There are a number of artists I admire who to my taste lack a definitive record. I’d like to listen to them, but I just can’t find a really satisfying album that invites repeated visits. Thelonious Monk, whom I admire greatly. Neil Young, whom I begrudgingly admit as being spottily interesting. And this week’s SoTW artist, the great Sam Cooke.
A while back I wrote a SoTW about Cooke’s 1962 Rhythm and Blues classic, ‘Bring It on Home to Me.’ I wrote there about how he’s universally acknowledged as one of the great singers of popular music. In terms of oeuvre, though, I’ve always been a bit stuck. He has a dozen great pop hits, but how frequently can you listen to them? His gospel music is somewhat beyond my ken. But I’ve often wanted to listen to him more, if I only had something fresh and interesting. Well, folks, I found it. It’s the fine, fine album “Night Beat”, from 1963.
All Music Guide writes: “Saddled with soaring strings and vocal choruses for maximum crossover potential, Sam Cooke’s solo material often masked the most important part of his genius — his glorious voice — so this odd small-group date earns a special recommendation in his discography.” Or as John Sebastian put it so eloquently (as is his wont) in the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Good Time Music”:
I don’t want no cryin’violins, no sax, no slide trombones
I don’t want no screaming ya-ya girls, and no honkin’English horns
I don’t want no symphony orchestra with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir
All I want is a guitar, a harp and drum just to set my soul on fire.
The arrangements on “Night Beat” are perfectly perspicuous – tasteful, enhancing, serving the vocalist, but unobtrusive. They provide a perfect backdrop for a truly remarkable singer.
‘Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen’ (which he completely transforms from the hackneyed spiritual to a spot-on, moving personal statement); ‘Lost and Lookin’’, a virtuoso showcase with only a bass for accompaniment; ‘Please Don’t Drive Me Away’; ‘Get Yourself Another Fool’, utterly restrained, utterly passionate, a perfect example of the degree to which Sam Cooke invented the genre of Soul; ‘Trouble Blues’; ‘Fool’s Paradise’, three years after the Mose Allison version; ‘Little Red Rooster’, a hilarious, sexy blues showcasing the organ of 16-year old Billy Preston. Every single cut breathes with presence, immediacy, conviction. They’re just a pleasure to listen to, each and every one.
But the show-stealer, by a whole bushel of black-eyed peas, is good old ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll’. I can see your reaction – sure, Jeff, another old singer from the early 1960s doing another version of that humdrum antique I’ve been bored by hundreds of times already. Okay, I’ll stake my reputation on this one. You listen to this and tell me you weren’t shaking your shaker, bopping your boppers, grinning from ear to ear. I dare you! It’s sparkling, ebullient, irresistible. It’ll make you shake, rattle and roll.
Listen to his Whoa!!! At 2:33. It’s as signature and irresistible as the moptop Beatles shaking their hair and smirking their ‘Yeah yeah yeah’.
‘Shake, Rattle and Roll’ was originally recorded by Big Joe Turner in February, 1954 (“Everybody was singing slow blues when I was young, and I thought I’d put a beat to it and sing it up-tempo.”), with Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegün singing the response chorus!! The lyrics (and the performance) were too blatantly sexual for White Top 40 air play, so Bill Haley sanitized it for his July, 1954 recording (three weeks after Turner’s version topped the R&B charts). His version is credited as being the first rock and roll song. Well, that’s a slippery slope, but it’s certainly got its bona fides.
Elvis Presley recorded the song in 1955 (for Sun) and 1956 (for RCA) with the bowdlerized lyrics. Here he is singing the whole shebang, dirty words and all, in about 1956. I’m going to give y’all enough credit as mature adults and not explicate the secret, hidden risqué meanings in the original. But only on condition that you let Sam Cooke get your buns bouncing.
Get outta that bed, wash your face and hands
Well, you get in that kitchen, make some noise with the pots ‘n pans.
Way you wear those dresses, the sun comes shinin’ through
I can’t believe my eyes, all that mess belongs to you.
I believe to the soul you’re the devil and now I know
Well, the more I work, the faster my money goes.
I said shake, rattle and roll,
Well, you won’t do right to save your doggone soul.
I’m like a one-eyed cat peepin’ in a seafood store
Well I can look at you till you ain’t no child no more.
I get over the hill and way down underneath
You make me roll my eyes, even make me grit my teeth.
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