Sam Cooke Hypnotizes in ‘The Complete Keen Years’

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Sam Cooke | The Complete Keen Years (1957-1960) | (ABKCO)

3 1/2 out of 5 stars

He has been called the greatest male soul singer ever. While fans of Otis Redding, Ray Charles and Marvin Gaye might have something to say about that, there is no question that Sam Cooke is easily in the Top 10 of that category, and many would contend even higher. Unfortunately his 1964 murder at the age of 33, just as his career was picking up serious steam, didn’t help his legendary status. But he had already achieved remarkable success; first as a gospel performer with the Soul Stirrers, then as one of the earliest crossover pop/soul artists. 

The second stage of Cooke’s recorded legacy goes under the microscope on this five CD box set. This compilation, sourced from recently discovered first generation masters, covers his earliest pop singles, some of which reflected the gospel he was raised on. Cooke also was influenced by jazz, blues and the American Songbook, the latter of which is, for better or worse, comprehensively represented in these 65 tracks.  

Cooke started his solo work with a bang. “You Send Me,” a co-write from 1957, was a chart topping hit some consider the first popular soul song. But Cooke’s early full length albums reproduced here, all on the small Keen label, were primarily classy yet often mainstream covers of established tunes such as “Ol’ Man River,” “Danny Boy,” “That Lucky Old Sun,” “My Foolish Heart” and, perhaps most embarrassingly, “Ee-I-Ee-I-Oh.” His music aimed for a middle of the road (ie:white) audience and featured strings and sappy background vocals candy-coating his already soothing voice. It is not far removed from Ray Charles’ approach for Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music.  

Cooke’s most popular songs from these years remain staples of American soul music. From “(What a) Wonderful World,” and “Only Sixteen,” to his version of “Summertime” and the less substantial but catchy “Everybody Loves to Cha-Cha,” Cooke landed a handful of songs on the charts. Still, his four albums– one an overly plush, heavily orchestrated but heartfelt tribute to the music of Billie Holiday — while showcasing his instantly recognizable silky voice, are generally so slick and commercial they make later hits such as the jittery “Shake,” the sumptuous blues of “Bring It Home to Me” and the eternal revelry oldie “Having a Party” sound like James Brown in comparison. 

Once you get past the at times overwhelming sweetening added to make Cooke more palatable to a larger audience, you’ll be hypnotized by the singer’s creative phrasing, timing and sure sense of dynamics. Previously unheard selections, along with stereo and mono mixes, make this an essential item for the Cooke collector. And because these songs are from the once lost original tapes, this music has never sounded fresher or more alive. 

Regardless, newcomers to Sam Cooke would do better starting with one of his full career compilations that have been available for many years. Then dig into this comprehensive set for further exploration when exploring the stepping stones of Sam Cooke’s earliest secular recordings.    

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