Becoming a Voracious Listener with Sam Cooke

Guest post by Colin Fleming

Take the Sam Cooke path and be a VL (Voracious Listener)—it will serve you well in every aspect of life.

Hello 33 1/3-ians! I’m back for guest blog entry number two, with this dossier of supplementary Sam Cooke materials. Let’s get to it!

Do you remember the age you were when you first got into a given artist or work of art that you care about a lot? I bet you probably do. And you can pinpoint what it meant to you at that moment.

Perhaps the nature of that meaning has changed as you’ve gone along in life. You can likely recall who might have introduced you to that work, or what impelled you to check it out.

I was giving an interview on the radio the other day, and the host and I started talking about the internet. What the internet could be used for, and what it rarely is, in terms of discovering art, acquiring knowledge, seeking out that most amazing form of experience and immersion that we get with art. We were talking about how music gets discovered now, vs. once upon a time. By once upon a time, I mean, say, the 1990s. The host opined that people can use the internet to locate so much amazing stuff, but people rarely do. They stare at cat gifs instead and hate-follow on Twitter.

This prompted me to imagine—out loud—a rainy Sunday afternoon. And what you could do with said Sunday. You could, for instance, watch an Orson Welles noir, listen to a bunch of Wagner overtures, hear Eric Dolphy playing with John Coltrane, take in an early Beatles session live on the BBC, read a Hawthorne short story, listen to some Billie Holiday Decca sides, and check out some avant-garde Soviet animation from the 1920s. And that would take you all of four hours. You’d be smarter than anyone you know, right then and there!

I guess, I grumbled. I said, people don’t do this. And that prompted a look back on ways we used to listen to music voraciously, which we do less of now. I understand that if you’re a fan of this series, and reading this blog, you probably are a voracious listener. But I should be very precise in what I mean by that term. A voracious listener is someone who hears everything by a given artist. They listen hard. They listen deep. Then, they range. If that artist said, “Hey, this other musician meant a lot to me,” then the voracious listener—the VL—goes out and hears that referenced artist.

So when I was first into the Rolling Stones, I was checking out Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley. With the Beatles, it was Carl Perkins, Arthur Alexander, the Shirelles. The Shirelles move you to the Chantels. Carl Perkins to maybe the Carter Family. Whatever it is, the VL is traveling.

“Back in the day,” this was less easy than it is now. You had to find cool record stores. If you were a certain age, you had to get someone to take you there. Be patient with you as you flipped through the racks in a world where two hours passed like five minutes.

I think this is a commendable way to be. If you listen thusly, I would wager that you live thusly as well. You have a questing spirit. This serves you well in your growth. Your relationships. How you look at nature. How you experience a painting at the museum. I love the ballet in part because of how I have heard music for so long. But I also love baseball for the same reason. And the well-turned phrase. And someone’s courage. Because it’s all inter-related. The well-lived life is a form of being a VL.

One of the many reasons I love Sam Cooke—and this is a theme of my book—is that he encourages us to listen as a traveler. An emotional traveler. An intellectual traveler. A spiritual traveler (by which I don’t necessarily mean in any religious way).

There’s a lot of range in Cooke’s own discography, and the Cooke of the Soul Stirrers is not the Cooke of “You Send Me” (and the Cooke of “You Send Me” isn’t’ even the Cooke of the demo version of “You Send Me”!). A lot of those various Cookes, if you will, come together on stage at the Harlem Square Club in Miami, and then in “A Change Is Gonna Come,” which doesn’t happen without that night in Miami. Or at least not quite like it did.

In writing the book, I went back in my own life as a VL. I knew who Cooke was when I was a teenager. Well, I knew who he was when I was seven. He was that dude who sang “(What a) Wonderful World” with its educational component, as I thought of it. I was in school, that song came on the oldies station, it was about school. I related. It wasn’t just about school—it was about cool person school. When kids are adults to a boy of seven, and maybe even mini-heroes—high school, that is. (It’s always worth remembering when people might look up to us, even when we don’t think they do or even should. Because you never know who you can help with what you’ve learned, and an example you might set.) But he was that oldies guy, not a guy I would have spent my valuable listening time upon at fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, like I would the Beatles, Stones, Who, Kinks, Velvet Underground, the Doors, the Byrds.

Luckily for me, though, I had awesome shepherds in my early days as a VL. I can tell you exactly when I fell in love with Sam Cooke’s music, when I began devouring all of it.

We used to take these vacations on Cape Cod. The Cape meant a lot to me, because it was this wild, mysterious place, and it looked different, smelled different, than anywhere else I knew. I walked beaches alone at dusk. Later, I’d grow up to write a book called Buried on the Beaches: Cape Stories for Hooked Hearts and Driftwood Souls. It wasn’t about my life, naturally, being fiction, but I think it contained that spirit of wonder and discovery. The sensation of occupying what feels like a private ecosystem, but is also a part of the world.

