Sam Cooke

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"A Change Is Gonna Come"

Sam Cooke

Composed by Sam Cooke




June 1, 2014: Artist Guide Update with new YouTube offerings and other links. (Scroll down to Tidbits #2 for complete list of YouTube offerings.)

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To instantly link to all the awards, citations and other references to Sam Cooke on the website, go to Cooke, Sam, in Daddy B. Nice's Comprehensive index.

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Listen to Sam Cooke singing "A Change Is Gonna Come" on YouTube.

"I was born by the river
In a little tent."

All of the most beautiful, stately, epic-scaled songs of Southern Soul descend from Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come." Tyrone Davis' "Where Are You Lady."
Carl Sims' "Trapped" and "Mr. Nobody Is Somebody Now." Johnnie Taylor's "Soul Heaven." Lee Fields' "I'll Put My Life On The Line." Glen Jones' "Baby Come Home." Even Sir Charles Jones' "Friday." They all strive and in various ways succeed at planting their feet in the bigger, deeper footsteps first set down by Sam Cooke.

"A Change Is Gonna Come" contains arguably the two most powerful lines in 20th-century songwriting:

"It's been too hard living,
But I'm afraid to die."

The closest anyone has ever come to the exquisiteness and depth of the song's emotional pitch was Otis Redding in "Dock Of The Bay." But "Dock Of the Bay" is a solitary man's meditation. "A Change Is Gonna Come" is the full ritual, a man preaching from a gutter pulpit, a spiritual and social event even though it's so intensely personal.

Yet, on its simplest, most literal level, it's the taunt of every down-and-out panhandler who ever tugged at your sleeve and your conscience outside the local supermarket.

"I go to the movie,
And I go downtown.
Somebody keeps telling me,
'Don't hang around.'

" . .And I say,
'Brother, help me please.'
But he winds up knocking me.
Back down on my knees."

This is poverty, indigency and despair rendered with such heartbreaking simplicity and conciseness that it becomes a beautiful thing in itself. And the superb melody and full-blown orchestral arrangement accomplish the rest, transporting the listener from the curb and the parking lot to a more celestial realm.

The message is one of undiluted suffering, yet the effect is religious. Certainly no song has ever captured so well the anguish of the human spirit when hope itself seems unobtainable. But the very fact the song goes to the edge, stares into the abyss and proceeds to confront us implies a bravery that couldn't exist without hope. Otherwise, why would Sam Cooke communicate it?

So while the narrator's predicament appears hopeless, the effect of the song is just the opposite. Somehow it compels us to believe. It lifts our spirits and brings out the best in us. We can actually feel those "better" inner qualities quivering, like bears coming out of hibernation after months of inactivity. Much of it has to do with the originality and resonance of the music.

Inspired, according to Cooke himself, by Bob Dylan's trail-blazing anthem, "Blowin' In The Wind," "A Change Is Gonna Come" is a much more complex and interesting song musically. Its wall-of-strings arrangement is one of the most famous musical prologues in popular music, and the rich texture of the violins and (later) the horns flows effortlessly around and back into the Cooke vocal, which is itself so elemental it seems to exist in a pure musical state, without tics, mannerisms or distracting flaws of any kind.

"A Change Is Gonna Come" is Sam Cooke's most important song and achievement; it's also his most influential work from a Sounthern Soul perspective. But it's not the only influence. A subtler and probably more pervasive influence has been Cooke's party songs, his "light" work: "Having A Party," "Keep Moving On," "Chain Gang," "Twistin' The Night Away" and the like. The lineage of Southern Soul songs descended from the soul "party" as defined by Sam Cooke would have to include, among others:

David Brinston's "Party 'Til The Lights Go
Out,"
Lee "Shot" William's "Somebody's After My Freak,"
Frank Mendenhall's "Party With Me Tonight,"
Theodis Ealey's Stand Up In It,"
Mel Waiters' "Hole In The Wall,"
and The Love Doctor's "Slow Roll It."

--In short, most of the Southern Soul party classics of the last decade. Young people might raise their eyebrows at the inclusion of "Chain Gang" in a list of "light" songs. But your Daddy B. Nice grew up to "Chain Gang," and I know the effect it had on both the high-schoolers and the grade-schoolers, as we were called then. People danced to "Chain Gang." People sang along with the words. People swayed and twisted to its lilting Caribbean beat. The gymnasium sock-hoppers took the words ironically, as Sam Cooke's vocal seemed not only to permit but encourage, the dancers mimicking every "Oooh!" and "Ahhh!" with their own timed cries and contortions. It was also a frequent line-dance song, cued up behind the Diamonds' "The Stroll," whose tempo was only a bit slower.

