Who was Sam Cooke?
Consult such classics as "Having a Party," "Cupid," "Only Sixteen" or "Twistin' the Night Away," and the visions they spin are of romance and bliss, good times and innocence, all the stuff of an untroubled "Happy Days" adolescence.
It isn't the material so much as it is Cooke's smooth, guileless soul croon that does the trick. Even something as seemingly sobering as "Chain Gang," with its regretful refrain of "My work is so hard," finds his effortless, ecstatic delivery filling the music with light and charm, as if the road gang had somehow wandered in off the frames of Walt Disney's "Song of the South."
Turn to "Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963" (RCA AFL1-5181), however, and the picture changes drastically. Here, Cooke's voice is raw and raspy, his phrasing loose and improvisatory. Instead of presenting the songs as visions of some abstract ideal, he brings the lyrics down to earth with spoken interjections and ironic asides. There's enough of his basic sound and style that the original appeal of the hits still lingers, but the gutsy vitality of Cooke's performance adds an entirely new resonance to their meaning.
It's almost like hearing an entirely new Sam Cooke.
In truth, though, it's more like hearing the missing part of the real Sam Cooke, for as much as that suave crooner represented the singer's best pop instincts, this exultant soul man was the performer beloved throughout the South. It's just that until now, only that former side turned up on record.
True, Cooke's gospel days with the Soul Stirrers presented an equal measure of both, although within the boundaries of gospel restraint. But where his pop optimism was in part a legacy of these same vocal devices, applied in gospel to pull joy out of suffering, hope out of adversity, another, more significant aspect to Cooke's upbeat sound was an awareness of his audience: Most white record buyers of the early '60s didn't want their music cluttered with raw emotions.
The crowd at Miami's Harlem Square Club needed no such coddling, however, and on this album, Cooke wastes no time getting down to business. Backed by a band combining his own sidemen with King Curtis' group, Cooke worked his way through hits ranging from party numbers like "Having a Party" and "Twistin' the Night Away" to such schlock ballads as "For Sentimental Reasons," imbuing it all with an unremitting vitality and sweaty exuberance.
But the key to this album is the way Cooke worked his audience, preaching and cajoling, drawing them into his performance with practiced ease and contagious enthusiasm. During "Nothing Can Change This Love," he sings believably of heading to the bus station with a cardboard valise, then adds in a telling aside, "Can you imagine me carrying one of them suitcases?" Of course not, but at the moment, the listener very easily can, so easy is it to feel transported by the charisma of Cooke's delivery. It's in such instances that Cooke shows how to apply his gospel spirit to pop music, and in so doing works miracles.
Much of the same power and conviction can be heard in Bobby Womack's "Some Day We'll All Be Free" (Beverly Glen BG 10006). It's almost an inheritance from Cooke, for Womack was first recorded by the singer (with his brothers as the Valentinos), played guitar in his road band and ended up marrying his widow. But where Cooke tended to streamline his vocal style for mass consumption, Bobby Womack has made something of a trademark of his voice's rough edges, allowing it to lend his singing the same sort of emotional credibility Cooke exhibited at the Harlem Square Club. When applied to material as wrenching and spiritually rich as the title song, Womack's voice is riveting.
The best material on "Some Day We'll All Be Free" comes from Cecil and Linda Womack, who as Womack & Womack have just released their second album, "Radio M.U.S.C. Man" (Elektra 9 60406-1). This duo's connection to the Cooke tradition is even more direct, since Cecil played in the Valentinos and Sam was Linda's father, but their sound is considerably more contemporary. Fueled by James Gadson's savvy backbeat, their songs are rhythmically insistent and packed with all sorts of hi-tech sonic detail. Nonetheless, the songs focus on emotions as basic and vivid as any in the soul canon.
Few writers, in fact, can approach the uneasy truth of married life as well as Cecil and Linda Womack. From the self-delusion of "Maze," with its acid-edged hooks, to the tart, Philly soul regret of "Romeo & Juliet (where are you?)," the Womacks clearly evoke the disappointments and struggle of two people trying to come to terms with living as one.
But there's no sense of bitterness or anger to the music; instead, what the listener hears is the sound of problems being worked out, griefs being erased. No wonder, then, that the album ends in almost palpable delight with a wistful, warm rendition of "Here Comes the Sun." Like the best soul music, "Radio M.U.S.C. Man" is intended as an uplifting experience, and it succeeds marvelously.