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Review: Sam Cooke, “The RCA Albums Collection”

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In 1963, RCA Victor dubbed its young star Sam Cooke “Mr. Soul” as the title of his latest LP.  Today, few would argue with that appellation as we remember the roof- (and consciousness-) raising “A Change is Gonna Come,” the ultimate festive anthem “Havin’ a Party” or the bluesy R&B “Chain Gang.”  But Mr. Soul, the album, offered a more complex portrait of the artist, offering “These Foolish Things,” “I Wish You Love” and “Cry Me a River” alongside Ahmet Ertegun’s “Chains of Love,” Johnny Moore’s “Driftin’ Blues” and Cooke’s own “Nothing Can Change This Love.” Mr. Soul is one of eight albums included in Legacy’s Sam Cooke: The RCA Albums Collection (RCA/Legacy 8869789870 2), a limited edition release available exclusively through PopMarket.  Five of the albums are making their worldwide CD debuts; a sixth was previously only released on CD in Europe.  Taken together, the new box set offers an alternate history of the singer we all thought we knew.

The RCA Albums Collection isn’t a definitive Cooke box set; in fact, one doesn’t yet exist.  (RCA, in its pre-Sony incarnation, released the well-regarded The Man Who Invented Soul, but that box lacked some seminal tracks due to legal wrangling with ABKCO, the Allen Klein-founded company which owns a number of Cooke’s late-era masters.)  But The RCA Albums Collection does fill a significant gap in the discography of “Mr. Soul,” with five of its titles returning to print for the first time in nearly 50 years.  And isn’t that cause for celebration? 

Cooke was no stranger himself to celebration as a member of The Soul Stirrers, the gospel aggregation that first recorded in 1936 though the group was formed even earlier.  Cooke joined the Soul Stirrers in 1950 at the age of 19, replacing the venerable Rebert H. (R.H.) Harris as lead singer.  Harris, with his high tenor, three-octave range, mastery of the melisma and propensity for wailing and moaning, was the model for generations of gospel singers to come, including Cooke.  Harris departed the group after recording just one session at Art Rupe’s Specialty Records, leaving the door wide open for Sam to make his mark on the influential group.  Cooke’s transition to popular music wasn’t an immediate one, and his debut pop single “Lovable” was actually released under a pseudonym in 1956 so as not to alienate his core audience.  But when the singer fully embraced secular music, he brought to it the same fervor he applied to gospel, along with his signature “Whoa-oo-oo” wail.  This may have been his major contribution to popular music and indeed to “soul” as we now know it.  While Cooke wrote much of his own pop material, he also demonstrated an affinity for the music of the Great American Songbook.  It’s actually said that his departure from Specialty was brought on when Rupe found him recording Gershwin rather than Little Richard-esque rock and roll.  Yet most Cooke compilations have completely ignored this sophisticated side of the man’s titanic talent.  The RCA Albums Collection rectifies this, including his most significant attempts at courting the crossover adult audience.

Hit the jump for more!

After departing Specialty, Cooke’s first destination was Keen Records.  1957’s Sam Cooke was his first album of standards, but the concept of reaching adults as well as teens wasn’t a new one; the Gershwins’ “Summertime” (from Porgy and Bess) was the flip of “You Send Me” on 45!  His second album, Encores, featured both big band and rhythm section arrangements, and 1959’s Tribute to the Lady, saluting Billie Holiday, even boasted jazz great Benny Carter supporting Cooke.  The promise of a $100,000.00 advance led Cooke to RCA Victor in 1960.  He began his tenure there with his sixth studio LP, Cooke’s Tour, also the first of the seven consecutive albums contained in the box set.  (The eighth disc, Live at the Harlem Square Club, was posthumously released in 1986.)

Joan Whitney and Alex Kramer’s “Far Away Places,” appropriately enough, kicks off Cooke’s Tour, a concept travelogue most likely modeled after such efforts as Frank Sinatra’s Come Fly with Me and the Bing Crosby/Rosemary Clooney Fancy Meeting You Here.  Glenn Osser, known for his arrangements for artists such as the smoothly romantic Johnny Mathis, joined Cooke and producers Hugo Winterhalter and Luigi Creatore.  With orchestrations designed to evoke the exotic locale of each song, many play like soundtrack recordings, albeit from non-existent films!  Cooke sounds somewhat restrained on this LP, letting the orchestra do the heavy lifting.  He takes on three songs most closely identified with Frank Sinatra (“South of the Border,” “The Coffee Song” and “The House I Live In,” which Sinatra introduced in an Academy Award-winning short film in 1945) but as Sinatra’s versions of the first two weren’t yet the standard, he’s free to find his own interpretations.   “South of the Border” doesn’t swing hard, swathed in not-quite-Latin strings, and “The Coffee Song” is fun even if it doesn’t percolate, as on Sinatra’s Ring-a-Ding Ding! recording.  Cooke was no stranger to Sinatra, recording “Oh!  Look at Me Now” as early as 1957.  Cooke has fun with the world tour concept, and shines in Osser’s bold and bright arrangements; he would retain Osser to score “Chain Gang.”  But their next joint LP, Hits of the 1950s, is an even more comfortable fit.

