CDs & DVDs
This page is divided into three sections. The first reviews commercially available gospel CDs of The Soul Stirrers. It can be found below this introduction. The second reviews commercially available CDs of Sam Cooke, solo. It can be found toward the middle of the page. The third section reviews commercially available DVDs of Sam Cooke. It can be found toward the bottom of the page.
Sam Cooke & The Soul Stirrers (Gospel)
In the late 1960s, many of the Soul Stirrers' original recordings were reissued on LPs by Specialty. Some of the songs on these LPs were "sweetened" with all sorts of overdubs to make them sound more contemporary. In most cases, these overdubs consisted of drums and/or piano. In other cases, the overdubs included additional backing vocals by a church choir somewhat similar in sound to the Edwin Hawkins Singers.
For the most part, these overdubbed versions are inferior to the original, unadulterated recordings and should be avoided. (One big exception is the glorious overdubbed version of "Last Mile Of The Way," available on the CD of the same name as well as the box set.) At any rate, some of these modified recordings do make for interesting listening, if only to compare to the originals.
Here's a buyer's guide to the CDs, LPs and cassettes of The Soul Stirrers with Sam Cooke. Wherever possible, I've noted which discs feature overdubbed tracks.
In The Beginning
(The Soul Stirrers recordings on this disc are the original versions with no overdubs. Some of the solo pop recordings feature overdubs, but this disc also boasts non-overdub versions found on no other release.)
This is a great album that was first issued in 1989. It's now back in print in the United Kingdom and is available in stateside from retailers like CDNOW. This disc consists of material Sam recorded for Specialty Records, both with the Soul Stirrers and during his one, ill-fated pop session with the label. Get this one now for rarities like the alternate take of "Happy In Love" - available on no other release that I know of - and the remixes of four pop recordings without the background vocals found on the more common releases.
Jesus Gave Me Water
This 1992 release features original recordings with no overdubs. It also includes previousl released master takes and alternate takes of certain songs.
Sam Cooke With The Soul Stirrers
This release features original recordings with no overdubs. It only includes previously released master takes, it does not contain any alternate takes.
The Complete Specialty Recordings
This set has a lot going for it: 84 spectacular, remastered recordings, thoughtfully compiled and presented in a handsome CD-sized box with a 36-page booklet that sports liner notes by Daniel Wolff.
So why am I disappointed?
Well, this is the first (and likely the last, at least for the forseeable future) box set of Sam's Specialty recordings. As such, I had hoped for perfection: a set that would collect all previously issued Speciality recordings and perhaps a few previously unreleased gems. Well, what we got instead is something that comes awfully close, but still misses the mark.
There are two previously released Soul Stirrers performances that are missing from this set (Take 2 of "Lord Remember Me" and "Just As I Am"). Also, there are two (possibly three) songs previously released with overdubs that are presented here only in their original form before the overdubs were added. The omission of these overdub variations seems odd, since the set does present "I'm On The Firing Line" both with and without overdubs.
As for Sam's solo pop recordings for the label, the box set is far from complete. In fact, these pop recordings are better represented on the single-disc import CD "In The Beginning" on Ace Records. "In The Beginning" includes variations of four songs (the four are presented with and without overdubs), plus an alternate take of "Happy In Love" -- none of which are on the box set.
The box set also omits one of the rarer pop recordings, "It's Time To Say Goodbye," issued previously on a Specialty single and on a Speciality album called "Forever." That same album also includes a wonderful early version of "You Were Made For Me" that's not on the box set. (It may be that these two songs were originally planned for the box set: The notes on the back of the outer box claim the set includes nine solo songs, but only seven are presented.)
Yet another missing song is the "hidden track" from Specialty's "The Two Sides of Sam Cooke" CD, which is essentially a brief vocal warm-up for " I Don't Want To Cry."
All told, the set is missing 13 songs, seven of which are variations of songs that appear on the set in a different form. All 13 were previously issued by Specialty. This is something to consider before plunking down $40 for a box set that bills itself as "The Complete Specialty Recordings."
Now, to be fair to the folks at Fantasy Records (who own the Specialty catalogue), compilations of this sort are always subject to Monday morning quaterbacking and outright nit-picking by obsessive fans like myself. And I have to give credit to Stuart Kremsky for fielding a few questions from me about some of the omissions from the box set.
Here's a bit of the Q and A to which I subjected Stuart:
The set doesn't include "Just As I Am" or Take 2 of "Lord Remember Me," both of which can be found on the "Last Mile Of The Way" CD. Were these omissions an oversight or the result of a deliberate decision made for artistic reasons or lack of space on the discs?
We restricted the boxed set to songs on which Sam sings a lead part. Since Bob King sings lead on Just As I Am, this was left off. The second take of Lord Remember Me should have been included; that one was my mistake.
