“Song for Sam Cooke,” by Dion. Yes. At any American moment, this vision of transcending racism, especially with these two voices on it, would resonate powerfully. But at this moment, as the election is over but not finished, Covid deaths and sickness on the rise, and police shootings unceasing, this song of brotherhood is perfect. Embodied by the spirit of Sam Cooke and the true story told of how he protected Dion, and empowered by a beautifully visceral melody, it is a song from 2020 that will remain always at the top of the list of essential songs about this American moment.
Blues with Friends features Dion with a cavalcade of other famous friends in addition to Simon: Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Gibbons and Jeff Beck. His old friend Bob Dylan wrote the liner notes.
It’s a remarkably rich album, burning with the electric blues in all directions, and more. More like this song, written years earlier and rescued from the drawer, where it could have remained unsung forever.
And emboldened and expanded lovingly by Paul Simon’s harmony. Few things sound better than the sound of those two voices, our old friends, blended together.
When you hear that beautifully warm, amiable sound it’s easy to imagine them as a beloved duo who have been singing together for decades; the effect of those voices in harmony is simply, as Dion said, sublime.
It’s a hopeful sound. Simon is two years younger than Dion. The guy who wrote, long ago, “how terribly strange to be seventy…” Yet just shy of 80, himself – and still sounding as great as ever, singing perfect two-part harmony like he’s been doing it his whole life. Which he has.
But who knew rock & roll could get old like this and stiill sound so vital?
Back in March, we spoke to Dion about this album, and this song especially, which American Songwriter was proudly the first to premiere.
“At first, I just had the melody,” he said, “and the refrain ‘Here in America.’ A friend suggested I use an episode from my memoir about walking southern streets with Sam Cooke in 1962. It’s a good story, a true story. We were in the South together. And he stood up for me. He was a good guy. I miss him.”
He finished the song, he said, but put it aside, thinking it was too personal for other people to get. He put it in his drawer, where it remained, unsung and unrecorded, for years.
“Then in 2019,’ Dion said, “I saw the movie Green Book and after that, I couldn’t shake the song. I thought, `Hey, they almost wrote a movie about my song.’ I loved the movie so much that I thought I’d better take that song out to see it if works. And it did. It actually did.”
He played it for Paul Simon, who loved it, and said he wanted to record what he was hearing on it. That turned out to be a beautifully warm harmony part, which matched with Dion’s voice, creates a beautifully poignant sound.
“I think Paul really helped it. He embellished it beautifully. He elevated it and made it something sublime.”
“We both have a warm feeling for Sam Cooke,” said Dion. “When I first played it for Paul, he saw it like I saw it. He didn’t see it as a song which is purely about racism in America. He saw it as a song of brotherhood and understanding. Because I was telling him that Sam Cooke took care of me in the South. “Paul said he wanted to record what he was hearing on the tune.”
“What happened,” Dion said, “is that Sam and I went to see James Brown in 1962. James Brown and the Flames. People were getting on my case. Sam brought me to some soul dive, a nightclub in the hood. And he told people, `Dion’s with me. Cool out.’
“Sam was a very refined guy. Very. I was rough around the edges, but he was a very refined guy. His father was a preacher, and he grew up in church. He was living out the gospel. That’s what the song is about.”
Simon worked on the song himself for some time, wedding his vocal warmly to the melody. When Dion the blend of the voices and the tender sound of Simon’s singing, he was stunned.
“Paul has been blessed,” Dion said. “He still has that innocent, sweet, pure sound. I guess it’s from right living and good living maybe. He still has his voice, which is amazing, I think I’m a better singer than I was when I was a kid. But I don’t think I have that innocent sound.”
Dion, whose home in Manhattan is just blocks from what was Ground Zero, has deep love for this country and what it means.
“People would sell everything they have, they would give it all, to get in a rowboat to get here because it’s a better life. There’s a lot of people that don’t appreciate it, but anybody in the world would want to come here, if they want a better life. It’s not perfect. But Americans, when we want a better life, we try to fix the things that are wrong.”
The music he’s made through the decades, and that made by his friends like Simon, Dylan and the rest, has enriched the soul of this country forever, and represents the best of America. As I told him. But he’s a humble man, and just laughed at first.
Then he said, “Aw, thanks. America has given so much, I’m just grateful I could give something back. That you’re telling me that feels good, because it’s given me so much and now look – after all these years doing what I’m doing, I got a good job, man!”