This was mainstream America, if there is any such thing, a school up north as far as you could get--both geographically and culturally--from the chitlin' circuit. But unlike today's balkanized and tragically detached-from-its-audience music industry, the fifties' and sixties' music scenes brooked no exclusions and no favorites, black or white. And therefore, unlike today, if we listened to the radio enough and stayed up late enough, we got to hear it all. (All of Cooke's most popular party songs, by the way, were produced by Italian New Yorkers, Hugo and Luigi.) If it was good enough to hum, if it was good enough to dance to, it played on the air waves. Much of that had to do with artists like Sam Cooke.

Cooke transcended what had been called "race" music, just as the Beatles and Bob Dylan would transcend what had been called pop and folk music. But contrary to what some chroniclers imply, he wasn't the only popularizer of soul music in its broadest terms. Cab Calloway had inspired countless musicians and fans (right down to the present day--that's where Busta Rhymes got his facial expressions), and Louis Armstrong had blazed a pioneering path through mainstream listening tastes, bringing an armchair-easy comfort level with R&B to all who were willing to see beyond the red herring of "jungle music."

Nat King Cole was Cooke's immediate predecessor, and his fans cut cross all ethnic borders. Considered tame now, his early work and early performances (when he distinctly resembled this era's Snoop Doggy Dog) cut across all racial borders, and singers like Johnny Mathis, Fats Domino, Lou Rawls and Harry Belafonte were not only wildly popular but extremely influential and successful.

Cooke, though, defined a kind of soul music, a distinctly new and original sound, that the others only hinted at. And in the next few years thousands of young, aspiring, African-American singers (and not a few Caucasion ones) would listen to Cooke's music and think, "Hey, I could do that."

Listen to the "Crossing Over" Documentary About Sam Cooke on YouTube.

The contemporary reader needs to be reminded that rock and roll was the stepchild of R&B: black-influenced popular dance music geared to the white young. Consider a rock and roll classic like Eddie Cochran's "C'mon Everybody," which rock critic Dave Marsh has called the "greatest invitation to a party" in rock and roll. Cochran's irrepressible rocker was simply another expression of the seemingly tossed-off Cooke standard, "Having A Party."

Sam Cooke's compositions and vocal stylings spawned all the greatest soul acts of the sixties--the Temptations, the Supremes, the Four Tops, the Impressions--and his influence continued in the seventies with bands like the Delfonics, the Blue-Notes and the Commodores. In a more Southern Soul vein, Cooke plowed the way for Gladys Knight, Brook Benton, Clarence Carter and Johnnie Taylor.

The first and perhaps most significant popular Sam Cooke song was "You Send Me." Without "You Send Me" (1957) there would have been no "Stand By Me" by Ben E. King (1961), and without those two soul classics there would have been, for example, no Chi-lites' "Have You Seen Her" (1971). One could make any number of similar diagrams tracing soul music's lineage back to Cooke originals.

Cooke's "You Send Me" was followed by "Wonderful World," "Chain Gang," "Cupid," "Nothing Can Change This Love," "Twistin' The Night Away," "Little Red Rooster," "Frankie and Johnny," "Another Saturday Night," "Send Me Some Lovin'," "Good News," "Good Times" and "Shake" on the popular charts: hits across the nation and, eventually, the world.

Not that any of them came close to the posthumous breakthrough represented by "A Change Is Gonna Come." Cooke's masterwork peaked at mid-chart in "Billboard," even though Percy Sledge's "When A Man Loves A Woman" (which leaned on it, or shall we say, learned from it) soared to the top a year later.

Cooke's career can be said to have had three phases--the gospel period, the rock and roll period, and the period we can only imagine, the period of unrealized expectations, the period of musing on all Sam Cooke could have done if he hadn't died so abruptly. While Sam Cooke pre-dates almost every other soul musician (that's why he's so often referred to as the first), he nevertheless was cut down in mid-career. Thus he'll always be remembered as a young man, full of unrealized potential, a man who barely scratched the surface of his artistry.

At times like these, it's best to open the R&B bible to the page and verse that goes something like this. . .

"Sam Cooke begat Marvin Gaye, who begat Curtis Mayfield, who begat Al Green, who begat Stevie Wonder. . . "

That's probably enough--and in any case, that's the way it is.

--Daddy B. Nice


About Sam Cooke

Sam Cooke was born in one of the most renowned of all delta-blues towns, Clarksdale, Mississippi, in 1931. His father, a Baptist minister, moved the family to Chicago, where--before he was even a teen--the young Sam was singing in a gospel group called the Singing Children with his siblings. A few years later, the teen-aged Sam joined another gospel group, the Teen Highway QC's, where his talent gained an even larger audience.

