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Sam Cooke, singing and what it means to be a singer-writer

Guest post by Colin Fleming

Let’s talk about Sam Cooke and singing and what it means to be a singer-writer. Or a writer-singer.

What does it mean to sing?

I know, I know—you sounded sublime this morning in the shower, when you channeled your inner Robert Plant and delivered a knockout “When the Levee Breaks,” or maybe you were Billie Holiday, with a soul-pasting version of “Lover Man.”

I salute your shower skills, and certainly don’t mean to knock them, but that’s not what I intend by our opening query.

I think we regard singing as something physical. It’s somatic. Because it is of the body, singing might even be closer to athletics than it is to cognition. In terms of execution. It’s about lung power, breath control, even endurance. Pacing those lungs. But this is not what I mean by singing. And I don’t believe it’s what Sam Cooke would have meant either.

Singing is a huge theme of my book on Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963, because it’d have to be, right? But not for the reasons we’re perhaps apt to conclude. Not that I’m doing trickiness—I just am of the mind that the singing that is art needs to be approached from a different angle of thought.

Here’s what I think singing really is, when singing is at its best: it’s writing.

Now, you might be like, “What???? What are you trying to tell me, C-Dawg? That’s cray! You suck!”

Settle down. We’re all friends here.

To get into the full barrel of the truth of what I mean by this, I’d suggest—hopefully without too much cupidity—that you check out the the book in full (translation: please buy my book, it’s cheap), but we can do a few notes here.

The act of singing, as Sam Cooke sung, was a series of choices. This series of choices is made—sometimes in real-time, and sometimes not (though definitely in real-time on Live at the Harlem Square Club)—as a means to best communicate. Reach people.

So it goes on the macro level; as in, “I’m talking with all of you!”; and the precious, intimate, micro level; i.e., “Doesn’t it feel like out of all the people in the world, I’m speaking exclusively with you, and our shared moment is precious?”

Singing and writing have the same objective. To connect, impel. Move. Make us think, feel. When feeling bolsters the thinking, that is the stuff. And vice versa.

When you’re writing something—that is, when you write well—you’re singing with words. Those words just happen to be on page. But they sing in a reader’s head. They have sound there. They’re internally audible. As you write, you’re making decisions. With each word. Each phrase. Where one paragraph stops and another begins.

Look at it this way: that’s the performance. To put it in studio recording terms, that’s the take. Now, you might write your entire thing—whatever it is; sentence, blog post, story, essay—straight through. You nailed it. One take, baby! Which is similar to Cooke live in Miami’s Overtown neighborhood in 1963. Other times, a writer goes back, they change, they drop parts, they add bits. The process is similar to working over a track in the studio.

Cooke was a thinking singer. I really wanted to show readers how he made the writerly choices he did as he sang on Live at the Harlem Square Club. Because he was building a story. It’s really not that dissimilar than how, say, Chekhov would build a story. Except, Chekhov was sitting in some room, presumably unobserved, and Cooke was up there with his group in front of those club patrons in Overtown.

Live at the Harlem Square Club is a record of audible decisions. Choices that we can hear. When we say that a singer is a genius, it’s not because of their body. It’s not because of their lungs. Yes, technique matters. Tone matters. Vocal range matters. But these are tools that help put forward what I believe is the real gift. That ability to write with one’s voice. That ability begins in the head. In the heart. In the soul. The triumvirate of the real power. The diaphragm, lungs, tongue, they’re the instruments.

Cooke is somewhere between Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. You can’t have much more technique than the latter does. Cooke doesn’t have her chops. Chops-wise, she’s maybe the perfect singer. In the popular idioms. We can all debate our Caruso recordings later. Lady Day doesn’t have that same vocal perfection. She’s more of a writer-singer, I’d say, than Fitzgerald. I love both, but what I’d suggest is that Holiday is more readily connected with, because of the writing component. Which is a writing-to-reach-you form of art.

Cooke loved Billie Holiday. He did a tribute album celebrating her, in his way, which is discussed in my book. There’s Cooke the writer-writer and Cooke the singer-writer, and they were really the same dude, but with different temporal emphasis.

We want to think of writing as this private process that takes oodles of time, but even when you write in your freshly opened Word document, you do make decisions in real time. Bang bang bang. Bang after successive bang. Same as when you talk. We usually don’t have those words in advance. The faster you think, the more you can slow down time, the more you’re cognizant of at once, the better you can write/talk/sing in the moment. Your writing becomes its own moment. Now, as they say, and forevermore. If you write at a certain level.

Cooke isn’t rapping freestyle on Harlem Square Club, but he’s making decisions of phrasing. Of how to shade words. He’s text painting—in the moment. He’s also journeying. He’s going back to places he’s been, material he’s done, and here’s the big part of the book—he’s moving forward. He’s crafting a song of an evening—and the gig is one big composition—that’s propelling him towards a song of all-time, which is a huge part of my book. Because I don’t think there’s a more important song in this country’s history, than the one Cooke formally wrote after that night in Miami.

So, singing! Pretty great on its own, but maybe more than it seems, right? Let’s call it the sound of someone writing. When they sing as well as Cooke.

That’s something I find myself thinking about when I belt out Def Leppard’s “Armageddeon It” with my own shower-singing excursions. I tend to leave the Sam to Sam.

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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