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.
(Some related Chimesfreedom posts.)