Weekend Listening: The Best of Sam Cooke
Album: The Best of Sam Cooke by Sam Cooke
Released: 1962 by RCA Victor
Recommended if you like: singing along to old favorites while dancing barefoot in your living room with your best loves
Notable Tracks: “Bring It Home To Me,” “Summertime,” “Only Sixteen,” “Sad Mood”
This is the last thing I’ll write in 2015, and because of that I’m unashamedly feeling sentimental.
When you’re feeling sentimental and nostalgic and sweet, the only thing for you is Sam Cooke.
As a child, I sat on the bedroom floor of my grandparents’ room, legs criss-cross-applesauce, eyes open wide, mouth in a tight line holding in my giggles. My grandfather, with his sweat-dampened plaid shirt and hunter orange baseball cap, crouched awkwardly down beside me. On a break from farming the red clay, somehow conjuring watermelons and peanuts out of that wet thick mud, he would lift up the record needle, eyes twinkling, and say, “Listen to this, granddaughter.” When the first grunts of “Chain Gang” came across the speakers yet again, hitting the ears of my granny making biscuits in the kitchen, she would holler “Gordon, if y’all play that dag-gum song ONE MORE TIME!” Laughing, we would alternate the uhs and ahs of that song over and over, singing it down there in front of the record player, in the car driving to the flea market, at the dinner table over plates of catfish and collards.
Even if you don’t really know Sam Cooke, you know Sam Cooke, not only because his songs still play on the airwaves or film soundtracks or, and I am fully aware of what I’m saying here, the dance floors of high school proms and weddings, but because they call up an undeniable likeability. With his most popular songs from 1957 to 1962 packed into this album, not a single track should be overlooked, mostly because listeners from any walk of life can identify with so much of this album. Not coincidentally, Cooke’s songs, especially the ones collected on this anthology, often speak to the sweetness of a romantic life well lived, with little portraits of all stages of a relationship played out in Cooke’s simply stated conviction.
In “Only Sixteen,” one of my personal favorites on this album, Cooke brings us back to the infatuation that only teenagers can feel, sure, but also to the puffed-chest assurance we all lose and call “growing up.” Answering his own question of why he fell in love so fast, Cooke admits that both he and his lady were too young to really fall in love, harkening to that dizziness of first love, which seems mature and worldly until he tells us that he knows better now because he’s aged a whole year since then. Which among us doesn’t remember that wicked assurance of tenuous maturity with fondness? And if this song reminds us of an immature cockiness, “You Send Me” will take us to that moment well inside a love, when we recognize laugh lines in our lover’s cheeks because we helped put them there.
What I love, too, are that TWO songs on this album are about dancing all night. First of all, more people should take me their partners dancing, but second, these two little tales from inside a relationship or a life better tell the story than those grand, sweeping statements like “I love her” and “He’s totally great, y’all.” Fucking go out dancing and be in love with everyone there. Fucking take your girlfriend dancing and teach her ass how to cha cha cha and laugh about falling into each other for years afterward.
Not all beautiful moments happen inside a relationship, though. Sometimes our love outlasts another’s, and the overlay of pointed loneliness only serves to highlight emotion, not dull it. In “Bring It Home To Me,” the tinge of pain reverberating through Cooke’s apologies and promises rings as true as the joyfulness of shared love found in his other songs. If nowhere else on this record, when Cooke slips in a quick “I know that” before the last verse when he desperately tells her that he tried his best, that he forgives her of the faults she brought to their relationship, do we feel the urgency and fullness of his love. When we cry in our friend’s arms and beg them to tell us why he left, or drive by her house at night hoping to only see one shadow in the window, we might as well be singing this song.
Though not all songs on this record call back a romance, but they almost all take us back to fonder moments in life. What ties this record together, besides Cooke’s powerful voice, is a reflection of life that we can all share. Other versions of “Summertime” incorporate a poppier beat than we hear on this album, but that slower drawl can’t help but put you right back into childhood, hot nights sleeping on top of the sheets with the windows open and a fan blowing quietly in the corner. In pure Southern Gothic fashion, comfortable recognition of death haunts the filigreed corners of this song, hidden inside a reassurance of love and protection Cooke, and his listeners, know full well is lovely prose at best.
Sentimentality underscores this album, a sweet recollection of a life lived, and as we face another year, another chance, we should put this record on and consider not how we should be better or thinner or work more, but how wonderful it is that we get to have this life at all.
Step into my classroom, take any of the courses I teach, and the day before the final exam will inevitably be a party. All my students bring food, usually their favorite cookies or doughnuts from the Krispy Kreme across the street. If class is at 8:30, we have breakfast; if it’s at 6 or 8 PM, family dinner ensues. And, like any good family dinner, I make them talk about something serious and boring and initially eye-roll inducing.
“Tell me,” I ask, perched on top of my desk with a cup of coffee in hand, “about your time here. What did you make progress with? What are you going to keep working on in other classes?”
Although they usually are hesitant to start, or give me super boring answers like “I need to work on time management” (which invariably makes me think I need to work on not barfing right now), once we all get going, myself included, that conversation holds a ton of value. How can something be worthwhile if you don’t take time to reflect on it, think about it, turn in upside down and backwards and all around and really CONSIDER it?
And so should we with any year we close out in our lives.
I don’t believe in New Year’s Resolutions. The idea that I need to effect some drastic change has two built in assumptions that suck: first, that I’m fucking something up really hard, and second that I should only be thinking about it because I have to be on a yearly timeline. That’s bullshit. Resolutions are made and forgotten; reflection, accepting how I am and who I am and thinking deeply all the time about the wake I leave in this world as I move through it, builds the best version of me. Cooke’s album reflects that perspective through depicting a life lived, not a life regretted.
Three days ago I held a surprise party for my good friend Megan. In the many times she has been to my apartment, drinking or singing or crying with me on my porch or kitchen floor, we have had Sam Cooke there with us. As we talked about her father, who would play “Having a Party” at their family get-togethers over the years, or my grandfather teaching me “Chain Gang” before I could read, and missing both these seminal men in our lives, this record became something beyond our individual connections and grew into part of the fabric of our friendship. Right before she climbed my staircase into an unexpected group of friends, I turned to Eva and John and said, “We have to play Sam Cooke.” Amidst her surprise, her amazement that we had all come together to celebrate her, she hugged me and said, “…and you’re playing Sam Cooke.”
Reflection is nothing without growth, babes. From these songs of my childhood and hers, we’ve added this new layer of love for one another that couldn’t have been as possible if we didn’t pull from our pasts to make our present.
This is the last thing I’ll write in 2015: don’t resolve to be better, just revel in your being. And listen to Sam Cooke while you do it, loves, because that fucker gets it.