Hits of the 1950s most recalls a lounge-like atmosphere, thanks to Eddie Costa’s prevalent vibes and Julius Baker’s flute lightly weaving through.  But there’s more than a hint of soul and passion as Cooke always extends and emotes just the right word or syllable.  Despite the title, it’s not merely a collection of overplayed songs, and the “hits” are drawn from a variety of sources including stage (The Pajama Game’s “Hey There”) and screen (Calamity Jane’s “Secret Love” and the theme from Moulin Rouge).  With “Mona Lisa,” Cooke tackles the oeuvre of Nat “King” Cole, another artist who “crossed over,” though in Cole’s case it was from pure jazz to pop.  “Venus” is a highlight, with Cooke’s vocals a world away from Frankie Avalon’s!

With each album, Cooke tried a different formula.  Sammy Lowe was the arranger responsible for the next two in the box, Sam Cooke, or Swing Low, and My Kind of Blues.  Both arrived in 1961.  Swing Low was loosely themed around “songs from another era.”  In a return to the singer’s roots, some prominently feature a spiritual or gospel bent.  On an album where even Stephen Foster is represented (“Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair”), the more recent compositions also evoke the past (“Twilight on the Trail”).  The album was billed as “Folk Favorites,” but if the album isn’t pure folk, it’s in the country and Americana veins.  The western swing of “They Call the Wind Maria,” from Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s Paint Your Wagon, is strongly appealing, and Cooke recorded a rarity from Once Upon a Mattress lyricist Marshall Barer, “I’m Just a Country Boy.”  Smack in the middle of the album, are three Cooke compositions, including the familiar hit “Chain Gang.”  It’s not a great stylistic shift, though, as the song is a modern spin on a folk-styled “work song.”   For My Kind of Blues, the emphasis was on My Kind, not The Blues, as the LP was Cooke’s most concerted effort yet at RCA to mine The Great American Songbook.  The songs of Rodgers and Hart, George and Ira Gershwin and Irving Berlin all appeared.  A collection of straight ahead swingers, it just might be the most wholly cohesive album in the box.

After the lush adult pop of My Kind of Blues, Cooke jumped on the twist bandwagon with Twistin’ the Night Away in his first true LP attempt to court a teen audience.  (Whereas singles were often geared toward the youth market, albums were largely thought of as the province of adults.)  Twistin’ was built around the title single (“His smash hit…plus 11 more like it!!!!,” reads the back cover copy) and for the first time, Cooke wrote more than half of the album himself, including one co-write with Lou Rawls, “Movin’ and a-Groovin’.”  The smooth version of Hank Ballard’s original “Twist” is refreshing, without the screams of the familiar Chubby Checker recording.  I’m not sure whether anybody actually twisted to “Camptown Twist,” Cooke’s reworking of Stephen Foster’s folk song (“Do dah, do dah”), but it’s telling that the forward-thinking Cooke had claimed this song so often associated with the minstrel tradition.

Cooke left the dance craze behind for Mr. Soul under the baton of Horace Ott.  Again, he makes a familiar Sinatra song his own with a slinky, cocktail rendition of “All the Way.”  Rene Hall, the conductor and arranger of Twistin’ the Night Away, returned for the final studio album in the box, Night Beat.  Ironically, it’s a much more blues-oriented album than My Kind of Blues, with Cooke passionately emoting on songs like “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” “Mean Old World,” “Troube Blues” and “I Lost Everything.”