In 1950, one of the most respected gospel groups in the country--the Soul Stirrers--lost their lead singer, R. H. Harris. Sam Cooke replaced him, and one of the most remarkable and original gospel groups of the post-war years was born. The Soul Stirrers with Sam Cooke developed a style that was simultaneously reverential and accessible, derived from Cooke's gradual daring in permitting the more vernacular and natural tones of daily speech to permeate his lead vocals.
Cooke's melismatic growls influenced younger secular singers such as James Brown as much as they did his gospel peers, and the Soul Stirrers continued to grow in popularity in the highly competitive world of gospel music, arguably reaching a zenith with "Touch The Hem Of His Garment."

By the mid-fifties Cooke was eager to make the move to secular music. His first single, "Lovable," was published in 1956. But it was his second single, "You Send Me," that found favor with the public. It entered the Top 20 Pop charts in October of 1957 and remained a best-seller for the better part of a year.

Looking back from the 21st century, it is hard to convey the revolutionary impact of the recording. All of what the world now thinks of as "soul" or "R&B" has imitated its style, rendering the traits that made it so unique little more than contemporary cliches. However, at the time, no one had fused such emotional depth (the gospel influence) with such a slick and mellifluous presentation. Nat King Cole had achieved a remarkably smooth and accessible style, but it was still rooted in the modern jazz stylings and the Tin Pan Alley-style songwriting so prevalent in the war and post-war years.

"You Send Me" was a complete departure in form--a truly original amalagam of gospel, pop and blues that yet transcended and sounded nothing like those genres. The term "inventor of soul music" was by no means immediately bestowed upon the young singer, but the professional music world and the bubbling cauldron of young artists around the world instantly took notice.

Within a couple of years Sam Cooke moved on to big-label RCA and released a series of albums, and a series of Top 40 pop hits, but with mixed aesthetic results. As a leading popular singer of the day, he was nothing if not eclectic, and many of the tunes he recorded were trendy, lightweight and faddish. Yet even the most trite tunes he released during this period were often redeemed by his honey-rich vocal timbre and the hard-to-define soulful residue inherent in his vocal stylings.

His concert dates of the period, including the famed Copa (in New York) and Harlem Square (in Miami) dates, ranged from vanilla (in front of white audiences) to gritty and passionate (in front of black audiences). And it was Sam Cooke's wish, the majority of his fans would probably agree, to somehow take the next artistic step: that is, to take the "gritty and passionate" element of his material to the same level of fame, popularity and sales as his "light" work.

Two major events were taking place in popular music at this time. Bob Dylan had taken folk-singing to a new level, making it both more meaningful and more popular. And the Beatles, an unknown British group, had come out with an astounding new sound--raw, passionate, gritty, and eminently danceable--that belied their innocent lyrics. Not only that. Other British bands, less well-known but also gaining popularity, were putting out albums of electrified blues.

Such was the mileu in which Cooke composed and produced "A Change Is Gonna Come." Letting his aesthetic horizons expand with a breath-of-fresh-air, newfound freedom, Cooke poured out all of his vision and pent-up passion, forging a masterpiece ("A Change Is Gonna Come") that instantly relegated everything else in his catalog to a secondary status.

Then, before the record was even released--December 11, 1964--the singer was killed in a violent but obscure altercation in a California motel. Forgotten to a large extent in the rush of assassinations that rocked the country throughout the tumultuous decade, Sam Cooke's death nevertheless cut short a career that to this day hints more of "what could have been" than the material Cooke actually left behind. The exception is the masterpiece, "A Change Is Gonna Come," which Cooke enthusiasts among contemporary deejays throughout the Deep South and indeed throughout the world play with a frequency and fervor that belies the fact the song was released nearly half a century ago.


Song's Transcendent Moment

Impossible to say. The entire song is transcendent.


Tidbits

1. January 19, 2007.

Want to send a shiver up your spine? Listen to the Sam Cooke version of the standard, "Summertime." Little-known now, it will reward the listener by sounding absolutely new. What's most awe-provoking is how Sam Cooke transforms the record and makes it his own. DBN.

2. May 31, 2014: Sam Cooke on YouTube

Listen to Sam Cooke singing "A Change Is Gonna Come" on YouTube.

Listen to Sam Cooke singing "You Send Me" on YouTube.

Listen to Sam Cooke singing "Chain Gang" on YouTube.

Listen to Sam Cooke singing "Bring It On Home To Me" on YouTube.

Listen to Sam Cooke singing "Wonderful World (Don't Know Much About History)" on YouTube.

Listen to Sam Cooke singing "Another Saturday Night" on YouTube.