Some -- but not all -- of the same Soul Stirrers performances are included twice on the set if there were previously released variations. For example, "I'm On The Firing Line" is heard with and without overdubs, while only the no-overdub version of "Christ Is All" is included. Was this done for any particular reason?
The idea was to include only versions without the overdubs. The overdubbed version of "I'm On The Firing Line" should not have been included.
According to the 1994 "Last Mile Of The Way" CD, take 13 of "He's My Guide" was previously issued with overdubs -- but I can't find that version anywhere. The liner notes to the 1970 release "The Two Sides Of Sam Cooke" indicate the song was first released on that disc, but the version heard on that CD is identical to the one on the "Last Mile Of The Way" CD. The only thing I can surmise is that the overdubbed version appeared on the vinyl LP version of "The Two Sides Of Sam Cooke," but the original, no-overdub version was used for the CD. Is that correct?
This one is very confusing, and I don't think I can solve it at the moment. The index card for this song reads as follows:
ST316: Original session tape, including master (take 13), without overdubs
ST8004: Eight-track overdub tape
MT 238: Stereo master (SPS2119) mixed down from ST8004
ST 335: Earlier takes (without Sam's solo) from original session tape
(ST stands for "session tape" and MT stands for "master tape.")
There's paperwork in the folder for the LP version of "The Two Sides Of Sam Cooke" that indicates an overdub session on 8/6/69. So I'm reasonably confident that the overdubbed version is on that album. I can't at the moment figure out what tapes were used to master the CD of that album, so I can't be sure about what happened there. There is a possibility that your suspicion is correct, but that would be a very unusual occurence, and until I figure out how we made the CD version of "The Two Sides Of Sam Cooke," I just can't be sure. I'll try and figure it out.
Are there any unreleased alternate takes remaining in the vaults? I ask this because for some songs (such as "Any Day Now" and "Jesus I'll Never Forget") we now have released versions of takes 5 or 6 (and the master takes), but no takes 1, 2, 3 or 4.
It's possible that there are some unissued takes, but we figured that Opal Nations and Lee Hildebrand (who compiled the "Last Mile Of The Way" and "Jesus Gave Me Water" CDs in the early 1990s) had already scoured the vaults .... By now, the tapes are pretty fragile, as well. We also wanted to keep it manageable at three discs. And the bottom line is that there are various legal difficulties in issuing any previously unreleased Sam Cooke material. That's the main point.
So thanks to a gracious Stuart Kremsky we now have a bit more insight into the way this set was compiled. And his research does indicate that an overdubbed version of "He's My Guide" was created in 1969 and almost certainly released -- most likely on that vinyl version of "The Two Sides Of Sam Cooke."
Now, I'm a firm believer that records -- even compilations such as this box set -- should be judged for what they include, not just what they omit. And on that score, this set scores an 11 on a scale of 1 to 10. Each of the songs is aleged to have been newly remastered -- and the sound does seem just a tad improved over the CDs issued in 1992 and 1994.
One minor gripe about the liner notes: They would have benefitted from a less cryptic explanation of each song's lineage. For example, the casual observer can't tell from looking at the liner notes what the difference is between the two versions of "I'm On The Firing Line" that are presented back to back on Disc One.
Only the obsessive fanatic can discern from the liner notes that the version designated "SP 2128" is the version with vocal overdubs, since "SP 2128" is the catalogue number of a 1971 album on which the overdubbed version was first released. Likewise, the version designated "SPCD 7031-2" is the no-overdub version which first saw release in 1992 on a CD with that catalogue number. Why use catalogue numbers to differentiate between the songs? Why not use the brief descriptors "overdubbed version" or "edited version" so people don't have to cross reference the liner notes with their vinyl and CD collections?
OK, enough complaining. I spent 40 bucks on this set and I don't regret it - which is saying a lot considering I already had 99 percent of this material on CD and don't have money to burn. While I wish someone would have consulted me about the track listing (hey, I work cheap!), this set is required listening for all fans of Sam Cooke.
The Great 1955 Shrine Concert
This relase features original recordings with no overdubs.
The Last Mile Of The Way
This 1994 release features original recordings with no overdubs. It also includes previous released master takes and alternative takes of certain songs. Even if you have the box set, you need this CD for "Just As I Am" and Take 2 of "Lord Remember Me."
The Two Sides of Sam Cooke
This 1970 release features original recordings with no overdubs. It also includes previously released master takes and two previously unreleased songs, "The Last Mile Of The Way" and "He's My Guide." No alternate takes are used on this release. Half the songs are solo pop recordings, some of which feature overdubs not found on other releases.
