3 a.m. Albums: Sam Cooke’s “Night Beat”

In our series “3 a.m. Albums,” we look at albums that are perfect for those nights when you cannot sleep due to sadness, loneliness, despair, or other reasons. This post in the series considers Sam Cooke’s twelfth album, Night Beat, released in August 1963.

When you think of singer-songwriter Sam Cooke, who was born on January 22, 1931, you probably first think of the singles and his wonderful tracks like “You Send Me,” “A Change Is Gonna Come,” and “Twistin’ the Night Away.” But if you ask a Sam Cooke fan to name their favorite album by the R&B singer, chances are they will name an album without any of his most recognizable hits: Night Beat.

The Recording and “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen”

Early in 1963, less than two years before Cooke’s tragic death, he went into the studio for some late night recording sessions with talented musicians such as pianist Ray Johnson (piano), the sixteen-year-old Billy Preston (organ); Barney Kessell (guitar), Hal Blaine (drums), Ed Hall (drums), Cliff Hils (bass), Clif White (bass), and René Hall (rhythm guitar). During those nights, they created a moody masterpiece for late-night listening.

The opening track on side one of the album creates the mood with Cooke singing an old spiritual, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” While the singer tells us about his lonely troubles, Cooke adds a layer of rhythm and blues that both provides comfort to the troubled and offers a little bit of hope.

Cooke’s Originals on the Album

Night Beat includes some Cooke originals, like “Mean Old World,” a song Cooke had recorded with the Soul Stirrers six years earlier. The other songs written by Cooke were “Laughin’ and Clownin'” and “You Gotta Move.”

Below is “You Gotta Move.”

An Uplifting Coda

Most of the songs were written by other artists, including classics like the blues song “Little Red Rooster.” Indeed, many of the songs are steeped in the blues, with many of the songs reflecting themes of heartbreak.

The one song, however, that stands out as an uplifting coda is the closing track on side two, Cooke’s version of “Shake, Rattle, and Roll.” It is as if after sorting through the heartbreak, he wants to remind us that after you get through it all you will find pure joy once again.

So, after reflecting on your misery, “Get out of that bed, go wash your face and hands.”

The Song That Sums Up the Album

According to Peter Guralnick’s excellent biography of the singer, Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke (2005), the song that best summed up the mood of the album was recorded at the end of an evening, “Lost and Lookin’.” Cooke’s voice in the minor-key number faces the world alone, accompanied only by bass and the cymbals on the drum set.

According to Guralnick, “Lost and Lookin'” “showed off every one of Sam’s characteristic vocal effects.” But it did so “without in any way suggesting, either to the listener or himself, that they were effects, so intrinsic were they to his feeling for the music, to the feelings he wanted to express.”

An Album To Get You Through the Night

The album is a wonderful friend to have late at night. Allmusic explains, “The songs are intimate blues, most taken at the pace of a late-night stroll, but despite the dark shading and heart-rending tempos, Cooke’s voice is so transcendent it’s difficult to become depressed while listening.”

So, the next late night where you need some company to help get you through until sunrise, put on Sam Cooke’s Night Beat.

What is your favorite 3 a.m. album? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Spotlight On the Four Magnificent Artists Behind “Sweet Soul Music”

    Arthur Conley

    Singer-songwriter Arthur Conley was born in Georgia on January 4, 1946 and died of cancer on November 17, 2003.  Conley is best known for his singing of the wonderful song “Sweet Soul Music.”

    Conley helped create the classic recording with Otis Redding, but the song’s creation comes from a history of digressions.  Similarly, Conley’s life had its own digressions.

    The Singer and Co-Writer

    Arthur Conley started off his career as the lead singer of Arthur & the Corvets in 1959, recording three singles with the group in the early 1960s. But he went on his own and eventually had his biggest hit with “Sweet Soul Music” in 1967.

    Conley had hit singles in the U.S. through the early 1970s, with some ups and downs in the music industry. In 1975, he moved to Europe, eventually settling in the Netherlands and changing his name, using his middle name and his mother’s maiden name, to Lee Charles.

    After his relocation, Conley became a successful entrepreneur and continued to work in the music industry and promote other bands. His moves likely were prompted by discrimination he faced for being gay, and he died in relative obscurity in a small village near the German border.

    Still, most people remember him for the great joy he brings to his recording of “Sweet Soul Music.”

