NIGHT BEAT • Sam Cooke
I love everything about this album.
Let's start with the evocative title, which suggests not only the languid, after-hours tempo of the music, but also beat in the sense of a familiar path which is trodden nightly by a restless, lonely man. And even further, beat in the sense of poetry. These songs speak in wee hours poetry--that direct language of 2 a.m., when all affectations and clever rhymes are stripped away to bare the cries of the soul.
And was there ever a finer soul crier than Sam Cooke? Prior to hearing this album, I admit I was only familiar with Cooke's classic hits--"You Send Me," "Wonderful World," "Cupid," "Twisting The Night Away"--all great singles, to be sure. But the syrupy strings and corny Ray Conniff-style singers on those records often diluted the power of Cooke's amazing voice.
On Night Beat, he's surrounded by a hipster quintet that includes Barney Kessel on guitar, Hal Blaine on drums, and a sixteen-year-old wonderkid named Billy Preston on organ. The spare arrangements, with blues and gospel-inflected fills, free Cooke's voice to soar, delivering potent soul cries like "Get Yourself Another Fool," "Laughin' And Clownin'" and "Fool's Paradise."
As Cooke digs deeper into lonely ("Lost And Lookin'"), lonelier ("Mean Old World"), and loneliest ("I Lost Everything"), he achieves a fundamental definition of soul over and over: Singer bares soul, listener has soul moved. Like all the greats, from Ray Charles (who once said of Sam, "He hit every note where it was supposed to be") to Otis Redding to Marvin Gaye, Cooke has this innate ability to connect emotionally. But he also has incredible control. He whispers. He purrs. He swoops up into a falsetto like a silver bird, graceful and sweet. And he roughs it up like a revival shouter, but chooses his moments, never overdoing it.
In one of the few interviews he did before he was murdered in 1964, Sam Cooke said, "You must make your audience feel what you feel. You have to stir up [their] emotions and literally lift them from their chairs."
Consider me lifted.
• Bill DeMain