Sam Cooke (Secular)
Click here for an interview with Steve Rosenthal, who is the sound restoration and archive coordinator for the five new CDs in ABKCO's Sam Cooke Remastered Collection. Rosenthal is known to rock music fans as the restoration coordinator on last year's highly acclaimed Rolling Stones remasters which, like the new Cooke discs, were issued by Abkco as dual-layer hybrid SACDs. To folk music fans, Rosenthal is the archivist for the Alan Lomax Collection, a treasury of American folk and blues field recordings. Rosenthal talks about his work on the Sam Cooke tapes and the process that resulted in what are, by far, the best-sounding releases in the entire Sam Cooke catalog.
Ain't That Good News
It's a remastered version of the original 1964 LP of the same name. So, as you might expect, the song selection seems skimpy by today's standards as it includes just twelve songs. Realizing this, ABKCO thoughtfully knocked the price down several bucks. So although this is a high-tech SACD hybrid disc, you can find it in some stores for just $8.99 - a real bargain. True, ten of the twelve songs here are on the indispensable "Keep Movin' On" compilation (see below), but this is the only CD where you can hear Sam's versions of "Home" and "Sittin' In The Sun."
A solid collection that essentially replaced "THE MAN AND HIS MUSIC" after that title went out of print. True, it doesn't have "A Change Is Gonna Come" or any of his latter recordings now controlled by ABKCO Records, but it does have everything else and in great sound quality, too. Sharp-eyed shoppers will want to look for the first pressing of this disc that contains 22, rather than 21, songs. It seems that shortly after this set was released, ABKCO asserted that RCA had no right to issue "Another Saturday Night," so that song was then pulled from this CD, creating something of a collector's item. No real rarities here, just lots of great music on a thoughtfully compiled disc with decent liner notes. If you have this disc and ABKCO's "Keep Movin' On" CD (see above), you have what is essentially a great two-volume set of Sam's best studio work.
Keep Movin' On
Released early in 2002 (and re-released in 2003 as a hybrid SACD disc), this CD gathers together the best of Sam's final recordings for the company now known as ABKCO Records. As such, it essentially serves as sort of a "Greatest Hits, Volume Two" - with the actual "Greatest Hits" CD from RCA (see below) serving as Volume One. If you buy these two discs, you really have an excellent overview of Sam's pop career with all of the essential recordings. The highlight on this CD is the previously unreleased title track, although this disc also includes the magnificent "A Change Is Gonna Come" and the soulful "Ease My Troublin' Mind."
Live at the Harlem Square Club
Universally hailed as one of pop music's best live albums, this set was first released in 1985.
Unfortunately, this album has yet to be released in the SACD format. Sam fans who are just starting to build their CD collection should think twice before buying this CD, as the entire album is included in the "Man Who Invented Soul" box set. If you're planning to buy the box set, this disc is a bit redundant.
Live at the Copa
The biggest selling album of Sam's lifetime, this collection still stands as the very definition of supper club soul.
ABKCO worked miracles with this album when it was re-released in the SACD format in 2003. Unlike the other remastered Cooke discs issued that year, this one was remixed in 5.1 surround - so if you (a) have a SACD player, and (b) have a 5.1 surround receiver and speaker set-up, you are in for a real treat. Some of the performances on this disc are a bit tame for my taste, but really, it's all good - and a few of the tracks ("Twistin' The Night Away" and "Tennessee Waltz") are among Sam's best.
Portrait of a Legend
This is it, folks. This is the best Sam Cooke compilation ever produced. All the hits - and we mean all - are here, and each of the 30 tracks was painstakingly remastered for the best possible sound. This is a SACD hybrid disc, which means that it will play on any standard CD player and sound terrific, but it also will play on Super Audio Compact Disc players and will sound spectacular. (See the bottom of the page for a more detailed explanation of SACD technology.) Unlike every other compilation currently in print, this set covers Sam's entire recording career, including tracks recorded for Specialty Records, RCA Records and the label now known as ABKCO. It's packaged in a nice cardboard Digipack with song-by-song annotation by Peter Guralnick.
Here's the complete press release from ABKCO announcing this disc's release in June 2003:
"This new disc follows Sam Cooke's full career, from his teenage debut as a full-fledged member of the legendary Soul Stirrers in 1951 to his years as a rhythm and blues phenomenon. His hit songs, most of which he wrote, went on to become pop standards, enduring to this day. Sam Cooke's amazing body of work is now encapsulated in "Sam Cooke: Portrait of A Legend: 1951-1964."
