An Artist in Transition: Sam Cooke’s The Complete Keen Years (1957-1960)

A concise box set shines a most necessary light on the soul legend’s early secular days

A Sam Cooke Keen Records collage. (Design: Ron Hart)

In 1957, Sam Cooke was born again. No longer Sam Cook, lead singer with the gospel group the Soul Stirrers, he’d made that leap — “crossed over,” in industry terms — from gospel to pop with his first release under his own name. And to further mark his break with the past, that name was a new name: Sam Cooke, with an “e.”

Not all of his fans were happy that Cooke seemingly abandoned the Lord to move into secular territory. Indeed, his first solo pop single, ‘Loveable,’  was released under the name Dale Cook, on the Soul Stirrers’ label, Specialty. Cooke’s voice was too distinctive to pull that one off; everybody could tell who was really singing. And with the release of ‘You Send Me,’ there was no more pretense; his first release on his new label, Keen Records, was credited to Sam Cooke. Released in the fall of 1957, it sold over a million copies, and topped the pop and R&B charts. Sam Cooke was on his way.

The Complete Keen Years 1957-1960 covers the period when Sam Cooke became a star. These were the years that produced ‘You Send Me,’ ‘(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons,’ ‘Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha,’ ‘Only Sixteen,’ ‘Wonderful World.’ But if those classics are all that you know, you’re missing out on a lot of the story. 

Sam Cooke The Complete Keen Years 1957-1961, BMG 2020

Sam Cooke was ambitious. By crossing over, he wanted to reach a wider audience. He studied how the music industry worked, absorbing its lessons. Though he was the composer of ‘You Send Me,’ he gave the songwriting credit to his brother, due to a dispute with his publisher; eventually, he set up his own publishing company and record label. His artistic horizons were expanding too. The Soul Stirrers’ records were mostly acapella; on Keen, he learned to work with session musicians and orchestras.

And many of his singles didn’t appear on the albums he recorded for Keen. Singles buyers and albums buyers were considered to be two different markets, and as an albums artist, Cooke reached out to the mainstream. His self-titled debut features standards like ‘That Lucky Old Sun,’ the ballad ‘Danny Boy,’ and, perhaps most improbably, ‘Tammy,’ the Debbie Reynolds hit from the film Tammy and the Bachelor. Not that he doesn’t put his own stamp on them. This is undoubtedly one of the most upbeat renditions of “Ol’ Man River” you’ll ever hear. The same can be said of ‘Summertime,’ which bounces along so brightly, this generally dreamy tune becomes something you’d like to dance to.

 

AUDIO: Sam Cooke ‘Summertime’

His second album, Encore, has him stepping up as a cabaret-style performer, lightly floating over the orchestra as he delivers the likes of ‘Running Wild’ and ‘Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive’ with grace and finesse. And typically, a supposedly downbeat number like ‘Today I Sing the Blues’ is still on the light side (there was never any escaping the inherent optimism in Cooke’s voice). This is the Sam Cooke you would have encountered at one of his nightclub gigs. 

Tribute to the Lady celebrated Billie Holiday, the singer whom Cooke said “moved me most” in the album’s liner notes. René Hall’s overly busy arrangements tend to bury the subtlety of Holiday’s (and Cooke’s) work; there’s really no need for the angelic backing vocalists on “God Bless the Child.” Thankfully, the singers are absent on the rest of the tracks. Cooke’s suitably breezy on ‘Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off’ and “’They Can’t Take That Away From Me,’ while the melancholy ‘Solitude’ features one of his most expressive vocals. Audiophiles note, this was Cooke’s only album released in stereo as well as mono, and the features both versions. 

By the time The Wonderful World of Sam Cooke was released, he’d moved on to RCA. So Keen gathered up single tracks that hadn’t appeared on their previous compilation, Hit Kit (which is also a part of this set), and rounded it out with some previously unreleased material. While ‘(What A) Wonderful World’ was another of Cooke’s beguiling pop songs, the album also looked back at his gospel roots. ‘I Thank God’ and ‘That’s Heaven to Me’ are tastefully orchestrated numbers that come from the first session where Cooke was the sole producer (‘Steal Away’ and ‘Deep River,’ recorded at that same March 3, 1959 session, appear as bonus tracks). It’s as if he’s looking back to say goodbye to his indie years as he moves up to the majors. 

Then listen to ‘There I’ve Said It Again’ and ‘One Hour Ahead of the Posse,’ both from the August 27, 1959 session that would be his last for Keen. The former is a cover of Vaughn Monroe’s sweet ballad, the latter a fun romp that takes a dark twist at the end (especially chilling in light of Cooke’s own fate). Cooke’s work was steadily moving in an increasingly sophisticated direction, from the teenage angst of ‘Only Sixteen’ (recorded on February 5, 1959), to the marvel that was “Wonderful World,” recorded on March 2, to the subsequent gospel session, and these final songs. Cooke’s Keen years saw his maturing as an artist. It was an era that saw him creating some of his most classic songs and laying the groundwork for more masterpieces in the future.

 

Gillian G. Gaar

Seattle-based writer Gillian G. Gaar covers the arts, entertainment, and travel.

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