    The Co-Writer Otis Redding

    Conley had some help in writing “Sweet Soul Music.” The great Otis Redding, after hearing Conley’s earlier music, asked Conley to record on his label and the two men later worked on writing “Sweet Soul Music” together.

    Conley admired Redding, who mentored Conley in the music business. While name-dropping the great soul singers in the song, Conley insisted they include Redding’s name.

    Redding died tragically in 1967, the same year “Sweet Soul Music” became a big hit.  Reportedly, Conley never got over the death of his friend and mentor Redding.

    The Original Inspiration: Sam Cooke

    But “Sweet Soul Music” was not created by only Conley and Redding. The two men wrote the song while jamming on the work of another great singer-songwriter, Sam Cooke.  Cooke’s song was “Yeah Man,” which had appeared on Cooke’s album Shake when the album was released after Cooke’s death.

    I first heard “Yeah Man” years after “Sweet Soul Music” and initially thought Cooke had created a variation on “Sweet Soul Music.” But the truth was the other way around. “Yeah Man” created the foundation for “Sweet Soul Music.”

    Listening to “Yeah Man,” one is not surprised that Cooke is listed as a co-author of “Sweet Soul Music” (following a lawsuit by Cooke’s surviving business partner).

    The Movie That Inspired the Opening Riff

    Our story does not end here, because there is still that great opening riff of “Sweet Soul Music” to discuss. Cooke’s “Yeah Man” was not the only tune that influenced the creation of “Sweet Soul Music.” The opening riff of “Sweet Soul Music” comes from one of the great movie scores, Elmer Bernstein’s score for the Western The Magnificent Seven (1960).

    Although like many, I know the movie’s riff by heart, I had never made the connection to “Sweet Soul Music” until reading about it. But after listening to them side-by-side, it now seems obvious. You may hear the riff in this video, set to start where the riff first appears at the 23-second mark.

    Other Versions of “Sweet Soul Music”

    The lively “Sweet Soul Music” has been performed by a number of great artists. There are wonderful recordings by artists like Sam & Dave, whose song “Hold On, I’m Comin'” is referenced in Conley’s version.

    Wilson Pickett, who is mentioned in “Sweet Soul Music” along with his song “Mustang Sally,” also has performed a version of “Sweet Soul Music.” Cyndi Lauper, Ben E. King, and Billy Joel joined forces to perform a version of the song as part of a medley on the Sixth Anniversary Late Night with David Letterman special.

    Similarly, Bruce Springsteen has performed the song a number of times in concert. I remember hearing him sing it during the 1980s at a concert in Cleveland during his Tunnel of Love tour.  Springsteen made a few lyric changes (as in the July 1988 performance below).

    At the time, I knew the original, but knew little about the songwriters or that “Sweet Soul Music” started out from a Sam Cooke song. I just knew it was incredibly fun.

    We’re still dancing to one of the greatest songs compiled by a committee of geniuses. Oh yeah, oh yeah.

    Photo of Arthur Conley via public domain.

    What is your favorite version of “Sweet Soul Music”? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Anniversary of Sam Cooke’s “Live at the Harlem Square Club”

    On January 12, 1963, Sam Cooke performed in downtown Miami at the Harlem Square Club. The club was full of Cooke’s fans, and Cooke delivered one of the great live performances.  The show also resulted  in the album Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963.

    In his detailed biography of Sam Cooke, Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, Peter Guralnick described the Harlem Square Club as “a big barn of a building.” He noted that the show was early in the tour when Cooke performed at the Harlem Square Club. That night, the show included a late performance that went from 1 a.m. to 4 a.m. (p. 453.)

    Cooke used his live gospel background for his rousing performance, which contrasted with many of his pop hits played on radio. Guralnick writes, “There was nothing soft, measured, or polite about the Sam Cooke you saw at the Harlem Square Club.”

    The performance, however, was too much for the record company. RCA believed that the album would not attract the mainstream audience it wanted for Cooke. So the record was shelved and not released until 1985, long after the young singer’s tragic death in December 1964.

    The album is among my top few favorite albums, live or otherwise.  Cooke’s performance of “Bring It On Home to Me” on the album jumps off the CD.  His voice makes you feel like you were there on that January Miami night, as you ride through the slow 2-minute-plus build up to the release of the opening notes of the chorus.

    NPR has an interesting interview with Greg Geller, the record executive who rediscovered the tapes of the show in 1985. But the best thing to do to mark the anniversary is to put on the album, close your eyes, and let Sam Cooke take you back to a time when you believed that music could not only change your life but could transform your soul.

