriously emotive vocals.  Near the end you catch a glimpse of what might have been the next phase of Cooke’s ongoing evolution as an artist, in the form of “A Change Is Gonna Come.”  Taking a cue from Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind” and his own personal involvement in the civil rights movement, Cooke composed a sweeping, brilliant gospel-blues anthem whose resonance reflected in equal parts the quality of the composition and the commitment of the artist. 

Portrait Of A Legend is easily the best Cooke collection out there based on tracklisting alone.  Add the excellent sound restoration and digital transfer work done on the original recordings, and a booklet full of annotations explaining the origins and significance of each song, and you’ve got an exceptional package. 

I’m not going to claim that Sam Cooke invented soul music -- I’ll leave that for you to judge -- but if you’re looking to study the evidence firsthand, this collection is everything you’ll ever need, spanning Cooke’s entire musical vision from its gospel start to its interrupted finish.

Rating: A

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


© 2008 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of ABKCO, and is used for informational purposes only.