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Sam Cooke – Night Beat

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Howdy. Welcome to “Blue Monday.” This is the first entry in a new weekly series on BC. I’ll be spotlighting esoteric, overlooked and classic R&B, Jazz, Blues, Funk, Soul, Gospel & Reggae artists, musicians, producers and recordings.

Some of the artistes that I’ll be discussing are world renowned, others, shadowy obscure figures lost in a musical netherworld. All are deserving of your attention and superlatives. I mean, everyone has heard of Bo Diddley, right? But how many of you are familiar with Bo Dudley? Yeah, that’s what I thought. I hope to show these men & women in a hitherto unseen light and to (hopefully) introduce some of you to some really great overlooked and underrated music.

All of the self absorbed, opinionated musings to be found here at “Blue Monday” and any resemblance to sanity on the part of the author is purely coincidental.

Night Beat

Every artist has a standard by which their works are measured: a painting, poem, LP/CD, or movie, whatever the medium may be, a standard. I don’t feel this is necessarily indicative of their best work but rather a rare meeting of the minds between fan and critic with both sides being close to correct.

There are some recordings which are so god blessedly and just plain undeniably aw shucks good, that they refuse to be ignored. This usually happens on that ultra rare occasion that the material is up to the level of the artist’s involved.

To my ears such is the case with the following: ‘Tago Mago’ – Can, ‘Natty Dread’ – Bob Marley & The Wailers, ‘Highway 61′- Bob Dylan, ‘Kind Of Blue’- Miles Davis, ‘Sex Machine’ – James Brown, ‘Phases & Stages’ – Willie Nelson, ‘Maggot Brain’ – Funkadelic, ‘Live At The Regal’ – BB King, ‘Get Your Ya- Ya’s Out’ – The Stones, ‘Hoodoo Man Blues’ – Jr. Wells and many, many more.

What comes to my mind when the name of the late, great ‘Mr. Soul’ Sam Cooke is invoked, is this recording: ‘Night Beat’.

“Night Beat” is the record that Sam always wanted to make. He retained full artistic control over the material, production and musicians involved. It is a self-realized, confident, deeply soulful record that stands as a timeless testimonial to the prodigious vocal talents of Sam Cooke. And can this man SING!!!

Unlike Sam’s previous LP’s which were chiefly built around a hit single or two then fleshed out with a load of forgettable studio filler, this set is conceptually unified and an excellent indication of the direction his music was headed. Sam’s deep soul magnum opus “A Change Is Gonna Come” was recorded just months after these sessions took place.

“Night Beat” was done over a three day period (Feb. 22, 23 & 25th 1963) at RCA studios in Hollywood. Eschewing the usual orchestral arrangements, Sam opts to use a small band here, led by noted writer/arranger/musician Rene Hall. Cliff White (Sam’s long time friend, guitar player and bandleader) is on board here for the proceedings as well. The rest of the band is all top notch as well and include Billy Preston on organ and Barney Kessel (who really shines here with some exceptionally beautiful guitar work).

This album is an atmospheric masterwork, capturing perfectly the feel of closing time in some dark & smoky cocktail lounge at 3:30 in the A.M. In keeping with the general ambience of this disc I never play it before midnight or during the day. Some music sounds better like this to me. It really seems to bring out the timeless and ethereal feel of the disc.

Of the twelve tracks (my only gripe here, it’s that this CD is too short) on this disc there isn’t a bad one in the batch. So, rather than just keep piling on more and more superlatives (all deserved), I’ll just focus on what I feel are a few of the stand-outs included here:

‘Lost And Lookin’ – Backed by only acoustic bass and minimal drums, Sam lets loose here. His vocals swoop & soar all over the place in a manner reminiscent of the great Rev. Claude Jeter of ‘The Swan Silvertones’. Of whom it should be added, Sam likely worked with on gospel package shows in the mid ’50s during his 6 year tenure with ‘The Soul Stirrers.’

‘Get Yourself Another Fool’ – A beautiful, heartfelt musing on the politics of love and all that. Barney Kessel’s guitar solo here will damn near bring tears to your eyes. It is THAT good. Seriously.

‘Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen’ – A perfect example of Sam’s ability to bridge the musical gap between the the sacred & the secular. In his reading of this venerable gospel standard, Sam’s pleas could be for the return of an errant lover or divine intervention from his greater creator. It works either way.

‘Shake, Rattle & Roll’ – This is the closing tune on the disc. After the bluesy and sophisticated tracks which precede it, this tune seems a bit out of place here. More than likely it was included as potential single. It bounces along in a groove not unlike that of ‘Twistin’ the Night Away’ (speaking of which, just what in the hell are ‘Chicken Slacks’ ?) and is a fine track all in all. Again it just sounds a bit out of place amidst all the low key soul and blues tunes here.

All in all, this is as close to a perfect disc as one can expect. The production is strong and clean, the musicians superb (inspired by the vocal gymnastics of Mr. Soul, no doubt) the material top notch and Sam is just simply at the top of his game.

No less than the late critic Robert Palmer called ‘Night Beat’ “One of the most accomplished and devastating examples of American vocal artistry on disc”…

There isn’t anything I can add to that. So I won’t even try. See y’all next week.

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  • Eric Olsen

    Excellent and insightful as always HW, thanks! I love this one also, but I like to balance it out with the hits collection – I love all three Sams (gospel too).

  • HW Saxton

    Thanks Eric. I like ALL of Sam’s output
    too. I’ve just been stuck on this disc
    for awhile. The Soul Stirrers material
    with Sam is excellent but definitely an
    acquired taste. His pop sides are really
    great as well but “Oldies” type stations
    have beat them into the ground sadly.

  • godoggo

    I’m not real real familiar with his stuff, but I remember once on Johnny Otis’s radio show, Johnny took votes from listeners on the most underrated blues singer. Sam Cooke won, and Johnny said that was his choice as well. Which is good enough for me. Presumably there’s a Sam Cooke blues album out there?

  • HW Saxton

    godoggo, That is a cool story. I grew up
    in So.Cal. but never got to hear J.O’s
    radio show unfortunately.This is Sam’s
    “Blues” record more or less.He covers 3
    Charles Brown tunes and “Mean Old World”
    as well.

    This is R&B on the verge of turning into
    “Soul Music”. It has blues influences at
    every twist & turn. It’s really unlike
    95% of his popularly known material.

    thro