    What is your favorite track on “Live at the Harlem Square Club”? Leave your two cents in the comments.

  • 3 a.m. Albums: Sam Cooke’s “Night Beat”
  • Spotlight On the Four Magnificent Artists Behind “Sweet Soul Music”
  • Watch Classic Music from Dick Clark’s Saturday Night Beech-Nut Show
  • Best Gospel Songs By Pop Singers (Part 1): Nearer & Pressing
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    Watch Classic Music from Dick Clark’s Saturday Night Beech-Nut Show

    NRR Archives on YouTube started posting old rock and roll clips from Dick Clark’s Saturday Night Beech-Nut Show. Clips feature Johhny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Connie Francis, Dion and the Belmonts, Bobby Darin, Annette Funicello, The Platters, Sam Cooke, The Everly Brothers, Conway Twitty, Ronnie Hawkins, Jackie Wilson and many others. Check out the NRR Archive link to see the clips. Here is Roy Orbison singing “Uptown” (the clip also includes Anita Bryant singing “Paper Roses”).

    Dick Clark’s Saturday Night Beech-Nut Show, also known as “The Dick Clark Show,” ran on ABC at 7:30-8:00 p.m. (EST) on Saturdays (of course) from February 15, 1958 through September 10, 1960. During this same period, Clark also hosted the show for which he is most remembered, American Bandstand, which ran on weekdays. Bandstand, which in contrast to the Beech-Nut Show featured dancing, was mainly broadcast from Philadelphia, requiring Clark to travel back and forth to Manhattan, from where the Beech-Nut Show was generally broadcast.

    Although the Saturday show sponsored by “the brightest and the happiest gum there ever was” may be less remembered than some of Clark’s other work, the show had a lot of great classic music. Check out Johnny Cash singing “The Rebel (Johnny Yuma)” below and then check out the other clips.

    What is your favorite clip in the archive? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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  • Best Gospel Songs By Pop Singers (Part 1): Nearer & Pressing

    It has been awhile since I spent a Sunday in church, and the last time I visited, the preacher spent more time talking about politics than about faith. But I do love to hear beautiful gospel songs. You do not need to be religious to open yourself up to these songs, which at the heart, are really love songs. In this three-part series, we are discussing the Best Gospel Songs by Pop Singers. We start off with songs by Sam Cooke and Bob Dylan.

    Nearer to Thee, Sam Cooke

    Yes, I’m cheating. The Soul Stirrers were a gospel group.  But this song is featured because their lead singer Sam Cooke, who is one of my favorite singers, went on to popular secular success on his own.

    The song builds gradually with the hypnotic background vocals and Cooke’s fantastic voice. On this recording you can hear Cooke gradually working up the crowd, slowly, slowly, building . . . building . . . building . . . toward release and salvation. Beautiful.

    Although Cooke recorded many great popular songs as a secular artist, few reached the intensity of “Nearer to Thee.” The one secular song that reaches a similar frenzy is his live version of “Bring It On Home to Me,” available on One Night Stand: Live at the Harlem Square Club 63.

    Pressing On, Bob Dylan

    I was too young to notice when Bob Dylan first became a phenomenon, but I do remember when everyone was surprised that he became a born-again Christian in the late 1970s. His music from this period includes a number of outstanding original gospel songs, including “Gotta Serve Somebody.”

    One song from this period that is less well-known than some others is “Pressing On.” As Sam Cooke did in “Nearer to Thee,” Dylan effectively uses repetition. He repeats “I’m pressing on” throughout the song to provide a hypnotic quality not unlike a moving church service.

    Here is the version of “Pressing On” by John Doe that was featured in the very good movie “about” Bob Dylan, I’m Not There (2007). Doe, founder of the punk bank X, does an excellent cover.

    In this scene, Christian Bale does a great job of playing the singing Dylan and capturing the hypnotic nature of the song. Critic Greil Marcus wrote that the Doe-Bale combination is the place where the song found its voice. (“Themes from a Summer Place,” New West, July 28, 1980).

    Another great gospel song by Bob Dylan, and perhaps his greatest, is “Every Grain of Sand.” For other great gospel songs by popular artists, check out upcoming posts in this series of Best Gospel Songs by Pop Singers. ..

    What are your favorite gospel recordings by popular artists? Leave a comment.

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  • Best Gospel Songs by Pop Singers 4: Morning, Flying & Mystery
  • Best Gospel Songs by Pop Singers 3: Ready, Walk, Great
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