Friday, November 30, 2007

The Night Beat: I'm Lost And Lookin' For My Baby

Recorded for the Night Beat album in 1963, this song has an utterly compelling quality, as, just embellished by a bass and cymbal, the lilting voice of Sam Cooke perfectly putting across the sensation of a man haunted and put to distraction by love lost.

That is one of the remarkable qualities of Sam Cooke - his lyrics are always so direct. They simply tell you exactly what he wants to say, and his delivery is always meticulously pitched to convince you that he means it.

H W Saxton, writing at BC Music, suggests a similarity here between Sam's singing and that of Reverend Claude Jeter of the Swan Silvertones.

Written by Sam's faithful friend and partner J W Alexander, it was based upon a gospel song Alex had sung. You get the feeling that Sam is so much more comfortable with the material from these sessions. In some ways, Hugo and Luigi were perhaps hoping to package it as a kind of Frank Sinatra after-hours collection, but they too must have sensed that it was more than that. Here was Sam Cooke releasing an album even more firmly rooted in r&b and gospel, divested of the strings and things, and soaring at the top of the mainstream pop market. It was a testament to Sam's achievement and a stake to a claim to respect for black artists that went beyond the next 45. Some see a link between these February 63 sessions and the recording of A Change Is Gonna Come, possibly Sam's most transcendent song, a few months later.

Sam Cooke - Lost And Lookin' (from 'Night Beat' RCA LSP 2709) 1963

Information for this post garnered from Dream Boogie by Peter Guralnick, album liner notes and H W Saxton. Photo scanned from album back cover. Listen to the hiss from the vinyl!

Friday, November 23, 2007

It Was Just Past Closing Time: Laughin' And Clownin' With Sam Cooke

"It was just past closing time when we dropped into the club to talk with Sam Cooke that night. 'Mr Soul' was singing for himself and for the small group of musicians who accompanied him. Standing to the rear of the club, we watched the young singer - tie off, jacket slung on a cane-backed chair - settle into a mood. We heard him sing through a smoky after-hours haze. The night's work was done. This was for the pure pleasure of performing..."

This was the way that Hugo And Luigi, successful hit-making pop producers working for RCA, described their first encounter with the live sound of the artist they had been trying to generate a pop hit for in the classic mould. They had gone to the Town Hill Club in Brooklyn in April 1960 to listen to Mr Sam Cooke:

"One song, two songs, and then even the waiters, busy with get-home chores, stopped work to listen. One by one they paused for a cigarette, pulled up a chair. Conversations lowed and ceased."

Hugo and Luigi were more accustomed to making mainstream pop that was successful and catchy. While they had dabbled in the r&b field with Della Reese, scoring a spectacular success with a r&b No. 1 and Pop No. 2, they had been struggling to understand what it was exactly about Mr Cooke. What were they not bringing out in the studio? Now they were experiencing the side to Sam's music that was not captured on any number of their records together to date...

"It was an experience to live through, to see Sam singing to a black audience... it seemed like it was effortless, the audience just loved every nuance, they fed on every little thing, they were enwrapt", recalled Luigi in an interview with renowned author Peter Guralnick.

Hugo and Luigi had been chosen by Sam because they could provide production values to complement Sam's music, make it successful in a mainstream pop market, without drowning it in traditional pop production. They sometimes did not necessarily connect with the deeper messages in some of Sam's songs, but on this occasion, they could sense that this was more than pop music for the sake of it. Soon after seeing Sam perform, they returned to the studio with a small band, like the one Sam had played with, and rerecorded Chain Gang, a pop classic with a personal message about the pain of incarceration. The hits, and a connection with the concerns of Sam Cooke, had been established...

Last summer, I did a post on poetry for a change. I chose Paul Lawrence Dunbar's classic, We Wear The Mask. I discussed briefly how Dunbar's work had impressed well-known black disc-jockey and black history collector Magnificent Montague, and set him upon his life-long and continuing journey to conserve the cultural heritage of African-Americans. What I did not know then was that it had also made an impact on his friend Sam Cooke, whose brother LC had sung in Montague's band The Magnificents.

In Peter Guralnick's frank and absorbing biography of Sam Cooke, Dream Boogie, he explains how Wear Wear The Mask inspired Sam to write Laughin' And Clownin', a track for Night Beat, the album he recorded in February 1963. It was his first LP with a small group backing, organised by close associate Rene Hall (as opposed to the strings arrangements Sam had gone for with most of his albums up to that point.) As an aside, Billy Preston, then just sixteen years old, is playing organ.

