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PRINT Summer 1985

From Sam Cooke in Heaven

IT WAS JANUARY 1963. He was just 32, he was at the peak of his career, the songs came like water, and the radio turned water into wine. There was nothing he couldn’t do but live out the next two years.

He had come into Miami to play a date at the Harlem Square Club, a big place holding more than 2000 people. About halfway through the third set—somewhere around 2 A.M., perhaps—he eased out of “Somebody Have Mercy,” a rewrite of a number that was already old when Blind Lemon Jefferson recorded it in 1927 as “Match Box Blues.” The guitarist hit a minor chord—a naked sound, nothing near it but the crowd’s anticipation. It hung in the air for an instant, and then Sam Cooke-once a professional gospel singer with the Soul Stirrers, “turned out” into worldly music as “Dale” Cooke in 1956, from then on a pop star under his own name, now “Mr. Soul” to black America as represented before him this night—began to testify.

This was how the entire show was structured. Cooke would slip away from a tune with a little epigrammatic comment drawn from its lyric—“Yeah, we surely can twist the night away,” etc.—then move another step past the previous song with two or three more seemingly preordained phrases—“Are you ready now?”—building toward the introduction to the song to come, talking and praising, then sliding a few words from that next song into the patter. Some of this was rehearsed down to the last inflection; some of it wasn’t.

Here he simply repeated “Somebody have mercy,” almost as if talking to himself, and then began to wind his way into a complicated story about how his lover had left him, how it was his fault, what a trial it had been for him to understand that, how much he still loved her (well, even if it wasn’t his fault he’d be willing to say it was if that’s what it’d take to get her back), how he tried to call her, fussing with the operator—it’s all comic, but each word of the story as it comes from his chest is a little bigger than the one before it, building to the point where release will have to come. That minor chord is still ringing out, again and again, the band is now following very lightly, and the story turns serious: he’s got his lover on the line, he has one chance to convince her, and what he has to tell her is—“You send me.”

It was his first hit, a number-one record almost five years before this night (the only number-one record he would ever have, as it turned out), and just to mention the words of its title would have been enough to thrill the crowd. Here he takes just a chorus, and declaiming, not singing, driving every bit of himself into each word—“YOU” “SEND” “ME”—transforms each word into an epic. There’s no beginning to what he makes “YOU” say, and no end. Each word becomes a Jacob’s ladder, and slowly, so that you can feel his every muscle tightening, every drop of sweat falling, he climbs up three times, descends three times, just to make sure the gates are open. Having glimpsed what’s on the other side, who wouldn’t want another look?

It’s a fabulous tease—speaking in a hit-song code that makes the fans co-conspirators in their own orchestration, holding out the prospect of the biggest hit, delaying the shift into the song proper until you can’t believe hell ever get to it and can’t believe he won’t, until you’d almost sell your soul for the sweetness of the moment when the band will tumble into the familiar melody. This night, it’s not a tease at all. In these few melodramatic spoken cadences—great, seeking wails, a sound that must predate the mathematical abstraction the language names as music—more is being taken from the song that is not even being sung than was ever put into it. In 1957 “You Send Me” had defined Cooke’s style, the smooth-voiced, smooth-faced young black man not assaulting the charts but making himself and everyone who heard him comfortable on them, so that each new song on the radio came forth as a pleasant, reassuring smile. Now there is no song, only the title phrase, stolen from the hit—and for the man on the telephone with his gone-and-left-me baby they are just the only three words that will do. He’s desperate, a whole life staked on them, then laughing, a whole life redeemed: if she can resist this she not human. He’s shouting, screaming, the band now hammering with all it’s got at a fanfare that rises and falls, rises and falls, until there can’t be anything left that these three words could ever communicate, no reason for him ever to sing the song itself again.

And so he doesn’t. Without losing the beat of his story—he’s still on the telephone-or the edge the band has secretly built up, he says, “I tell her, now listen here baby, I want you to listen to this song right here for me, got to tell you how I feel right now, this song will tell you how I feel” (and the band is already playing it, a melody just as familiar and far more dramatic than “You Send Me” could ever have been is creeping up like smoke from beneath the floorboards, and he reacts as if he’s suddenly heard it, as if the fact that the place is on fire has only now made it clear to him exactly what he has to say), “I know you been gone away from me for a long time, but listen—”

BABY—IF YOU EVER
CHANGE YOUR MIND
ABOUT LEAVING
ME BEHIND

It’s “Bring It On Home to Me,” a hit from 1962. The record has been on the radio for 23 years and I’ve never liked it. It’s sounded pinched, formal, a picture of soul music instead of the thing itself (maybe the problem was the stiff Lou Rawls backing vocals). Compared to the grace of “Wonderful World,” the looseness of “Having a Party,” the surge of “Twistin the Night Away,” or the plain emotional sweep of “A Change Is Gonna Come,” this has always seemed more a song made to satisfy the demands of a genre than a song living in the world. Here it breaks me in half. When he reaches the pause between “Baby” and the first line, I want to drop to my knees. There’s no Lou Rawls; there’s just the drummer clumsily bashing the cymbals, King Curtis horn section swaying like wind in the trees, men and women in the audience calling out encouragement—when Cooke shouts for them to say Yeah they don’t say it, they sing it, putting on harmonies, one implacable cry coming from a woman somewhere out front—and the man himself. He was hoarse the minute he hit the stage, but now he’s offering his whole body, not just his voice—when he stretches, shakes, wrings out the word “tried” in the last verse he opens up a whirlpool of feeling so fierce the song is almost sucked right into it, almost disappears right there.

This isn’t like the music being made today. It isn’t like the music Sam Cooke was known for, either. Before he was shot to death in a strange incident in a Los Angeles motel in December 1964, his record company, RCA, had done its best to turn him into some combination of Johnny Mathis and Harry Belafonte. The last album to be released before his death was another live set: At the Copa, featuring such timeless shlock as “Bill Bailey” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club is the great lost Sam Cooke album, until this year only a rumor, now released thanks to Gregg Geller of RCA and to Joe McEwen, Cooke’s sole biographer, who suggested Geller seek it out in the vaults.

This is a landmark in the history of American music; superbly recorded in stereo more than 22 years ago, it is still a shock. “Bring It On Home to Me” may be the high point, or it may be only the most obvious triumph. There are eight more numbers here—a full, uncut, unedited performance—and endless pleasures. If it doesn’t make your summer you’ve got winter on your mind.

Greil Marcus