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Sam Cooke In Action: Don’t get caught in the oldies trap!

Guest post by Colin Fleming

I have returned for round three, you devoted VLs! (see guest blog post #2, regarding that bit of code). The hat trick! Because good things come in threes, right? Well, not if you’re Macbeth. But I’ll be Banquo, and you be Macduff, and we’ll carry on.

Macbeth, of course, is a literary oldie. It’s an oldie that still informs our world. Vaulting ambition and all. I mention Macbeth and the idea of relevant oldies for a reason. Sam Cooke is often dogged by the oldies label. Oldies are a genre, right? You hear “Wooly Bully” and “At the Hop” and, yes, Cooke’s “You Send Me,” on the oldies station in the car, and all seems right with the world. These songs are where they should be. You’re having a nice Sunday drive with the windows down in early autumn.

But this is something I really wanted to battle against in my book on Live at the Harlem Square Club, redress, and set straight. Because Sam Cooke is every bit the Modernist that James Joyce was. You know who goes well together? John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Jimi Hendrix, Sam Cooke. Radical artists. The edge beyond cutting edge. Innovators. People who made it new, and then found new ways to make it new again. We need not confine ourselves to Black renegade artists. Put the Beatles of Sgt. Pepper in there, the Clash of London Calling, Picasso in his early Cubist period, the cinema of Jean Vigo, the Jesus and Mary Chain in 1984. I don’t want to do the color thing. I want to do the transcendent thing.

In a sense, that’s what you have to fight against with how history wants to slot Cooke. Don’t fall into the oldies trap. Most people think of Cooke primarily as a singer. He was, as you probably know, kind of good at it. More than anything else, Cooke was a writer. Everything he did musically was a part of his writing process.

I didn’t first fall in love with Cooke via the oldies station—as our last post on here explained—but it was how I was first exposed to him. And I think I understand what happens with Cooke, why he’s pulled into this oldies vortex. I get that oldies now might be, gosh, the Strokes’ first album, or Culture Club hits from the 1980s. Oldies, though, are a genre more than a descriptor. They’re the hits of the late fifties and early 1960s. You want to push it, we can go to 1965 with “Satisfaction” and “Help!” but we’re not going much past that point. Dig? (As deejays used to say, once upon a time when the aforementioned records were new.)

Cooke has something of an endurance problem, paradoxically. He’s part of the first wave of pop hit-makers. Actually, he precedes that wave, if you go back to his time with the Soul Stirrers, who gave this concert in LA in 1955 that plays a big role in my book, in setting Cooke on his way to Miami in 1963, and “A Change Is Gonna Come” in 1964, the last year of his life. We spoke about the Animals before, and they had this song, a talking blues that tells a narrative about the early days of oldies, if you will, called “The Story of Bo Diddley.” Awesome song. Delivers the lowdown.

What’s going to happen is, as the Animals tell us, the top artists from that first wave are almost all going to peter out with the start of the new decade. Elvis goes to the Army. Little Richard finds God. Jerry Lee Lewis finds his teenage cousin. Buddy Holly dies. Chuck Berry goes to jail.

Then you get dross. Novelty acts, dance crazes (which Cooke utilizes to his creative advantage, as you can read about in the book; the Twist was Cooke’s sonata form), teenybopper heartthrobs. The best artists at the start of the new decade are girl groups. They’re in the margins somewhat, unfortunately, not really reckoned as either rock or soul artists for the most part. Rock and roll doesn’t come back until 1964, with the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Stones, the better British Invasion bands (so, Manfred Mann, but not Freddie and the Dreamers), Dylan.

Sam Cooke, though, never goes away. He’s that one guy who is there in 1957, who is there in 1964. How does he do this? He changes a lot. The best artists change often, but you always know it’s them. The best artists, at that time, changed faster. They worked harder. They created at a different rate. It wasn’t six years between albums and sitting on a beach and bragging on Twitter about having written a song for the first time in a decade. That sucks. And that work won’t last. Because it’s a form of bullshit and hype and empty ceremony. In other words, it’s the opposite of Sam Cooke.

I believe that Cooke didn’t get the artist tag, as he should have, for a couple of reasons. He was Black. As we know, he sung well. People wanted a Black guy who sung well to be an entertainer, not an artist. Not both—which is what, in my view, the best entertainers are and the best artists are. Cooke, as a Black man, felt less dangerous to American feelings about race when he was a crooner. An artist may be the greatest humanitarian of all. I’d tell you that the best one who ever was, is. But an artist still carries a hint of a threat. Often more than a hint. Because an artist can raze walls. Take down, so as to build up. This was also Sam Cooke.

Then there’s a more benign reason. If you made hit singles that worked well on the radio and at slumber parties for gaggles of girls, you were enjoyed, but no one was comparing you to Schubert, which is something I do with Cooke—for good reason—in the book. Cooke had almost a decade-long stretch of creation as an artist. With assorted permutations. His death is what stopped him. Imagine Cooke during the psychedelic era? Rock and soul careers at the time were like NFL careers have always been—short. Cooke was the veteran who kept surviving, and you can tell from listening to his sonic journey that growth meant huge amounts to him.

But Night Beat was never evaluated like The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Rubber Soul, Between the Button, Axis: Bold as Love, There’s a Riot Goin’ On, Bryter Layter. Cooke was the guy with those pop hits from the prior decade, when rock and roll was badly in need of pop hits. They were what grew the brand, the genre. They were an end unto themselves. Buddy Holly was another full-fledged artist, but his artistry was frozen in place, with his death. He became a footnote for a time; whereas, Cooke continued primarily as a hit-maker—or that was the public perception.

As for Live at the Harlem Square Club being seen as this vital live album like James Brown’s Live at the Apollo or the Who’s Live at Leeds, there was the not inconsiderable problem that the record label shelved the damn thing for more than twenty years.

I have to say: you were one cool cat if you were sitting there in 1985 and went to the record store to buy a cassette of the Smiths’ Meat Is Murder and Cooke’s Harlem Square Club. And don’t think this is just one of the best live recordings—it’s one of the best recordings this nation has produced, period. It’s one of the best records and records we have of writing in action. Of change in action. Of personal soul-baring in action and universal-connectivity in action.

If you ever collected baseball cards, you know that old sets of Topps used to have this In Action mini-series within the larger sets that featured star players leaping into the stands to catch balls and such, and I always picture Harlem Square Club as the soul version, with Cooke flying through the air to snare a ripped-liner, singing, “I got you, baby,” and talking to us all.

Likewise, if you read a lot of music writings, you’ve probably noticed that almost nothing is made of Cooke the writer. Why? Well, some of the things we’ve been talking about, but also that oldies quicksand. Oldies quicksand wants to hold someone in place. And when do you ever think of oldies acts as these creative writers? Almost never, right?

Ah, the broad brush. It ain’t good news, as Cooke might say. At the same time—and this is no knock—Cooke has the ultimate sound for oldies radio. If you asked me to pick the quintessential oldies number, I wouldn’t hesitate in answering, “(What a) Wonderful World.” Oldies, in the context of the oldies station (or playlist), are largely about nostalgia, or an invite to experience nostalgia. That particular Cooke song is as well. It’s like double-ply nostalgia. Then again, it utilizes the subjunctive and posits a future. It’s an awesome piece of writing.

There is always so much going on with the music—art—of this dude. Our task is to give him his autonomy. Or not to force our labels on Cooke. To look at Cooke and just bath in that experience of, “Ah, Cooke!” He walks, we walk. Which isn’t the same as follow. Just that in those moments, his legs move first. Then we walk with him. It’s like a tandem In Action card.

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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