The song echoes the poem's themes of a hidden aspect of character for African-Americans, at a time when survival in white-dominated society required they conceal their true opinions. It was a way of coping with discrimination that everybody associated with Sam Cooke agree he simply would not accept. That was the truly inspiring thing about Sam Cooke, who had succeeded in becoming the most successful singer since Elvis on RCA, owner of his own record label, without ever compromising his beliefs or dignity.

Recalling that first time they went to meet Sam in a club, three years before, Hugo and Luigi wrote:

"What we witnessed that night was not a performance in the accepted sense. The effort had all of Sam's artistry and style, but there was something more intense and personal about it. Actually, we were eavesdropping on a top singer in those dark hours...
This, we know, is it. It's just past closing time, and Sam is singing for himself. There's an empty table over there. Welcome to Night Beat."

The mask is off, and it won't be worn.

Sam Cooke - Laughin' And Clownin' (Night Beat LP RCA LSP-2709) 1963

Liner notes written by Hugo and Luigi from the LP Nightbeat. Other information and quote from Luigi from Dream Boogie by Peter Guralnick, and Burn Baby Burn by Magnificent Montague and Bob Baker.
Dear Reader, An Apology: Thank you for your patience in awaiting this latest post! I see each week how many people return regularly hoping to read and listen to some more good music, and I appreciate it. It has been an exhausting month! Sudden changes at my place of work lead to a phenomenal rush of activity and a heavy workload. I thought to post a few things I had been working on, but to be frank they were half-done, and it wouldn't have been fair not to put my best effort into the writing - after all, I can't take credit for the music! The majority of work tasks have now been done, and this means that I shall be posting more regularly from today!

Sunday, November 04, 2007

"Dusty" Liverpool Soul: Chanting A Lover's Story

This week, I'm featuring another single from Liverpool soulsters The Chants. I'm glad to be making a bit of a fuss about these guys, and I've noticed a little bit of interest in their music growing on both the Soul Source and Soulful Detroit forums. It seems that some of their RCA singles were a popular dancefloor hit on the Northern Soul scene back in the 70s. I'm brushing off a dusty, and slightly crackly 45 (yes, I believed an ebay vendor when they said VG++) But as it happens, dusty is exactly how it was supposed to sound...

The Springfields, with Ivor Raymonde giving directions 2nd from left...This time, it's a single from 1967. The Chants' relationship with Pye had broken down very quickly, and they had moved on to Fontana Records and then to Decca. The producer here is Ivor Raymonde, who was a well-known arranger and former BBC musical director who had devised the arrangement for Dusty Springfield's 1963 hit I Only Want To Be With You, with its Phil Spector-like overloud orchestration giving it the impetus it needed, and had been guiding Dusty's career since then.

All the auspices might appear good, with a proven, experienced hit-maker producing Eddie Amoo's composition A Lover's Story, and providing one of his own, Wearing A Smile, for the b-side. Eddie Amoo has written a wonderful love song, with what may well be the first soul reference to a 'science-fiction book', though no George Clinton funk workouts here! The resulting single does sound lush and polished, and Raymonde gave the Chants the space on A Lover's Story to develop some interesting backing vocal lines on A Lover's Story to show off their harmony skills. However, the guys have to sometimes fight with the violins and flutes of Raymonde's powerful orchestral arrangement. Wearing a Smile is a more conventional pop tune, clearly in a Dusty style, that they perform magnificently, bringing it roaring to life, adding power and versatility to the singing that allows Raymonde to do away with some of the brasher orchestral musak. Sadly, once again, none of this made a difference when it came to getting a hit. Perhaps the Chants should have taken a leaf out of Dusty's book and moved on from Raymonde to try their luck in Memphis...

Instead it was time to move on, to Page One Records, home of numerous British psyche bands such as The Paramounts (soon to become Procul Harem) and The Troggs. However, once again, this move turned sour when Page One's first album release failed to sell, and seriously dented their available cashflow to release other records. The Chants were again not a priority, and moved on to RCA...

The Chants - A Lover's Story (A-side Decca 40923) 1967
The Chants - Wearing A Smile (B-side Decca 40925) 1967

Moving back to the present, Eddie Amoo has been recording with various local 'grime' and hip-hop artists from Toxteth, Rawface from Souls Rest, Laura Leigh, Chan, and The Grime Family to produce a CD of his Liverpool musical named after his Real Thing smash hit "Children Of The Ghetto", which I notice was dramatically less downloaded in my last Chants post (always scroll to the end!!!) Go to this MySpace site "Liverpool's Own" to keep up to date with news about this and other current Liverpool r&b trends (warning for us old folks, these youngsters do seem to enjoy their 'booty') ... Photos courtesy of Bill Harry and Spectropop.