The raw Live at the Harlem Square Club 1963 rounds out the box.  It’s a completely distinct listen from Cooke’s At the Copa, a 1964 RCA album (on CD from ABKCO).  Copa concentrated on the swankier side of Cooke; “Chain Gang” isn’t even present on the Copa album but on Harlem, it’s transformed with King Curtis’ gutsy saxophone instead of Osser’s strings.  It’s telling that RCA chose to release Copa but left the comparatively gritty Harlem Square on the shelf for twenty-plus years.  But who knows what direction Cooke would have pursued had his life not been tragically cut short in December 1964?  Biographer Daniel Wolff asserts that on the evening Cooke died, he told friend Al Schmitt that he was planning another album of standards and traditional blues, again inspired by Lady Day, Billie Holiday.  But whatever musical path Sam Cooke took, he delivered with conviction and that searing, soulful voice.

All of the albums in The RCA Album Collection are presented in stereo.  Vic Anesini has remastered the first six albums for optimal sound with his customary skill.  The final two albums are heard in the Bob Ludwig remasters from their most recent reissues.  (For another view on Night Beat, you might wish to seek out the Analogue Productions SACD.)  The 22-page booklet includes a too-short essay by Stuart Colman of about three pages’ length and a number of fine black-and-white photographs; the remainder thankfully consists of full discographical information for each album including personnel, recording dates, catalogue numbers and chart placements.  Each disc is housed in a sturdy mini-LP sleeve, and each CD label bears the classic black RCA Victor style and logo.   The physical box isn’t quite chintzy but it’s not the same league as deluxe packages from Legacy a la Aretha Franklin’s Take a Look: Complete On Columbia.  (That set is worth exploring for anyone left wanting more from the Cooke box; it, too, is devoted to a singular “soul” artist’s work in largely unexpected genres.)  The cardboard box is the most basic of outer packages with album graphics on the back, and a standard cover style uniform to this series with no artist photo.  This series is priced quite reasonably, so if the boxes are no-frills, the sets are still a steal, comparatively speaking.

Sam Cooke: The RCA Albums Collection is a particularly timely release, as enterprising labels in the U.K. have already begun taking advantage of copyright laws there to release some of the box’s material on CD in sub-par sound.  It joins similar sets currently offered for Stan Getz, Return to Forever and The Byrds, but for collectors seeking out-of-print material, this is the collection to beat.  Until producer Rob Santos can assemble a complete box set from the vaults of both RCA and ABKCO, The RCA Albums Collection remains a striking reminder of why many consider Sam Cooke to, indeed, be the man who invented soul; his matchless synthesis of gospel, pop and rhythm and blues is as inspirational today as it was nearly fifty years ago.

Written by Joe Marchese

June 21, 2011 at 12:06

Posted in Box Sets, Reissues, Reviews, Sam Cooke

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4 Responses

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  1. To my understanding, while it’s technically true that Allen Klein started ABKCO, in name, the company formerly was called Tracey Limited and was started by Sam Cooke. Cooke’s wife, Barbara, sold her interest to Allen Klein following Cooke’s death. After that, it became ABKCO, named after Allen and his wife Betty Klein, hence, ABKCO.

    Fantastic review, Joe! I, too, was a bit underwhelmed by the material of the box and the cheesy art on the front, and the relative lack of liners. Following a very nice package by the Aretha Columbia set, though, I guess my expectations were rather high for packaging. Given that, though, I’d much rather have the music than nice packaging and fully understand that my gripe about the packaging is trivial at best.

    Eric Luecking

    June 21, 2011 at 13:24

  2. Too bad Bear Family did not get a license to issue Sam Cooke


    June 21, 2011 at 16:38

  3. I just received this boxset, thanks to the tip from this review. I will say that the box cover takes the prize for the worst boxset cover design ever. It’s amazing that a graphic artist (credited in the booklet) was paid for the design. Just take any photo of Sam Cooke, and you would have a superior cover.

    The packaging of the CDs themselves, cardboard mini sleeves, is OK, but I wish that American designers who choose mini-sleeves would show the care and respect for the CDs themselves that the Japanese show. The Japanese mini-LP sleeves for CDs always use an inner sleeve (tyvek, fabric or mylar) that protects the CD. American companies are so obsessed with trimming every penny that they will not provide this CD protection, then they make their cardboard sleeves so tight that you cannot add an inner sleeve at your own cost.

    The music? It is Sam Cooke’s voice after all. Thank you, SONY for finally releasing this, though I really would have loved it if they added a mono mix on each disc. These recordings were all superior in the mono mix. Far superior.


    June 28, 2011 at 15:44

  4. Ixnay on the mono mix cheerleading! Thank God Sony released these vintage albums in stereo. I didn’t even like mono in the ’60s. I will have more to say after I’ve finished listening to the box set.

    Stuffed Animal

    November 26, 2011 at 12:52

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