How two soul giants set the stage for pop music at the cusp of the Civil Rights era
Did either Ray Charles or Sam Cooke “invent” soul music?
Compelling arguments have been made for each of them (in Cooke’s case, a posthumous LP and a boxed set were given the title The Man Who Invented Soul), but as solid as their credentials are, history isn’t such a tidy thing. What we can say is that the fall of 1957 was a pivotal moment: that October, Charles made his first appearance on the Billboard pop singles chart on Atlantic with “Swanee River Rock (Talkin’ ’Bout That River)”—after a dynamic string of R&B hits like “I Got a Woman” and “Hallelujah I Love Her So”—and Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” also made its debut on that chart, starting its climb to becoming a #1 single. A couple of years later, in the spring of 1959, Charles scored his first top 10 pop hit with “What’d I Say,” as Cooke was in mid-hit-streak on Keen Records with “Only Sixteen.” As the new decade approached, they were on the move, creatively and professionally.
What happened in 1960 was that Charles and Cooke started associations with new record labels. Charles was lured away from Atlantic by a handsome deal with ABC-Paramount that included Charles’s ownership of his master recordings, and Cooke split with the indie Keen. After considering offers from other labels, including Atlantic (and if you start to speculate on what Cooke’s records might have sounded like under Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler, and Tom Dowd, and producers like Leiber and Stoller, you might feel a pang of regret), Cooke signed with the powerhouse RCA Records, home of Elvis Presley and Harry Belafonte, under the A&R direction of popmeisters Hugo and Luigi. His time at RCA, which lasted until his death in 1964, didn’t get off to a great start: there was a sappy single, “Teenage Sonata,” and for Cooke’s 1960 debut album for the label, Hugo and Luigi handed him a musical passport and sent him a-wanderin’.
AUDIO: Sam Cooke “The House I Live In”
Cooke’s Tour was an easy-listening itinerary, as bland as bland can be, as Cooke swam against a tide of schmaltz, making stops in Paris and London (“Under Paris Skies” and “London by Night”), in Italy and Brazil (“Arrivederci, Roma” and “The Coffee Song”). You can understand, sort of, what RCA was up to. There were some indications in 1960 that the whole rock ‘n’ roll thing was petering out, and that with the eye toward career longevity (and album sales: kids bought 45s, the theory went, while grown-ups bought albums to play on their swanky new hi-fi systems), teen-oriented singers had better become, as the saying went, “all-around entertainers.” They were encouraged to prep for playing upscale rooms like the Copacabana, and to sing standards. For some reason, this meant, for quite a while, digging into the Al Jolson catalog: there were not a few chart-topping artists who suddenly were singing such archaic fare as “My Mammy” and “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody.”
At RCA, the initial goal seemed to be to make Cooke into a mixture of Nat King Cole (Cooke’s Tour’s follow-up included “Mona Lisa” and “Too Young”), Belafonte (Cooke did “Jamaica Farewell”) and Columbia Records’ album-selling giant Johnny Mathis, who had thirteen (!) top 10 albums between 1957 and 1960. Why couldn’t Cooke do that? (Hugo and Luigi even recruited Mathis’s arranger Glen Osser to do the charts for Cooke’s Tour and Hits of the ’50s.) Of those albums, Cooke’s biographer Peter Guralnick wrote, “It might be argued that Sam’s voice occasionally rose above the tawdriness of its surroundings, but the tawdriness was the single inescapable factor.”
Cooke’s Tour was recorded in New York City over two days in early March of 1960, and when it was released not long after, it failed to chart. At the end of March, Ray Charles was in New York cutting his own travelogue, his first for ABC-Paramount, The Genius Hits the Road. While Cooke had gone international, Charles’s was an American journey through the past. Its most recent songs dated back to the 1940s. Most were far older. Some had complicated histories. “Mississippi Mud,” from 1927, originally had a line about “darkies.” “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” has minstrel roots that go back to 1878, and a musical ancestor in a song sung by the Confederate Army (it was Virginia’s state song until 1997). There is a Southern nostalgia in “Alabamy Bound” (1924, from the Jolson canon), and what we have to untangle is a black performer, in 1960, doing a song that pines for the South, that had been popularized by a performer in blackface.
Charles was the most expansive musician, and The Genius Hits the Road, despite some ultra-gimmicky moments (like “Deep in the Heart of Texas”), is such a joyful excursion. He doesn’t play geographical favorites here: on “New York’s My Home,” from Gordon Jenkins’ Manhattan Tower, he celebrates the Bowery, the Bronx, and the Harlem honky-tonks; he takes a Dixieland romp through “Basin Street Blues”; he winds up taking a spirited ride on the “Chattanooga Choo Choo.” On his final studio album for Atlantic, The Genius of Ray Charles, he was pointing toward this all-encompassing embrace of our musical history (fitting for an artist whose first crossover single was a variation on Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home”). He covered Irving Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” songs from the 1920s like “It Had to Be You,” “’Deed I Do,” and “Am I Blue,” and did a still-unmatched version of Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s “Come Rain or Come Shine.”
The liner notes of The Genius Hits the Road insist that Charles, rather than some A&R type, selected all the material, and there’s no reason to doubt that. His affection for older (pre–Great American Songbook) material was always evident (he adapted “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” on Atlantic, as well as an instrumental version of “My Melancholy Baby”). He’d continue, on his next ABC-P LP, Dedicated to You, to hop in the wayback machine to “Hard Hearted Hannah,” “Marie” (Irving Berlin’s), and “Margie.” It seemed that the ABC strategy (like RCA’s for Cooke, where the non-LP cut “Chain Gang” was a summer-of-’60 smash) might be to draw a line between singles for R&B and pop radio, like “Sticks and Stones” and “Them That Got,” and the concept albums (road songs, girl-name songs). But there on The Genius Hits the Road was the Hoagy Carmichael–Stuart Gorrell song “Georgia On My Mind.” Carmichael, with cornet player Bix Beiderbecke, recorded it ninety years ago, on September 15, 1930, and thirty years after that, Charles stamped it as his for all time. It debuted on the Billboard chart in late September 1960, and was his first #1 pop single. It was undeniable.
It was a perfect union of pop—those soaring strings, the backing vocals—and what everyone would come to call soul. There is an emotional pull in Charles’s performance, longing and loneliness, and so many artists learned from its example: Otis Redding, doing “Try a Little Tenderness,” Bobby “Blue” Bland, Lou Rawls, Jackie Wilson, Aretha, and all the guys, from Stevie Winwood to Van Morrison to Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers to Tom Jones to Richard Manuel in The Band, who covered “Georgia.” Hugo and Luigi, over at RCA, were paying attention to “Georgia” also, as Guralnick quotes Luigi: “they’re playing eggs in the background, everything is very vanilla, very white, and Charles is doing a soul thing [over it]…I thought, if we could get Sam accepted doing that, it would [add] another dimension to his career.”
The lesson they learned when they tried that tactic with Cooke was, thankfully, that it didn’t fit. They gave it a shot, “and we came to the conclusion, This is what he feels. That’s going to be the best direction. Not to impose a song that may or may not be a pop song but to know enough to smile and shut up.” From that point on, Cooke’s tour, and the future of soul music, would be going off into new territory.
AUDIO: Side Two of The Genius Hits the Road