That’s a very Sam Cooke kind of thing. What I’m referencing is that transcendent power of a place, a person, a song, an album, a gig, a book, that contains both the personal and the universal, and situates us in both realms. Simultaneously. But completely, so as though it’s not like we sense that we’re part in one and part in the other. Magic, right?

The summer when I was fifteen, I got hugely into the Animals. That early stuff from 1964 and 1965—“House of the Rising Sun,” “I’m Crying,” “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” “We Gotta Get Out of this Place,” “It’s My Life.” I liked how tough their sound was, while remaining melodic. Then there was singer Eric Burdon’s voice. I’m a big voice guy. It’s hard for me to be into any band if I don’t have a connection with their singer’s sound. Singers, if we’re talking the Grateful Dead, Byrds, Beach Boys, with all of those harmonies.

There was this Animals greatest hits tape that I listened to constantly that summer on the Cape. If we were driving ten minutes to get some pizza, I grabbed the Walkman and cranked the Animals in the backseat. They had this one song, though, that I knew wasn’t theirs, in that it was a cover. The Animals didn’t write much, so most of their songs didn’t belong to them I guess you could say, but this cut was different. They were trying to put their stamp on what I could tell they thought was this heavenly piece of music. But real music. Heavenly and secular. Heavenly secular.

As you’ve probably guessed, the tune was Cooke’s “Bring It On Home to Me,” with Burdon sounding more…bent on emotional revenge, I guess you could say, than Cooke would have ever sounded. But I didn’t know that for certain yet. I just intuited it. I was a teen who probably sucked at love—I think girls scared me, if I’m being honest—so that, yes, hit home. But did I ever love the Animals, and what’s more, I trusted the Animals. I think one of the nicest—and truest—things you can say about a band you’re into is that you’d have a blast checking out their record collections, maybe borrowing a mighty stack of LPs to binge on the weekend. That was always what “binging” was for me—not Netflix dross. But it also wasn’t binging—more like studying, absorbing, experiencing.

After hearing the Animals cover “Bring It On Home to Me” sufficient number of times—and getting to a place where I could begin the search proper—it was an out and out race to hear all the Sam Cooke I could. That’s when I got hooked. I came to Cooke with that one song, and he socked me. Bam. I loved it. Then I was like, “Hit me again, brother man.” And he’s like, “Okay, you liked that, then let me pound you with this!”

What got me going is that the next sock, as it were, was different than the last. These righteous blows of sonic rectitude were different each time. That’s when I knew that Cooke had a range even my beloved Animals didn’t. It wasn’t close. I wasn’t into Dylan quite yet, so I was not versed in his range. But I was versed in the range of the Beatles. Right from the start, when you’re just listening to the Red and Blue albums, the stylistic expansiveness of the Beatles can’t really be lost on you.

I don’t think I expected that range from Cooke. I think I was counting on a neat tune. A one and done. A big part of my book is how Cooke morphs. He grows, and as he grows, old parts get absorbed into his new directions. They feed his road, if that makes sense. But I knew that as a mid-teen. I didn’t know anyone else who listened to Cooke. Not my friends. I also liked Metallica’s Black Album, same as they did, but then again, I’m into Metallica because of how they also mixed it up. Cooke’s stylistic veins came in deeper pockets, though.

British rhythm and blues fascinates me, in part because you can hear how various African American musicians taught these English white kids how to hear the world. How they heard the world—and the openness with which they did so—opened up possibilities. For the best of those bands—the Beatles, the Stones, the Who—those possibilities took the form of the music they’d write. They were compositional possibilities. I had the great advantage of learning early on that Cooke was a writer. As a singer, even—and this is a huge theme of my book on Live at the Harlem Square Club—he was a writer. In his phrasing he wrote. Same, in a way, as he sat and wrote with his guitar.

The Animals handle “Bring It On Home to Me” in driving fashion. It’s a hard performance. What I mean by that is, it’s like a chunk of curbstone you can swing about. Cooke doesn’t utilize stone. His version has so much more bend, like the best relationships. That’s the studio version. The Harlem Square Club version—which is plain and simply one of the best things you’ll ever hear in your life—has both more give and more fire. Soothing with words has become soothing with words and caresses. And an offer: to let the past be the past. To move forward. Out of both love, sexual love, and fealty.

God what a blend that is. But it’s not the lines getting the better part of the brains and the heart. There’s still controlled cognition. Exacting focus. Reason. Rhyme. The yin and yang of connectivity. Which is rare. So you try to make it work, when you can.

I need to stop. I’m about to bound into another book on the relationship British rhythm and blues has with these African American artists. But trust me: be a VL. Be as big a VL as you can be. It will pay off in every single part of your life.

Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 cover image

Colin Fleming writes about music, and has written about soul, jazz, and blues for dozens of venues including The Atlantic,The New YorkerThe GuardianRolling StoneVanity FairThe Washington PostMOJODownBeat, and many others. He is a regular guest on NPR’s Weekend Edition

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