Listen to Sam Cooke singing "Having A Party" on YouTube.

Listen to Sam Cooke singing "Twistin' The Night Away" on YouTube.

Listen to Sam Cooke singing "Cupid" on YouTube.

Listen to an oral biography of Sam Cooke on YouTube.





If You Liked. . . You'll Love

If you loved the Impressions' "People Get Ready," and somehow lived this long without ever hearing Sam Cooke, you'll love Sam Cooke's, "A Change Is Gonna Come."


EDITOR'S NOTE

In the late nineties, when I first began to visualize a charting of Southern Soul music, my overriding motive was to correct what I perceived to be a grievous wrong. When I searched the Internet for information on the great artists I heard on radio stations on my trips through the South, I could find nothing about them. I was able to find information on blues and soul artists up to about the 1980's, but anything more contemporary was still a "dark continent"--unknown, unexplored and unmemorialized. Even "southern soul" was a suspect term, used mainly as an adjective to describe older artists geographically tied to the Deep South.

To help right that wrong, I went about constructing a Top 100 chart of the best Southern Soul artists from the 90's to the present, and I profiled those performers in "artist guides". But when I had finished that chart (Daddy B. Nice's Top 100), I again found myself faced with a wrong. This time the oversight was my lack of attention to the artists whose best material had been recorded prior to the 90's and 00's, artists without whom the Southern Soul phenomenon would never have occurred. Yes, one could find information on these performers on the Internet, but not up-to-date information, and not in the context of contemporary Southern Soul.

That is what brought me to formulate the chart you are reading: "Forerunners." Rhythm & Blues as it's played, appreciated and revered in the Deep South. The Golden Oldies of the Chitlin' Circuit. The artists who "count" and the songs that "matter" to the artists, producers and deejays who understand and create the Southern Soul sound. And that's different--although not altogether different--from the soul music many of us grew up listening to outside the Deep South. Although fans may be coming to this music long after it was first recorded, I believe it will only whet their appetite for Southern Soul music all the more. DBN.


Honorary "B" Side

"Having A Party"



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Sample or Buy A Change Is Gonna Come by Sam  Cooke
A Change Is Gonna Come


CD: Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964
Label: ABKCO

Sample or Buy
Portrait Of A Legend 1951-1964


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Sample or Buy Having A Party by Sam  Cooke
Having A Party


CD: Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964
Label: ABKCO

Sample or Buy
Portrait Of A Legend 1951-1964


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Sample or Buy (Somebody) Ease My Troubled Mind by Sam  Cooke
(Somebody) Ease My Troubled Mind


CD: Keep Movin' On
Label: ABKCO

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Keep Movin' On


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Sample or Buy Bring It On Home To Me by Sam  Cooke
Bring It On Home To Me


CD: Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964
Label: ABKCO

Sample or Buy
Portrait Of A Legend 1951-1964


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Sample or Buy Chain Gang by Sam  Cooke
Chain Gang


CD: Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964
Label: ABKCO

Sample or Buy
Portrait Of A Legend 1951-1964


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Sample or Buy Rome Wasn't Built In A Day by Sam  Cooke
Rome Wasn't Built In A Day


CD: Keep Movin' On
Label: ABKCO

Sample or Buy
Keep Movin' On


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Sample or Buy Touch The Hem Of His Garment by Sam  Cooke
Touch The Hem Of His Garment


CD: & The Soul Stirrers: His Earliest Recordings
Label: Specialty



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Sample or Buy You Send Me by Sam  Cooke
You Send Me


CD: Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964
Label: ABKCO

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Portrait Of A Legend 1951-1964


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Sample or Buy Cupid by Sam  Cooke
Cupid


CD: Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964
Label: ABKCO

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Portrait Of A Legend 1951-1964


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Sample or Buy Sugar Dumpling by Sam  Cooke
Sugar Dumpling


CD: Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964
Label: ABKCO

Sample or Buy
Portrait Of A Legend 1951-1964


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Sample or Buy Twistin' The Night Away by Sam  Cooke
Twistin' The Night Away


CD: Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964
Label: ABKCO

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Portrait Of A Legend 1951-1964


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Sample or Buy One More River by Sam  Cooke
One More River


CD: & The Soul Stirrers: His Earliest Recordings
Label: Specialty



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Sample or Buy Shake by Sam  Cooke
Shake


CD: Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964
Label: ABKCO

Sample or Buy
Portrait Of A Legend 1951-1964


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Sample or Buy Win Your Love (For Me) by Sam  Cooke
Win Your Love (For Me)


CD: Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964
Label: ABKCO

Sample or Buy
Portrait Of A Legend 1951-1964


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