Review #307: Portrait of a Legend, Sam Cooke

Karla Clifton
4 min readAug 22, 2022

#307: Portrait of a Legend, Sam Cooke

At #306, we listened to Al Green, the Last of the Great Soul Singers. Now, we’ve reached Sam Cooke: the King of Soul. Does this qualify as a soul train?

We last saw Cooke at #240, Live at the Harlem Square Club. Since this is a greatest hits record, you can bet that some of the songs from that album are on this one, too — just in a wildly different form. The studio versions of “Cupid” and “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons” are both sweet and tuneful, whereas on the live album, Cooke wails and screams and coaxes the crowd into a froth on them both.

According to the RS blurb, Sam Cooke invented soul, after starting his career out as a gospel singer with the Soul Stirrers. After that, Cooke decided to pursue secular music. As such, there’s only a couple Bible-thumping songs on this Greatest Hits record, but they’re just as fun and joyful as his pop. “Touch The Hem Of His Garment” is full of beautiful vocal runs, and “Jesus Gave Me Water” is an amazing a cappella spiritual.

In fact, he eventually drifted far enough from his gospel roots to sing about partying, though it’s not exactly like he turned into Keith Moon. “Meet Me At Mary’s Place” and “Having a Party” are both wholesome and nice, with Coca-Cola and popcorn as the only refreshments. He even does a rendition of Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster,” which I am like 80% sure is a sex song.

Sam Cooke’s voice is downright addictive. Atlantic Records CEO Jerry Wexler called him “the best singer who ever lived, no contest.” Cooke isn’t trying to blow you out of the water with huge notes, at least not most of the time. No, instead Cooke tricks you into thinking that these melodies require no effort to sing. But when you hear some of the stratospheric notes he hits on songs like “Sad Mood” and “That’s Where It’s At,” you realize that he’s simply hitting these impossible notes without breaking a sweat. He even laughs a little as he does it, like a show-off.

Of course, his backing vocalists are beautiful singers as well. They act as Cooke’s barbershop quartet on love songs like “Just For You” and bouncy hard labor anthem “Chain Gang.” My personal favorite was the guy that goes Well don’t you know in the lowest voice I’ve ever heard. (Though I’ll admit — they sound a bit out-of-key on “Lovable.”)

So we’ve established that Sam Cooke’s voice is a gift from God. But my favorite thing about this record was that Sam Cooke also taught me how to dance. I got to shake on “Shake,” to twist on “Twistin’ the Night Away,” and to cha cha cha on “Everybody Loves To Cha Cha Cha.” I thought I might get to learn how to waltz on “Tennessee Waltz,” but Sam was too busy getting dumped by his girlfriend.

Saved the classics for last, because what else can I say about them that hasn’t been said before? I’ve always loved “(What A) Wonderful World,” which is I think the sweetest, simplest love song I’ve ever heard. (And like most great love songs, it was in the movie Hitch.) His cover of “Summertime” is stunningly dark.

“A Change Is Gonna Come” makes me well up every time. It’s his most famous tune, but it wasn’t catapulted to fame until after his untimely death. I love the story behind it — Cooke was inspired by Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” as well as his own experiences with racism. It brings heavenly strings right down to a little tent by the river, as we all find the strength to carry on.

But the hidden final track, “Soul,” gives me chills. It’s a clip from an 1963 interview with the Magnificent Montague where he asks Cooke to hum “eight bars of what soul represents.”

And he does. It’s wordless and profound. Everything you’d want and expect from a legend.

Love Songs With Lyrics About Women That I Didn’t Like: Sorry, but this is inevitable on records from the Fifties. “I’ll Come Running Back To You” is out for the line about the kitchen, and “Another Saturday Night” is out because it is NOT NICE to say that your date looks like Frankenstein. However, “Only Sixteen” gets a pass, because it’s about teenage love.

Love Songs That Were Nice But Basically The Same: “You Send Me,” “Win Your Love For Me,” “You Were Made For Me,” “Bring It On Home To Me,” “Sugar Dumpling,” “Nothing Can Change This Love,” and “Good Times.”

My Favorite Love Song: “(Ain’t That) Good News.” It has a banjo.

Review #306: I’m Still In Love With You, Al Green

Review #308: Here Come The Warm Jets, Brian Eno