So here we are, one month in the books. As we sit here on the eve of Black History Month, there couldn’t be a better choice than today’s selection, “Portrait of a Legend”, by the phenomenal one-of-a-kind, Sam Cooke. This album is rated #307 on Rolling Stone’s Greatest 500 Albums of All Time, but I would be really hard-pressed to find anywhere close to 306 albums I would rather listen to than this one. Thanks to my son, and perhaps even a nod to the movie “Animal House”, there are few singers ever that have moved me or entertained me like Sam Cooke.
This album contains 30 of Cooke’s greatest hits, ranging from the mid ‘50s until his tragic death in late 1964. There are so many magical songs on here that are instantly recognizable. “You Send Me”, which was his first big hit, reaching #1 as a single. “Chain Gang”, “Twistin’ The Night Away”, “Another Saturday Night”, and “(What A) Wonderful World” are all mandatory listening when Sam Cooke is involved. Two other songs above them all merit further discussion.
For me, “Cupid” is one of the most beautiful and simple songs ever, shining a light of hope and a dash of sadness on romantic aspiration. Written by Cooke, like most of his recordings, the vocal performance is stunning, and when he hits this line in the second verse, “Cupid, please hear my cry”, I get chills, every single time. Throughout this 534 day process I will hear hundreds of amazing singers, but Sam Cooke rates at the top of my vocal list until proven otherwise.
I reserve my last comments for “A Change is Gonna Come”. Also written by Cooke, it is his personal documentation of the struggles all African-Americans endured just trying to live a civilized life with dignity and equality, as they were falsely promised by our country for so many years. A gut-wrenching, yet beautiful ballad, the tragedy of this song is only further underscored by the fact it was released as a single eleven days after Cooke was killed by gunfire in a scene not fully understood to this day.
“Then I go to my brother, and I say brother, help me please…”
“And he winds up, knocking me, back down on my knees…”
Inspired by recent progress, the words of Dr. King, and the hope for something better, even if he didn’t get to fulfill his vision, Sam Cooke delivered a song we can all draw hope from even today, with much more work still to be done.
“It’s been a long, a long time coming… But I know, a change is gonna come, oh yes it will…”