Classical Music

Sam Cooke's Existential Night of the Soul

'50s and '60s-era fans of singer, composer and producer Sam Cooke, even those who were suspicious of Cooke's transition from Gospel as the lead singer of the successful group the Soul Stirrers to a pioneering popular musical style we know today as Soul, couldn't resist singing along to his pop hits. "Darling you-oo-oo-ooo send me." "Cokes are in the fridge." "Cupid, pull back your bow-oh-woe." "I got some money, cos' I just got paid." "Everybody's feeling great! They're twistin' the night away!" Chain Gang may have been the only hint of sadness in the midst of all of this celebrating.

Then in 1963 after several hit records, Cooke recorded this:

So stark. Just upright bass, ride cymbal, and Cooke's voice. "Lost and Looking" is the second track on Cooke's concept record Night Beat, a recording that is, in the words of Cooke biographer Peter Guralnick: " of those moments of pure transcendence that can only arrive mysterious and unbidden even in the midst of the most fully committed creative life." Along with other great late night records including Frank Sinatra sings for Only the Lonely, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, or Chet Baker's Let's Get Lost, the subject matter and mood of Night Beat has all the power of ancient ritual and poetry.

"You who set our beloved land--storm-tossed, shattered-- straight on course. Now again, good helmsman, steer us through the storm!" Chorus, from Sophocles' Oedipus the King

The lengths we go to escape fate is the theme of the classic Greek tragedy Oedipus the King. Composer Igor Stravinsky's stylized and austere setting of the Sophocles play for orchestra, male chorus, soloists, and speaker, began with his desire to: "...concentrate the listener's whole attention on the music, which then becomes text and plot." The plot in this case is a story and theme already familiar to many modern audiences. The Latin translation created from a French text by Jean Cocteau after Sophocles' play, exists as phonetic material for Stravinsky to manipulate in an effort to avoid any sentimentality in his setting of an age-old story. Narration appears throughout in the language of the listening audience, which adds to the unnerving strangeness of overall presentation. Stravinsky always searched for new ways to tell an old story. As he put it: "...refitting old ships is the real task of the artist. He can say again, in his way, only what has already been said."

Night Beat is a blues album although not an obvious one. Like Stravinsky, Cooke is "refitting old ships" to tell old stories in a new way.

The influence and inspiration of Texas-born blues singer and pianist Charles Brown is all over Night Beat. The presence of piano on several tracks played by New Orleans-born Ray Johnson (a disciple of Brown), song selection that includes originals and hits recorded by Brown, and the thoughtful pace and phrasing of Cooke's vocals, all point to Brown's impact on Cooke as a singer and arranger. Even when Cooke is singing the blues, he's singing it in a new way with arrangements often creatively subverting cliches of the form. Cooke's passion for innovation allowed him to wear his influences on his sleeve. Night Beat is a "roots" album thoroughly grounded in the present, which may be why it still sounds ahead of its time.

"Look at you, sullen in yielding, brutal in your rage-- you will go too far. It's perfect justice: natures like yours are hardest on themselves." Creon, from Sophocles' Oedipus the King

"My father told me, my mother said it right Said my son, you're ruining your life Drinking and gambling, staying out all night Living in a fool's paradise..." Lyrics from Fool's Paradise

A few upbeat numbers allow some welcome humor to intrude on Night Beat's existential night of the soul. Programming the rocking Shake, Rattle and Roll to end the album after the vicious cycle described in the lyrics of the preceding track Fool's Paradise allows Cooke to bid adieu safely in the guise of a "player." He rousts his woman - a "devil in nylon hose" - from sleep and commands her to make some "noise with the pots and pans." In spite of his machismo, he sounds totally in awe of his partner who doesn't want to do anything 'cept "Shake, rattle, and roll!" Maybe, after so much of the blues, Cooke put on a mask in order to keep his spirits up, not to mention those of the listeners. Or maybe, like Sophocles' tragic hero, he's trying to outsmart the oracle? It's presumptuous and perhaps even tasteless to ponder all of this too much, especially given the real-life tragedy that would soon befall Cooke, tragedy that is well documented elsewhere.

Still, it's amazing how music from supposedly different genres, cultures, and/or time periods can symbiotically resonate when simply placed next to each other. Listen to this excerpt from Stravinksy's Oedipus Rex (the staging is by Julie Taymor), and then scroll back to the top to give a second listen to Lost and Lookin'. You'll hear what we mean.

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Chris Becker
Contact: Chris Becker