Sam Cooke - Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964 (Album Review)

His voice heralded the birth of soul: a velvety smooth croon anointed with gospel fire that dealt with matters of the heart. One of the first to make the crossover leap from gospel to rock -- no matter what he sang -- Sam Cooke's voice still stayed rooted in the spirit.

This collection has been around for a while, first released in '03 as a CD/Super Audio CD hybrid, culled from recordings made during his six-year tenure with the Soul Stirrers, starting in 1951 until his untimely death in '64 at the age of 33. This time around, the ABKCO collection is on high-quality vinyl, cut from high-res files.

It's stunning in scope and sound, aided by Peter Guralnick's extensive liner notes detailing each cut. The songs are arranged in loose chronological order, at times jumping back or forward a year or two, but for the most part supporting a consistent timeline.

The collection kicks off with '56's “Touch the Hem of His Garment” -- a song Cooke composed on the way to the Soul Stirrers session after flipping through the Bible. He allows a rough edge to creep into his voice on the chorus, a real come to Jesus moment captured perfectly by his anguished cries as the desperately ill woman turns to her Savior for healing.

The next entry is Cooke dipping his toe in secular waters for the first time, reworking his gospel hit “Wonderful” as “Lovable,” switching the focus from God to a woman, paving the way for an array of singers who would adapt gospel themes into secular soul. Afraid of losing his gospel audience, he recorded this one under the name of Dale Cooke.

“You Send Me,” Cooke's first number one, almost didn't happen. Appalled by what he considered a too-white sound, Specialty records owner Art Rupe stormed into the session and tried to stop it. But producer Bumps Blackwell prevailed and took over Cooke's contract. Ironically, the man who Rupe accused of lightening up Cooke's sound is the same man who would encourage and produce  Little Richard's raucous presentations that were initially considered too black for the white market and were covered instead by a bevy of white singers.

But, once Cooke had crossed over, he was accepted by both black and white audiences. Although he was inventing soul, he wasn't locked into one rhythm. Again, with Blackwell's help, he had a hit with “Win Your Love for Me,” a Latin number with the rattly percussion cushioned by Cooke's honeyed soul.

All his big stuff is here: “Twisting the Night Away,” “Having a Party,” “Chain Gang,” “Cupid,” “Another Saturday Night,” and “A Change Is Gonna Come.” And, of course, no Cooke collection would be complete without what is probably his most covered classic, the gospel saturated “Bring It on Home to Me.”As if Cooke's soul wasn't enough to win the heart of his beloved, along with jewelry and money he's offering her as well, he enlists Lou Rawls to sing the response to his call.

The two-record set ends with “Jesus Gave Me Water,” the 19-year-old Cooke's first release as the Soul Stirrers' lead singer in 1951. Even though it's firmly rooted in the church, you can hear Cook's soul man persona struggling to break through as he glides and soars celestially, but still manages to inject an earthy, rootsy tone into the proceedings.

Although its been five decades since his passing, the spirit of Sam Cooke still shines strong, preserved in sturdy vinyl grooves for future generations to soak up and marvel at his artistry and his soul.

Grant Britt

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Comment by Harrisonaphotos on July 1, 2014 at 1:55pm

excellend and well wriiten review of one of my favourite ever albums.

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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.