It includes 30 tracks and is part of ABKCO's Sam Cooke Remastered Collection, an initiative to offer state of the art editions of restored and remastered Sam Cooke albums on dual layer (hybrid) CD / SACD discs, compatible with any standard CD player as well as Super Audio players. A diligent quality assurance program coupled with painstaking research and the most advanced digital-to-analog transfer and mastering technologies were employed in producing this collection. Extensive analysis was carried out to determine the best mastering sources and first generation masters were utilized throughout the assembly of the album's track lineup. The result is nothing less than extraordinarily authentic with the shadings and nuance last experienced in the studio years ago.
"The sound quality is, arguably, as close to what Sam Cooke and his fellow musicians heard when the engineer pressed the 'playback' button for the first time after those original sessions," notes Jody Klein, restoration producer for The Sam Cooke Remastered Collection.
With a running time of one hour and twenty minutes, "Sam Cooke: Portrait Of A Legend" includes all of his essential hits and provides a major overview of a career that has left an ever lasting mark on American music that remains indelible today almost forty years after Cooke's untimely death. ABKCO presents tracks from Cooke's gospel and early R&B career as well as his pop / soul hits from the Specialty and RCA labels and has combined them with the cream of the masters that are part of his own company, Tracey Records. He was one of the first recording stars, black or white, to command this kind of artistic control, the most noteworthy other example at the time being Frank Sinatra.
"Sam Cooke: Portrait of a Legend: 1951-1964" highlights Cooke's astounding command of the gospel idiom when, at age 19, he joined the world renowned Soul Stirrers. With Cooke singing lead, the veteran group recorded "Jesus Gave Me Water," on March 1, 1951 at a session for Specialty Records; Sam Cooke's professional career had begun. More than a half century later, that same song closes this collection that starts with another Soul Stirrers song, "Touch The Hem Of His Garment," that was written by Cooke.
After his decision to sing secular music as a solo artist, Cooke began to dominate the charts, starting with "You Send Me," released by Keen Records in 1957. A simultaneous Pop and R&B #1 smash hit, the career making song is included in this new retrospective. Throughout the late 1950's and until the time of his death, Cooke was one of the most popular vocalists in the world with a streak of Top 10 Billboard Pop Chart hits that, of course, began with "You Send Me" and continued through "Chain Gang," "Twistin' The Night Away," "Another Saturday Night" and "Shake," all of which are on "Sam Cooke: Portrait of a Legend." Three of these hits were also #1 Billboard R&B Chart singles; two peaked at #2.
Seven other songs in the collection were also Top 10 R&B hits including "I'll Come Running Back To You," "Win Your Love For Me," "Everybody Likes To Cha Cha Cha, "Wonderful World," "Bring It On Home to Me," "Having A Party," "Nothing Can Change This Love," and "A Change Is Gonna Come."
A bonus, hidden track entitled "Soul" is included in the album. The melody was extemporaneously brought forth by Cooke during an interview with famed DJ Magnificent Montague of "burn baby, burn" fame. He had asked Cooke to "hum 'soul'" and this is an audio document of that moment in 1962. The songs included in Sam Cooke: Portrait Of A Legend collectively logged 273 weeks or five years and three months on Billboard's Pop Chart and a mind boggling 508 weeks (nine years and nine months) on the Pop and R&B charts, combined.
Comprehensive liner notes by author Peter Guralnick are provided in the "Sam Cooke: Portrait Of A Legend" package, as are detailed musician credits.
The Best of Sam Cooke
The budget-priced "yellow cover" album that is readily available just about everywhere. Don't let the title fool you. This album is missing some major hits, including "Another Saturday Night" and "A Change Is Gonna Come." It does, however, boast reasonably clean recordings of both versions of "Summertime" (the hit recording and a subsequent up-tempo take on the song.) It's hard to recommend this disc given that "Portrait Of A Legend" offers significantly longer playing time, improved song selection and vastly superior sound quality.
The Rhythm And The Blues
Back in 1985, RCA and ABKCO Records enacted a truce of sorts and agreed to work together in issuing "The Man And His Music," the "Live at the Harlem Square Club" and a compilation to be called "Blue Mood." The first two came out, but the third one never did. I don't know if this 20-track 1995 release is what was planned back in 1985, but I do know that it's an outstanding collection of Sam's more soulful songs. Highlights are "Driftin' Blues," "Smoke Rings," and ...well, actually the entire disc is nothing but highlights and it all comes in a very nice package with liner notes by Cliff White. Like the "Greatest Hits" CD and the box set, this was compiled by Paul Williams. Nice job, Paul.
Tribute the Lady
Another hybrid SACD disc, although this one is unique in that it consists entirely of material Sam recorded for Keen Records before his move to RCA. Essentially what we have here is a new, expanded version of Sam's 1959 LP that served as a tribute to Billie Holiday. Added to the original LP's running order are nine bonus tracks, many of them from Sam's 1958 LP for Keen Records, "Encore." The disc is not being sold in Canada or the United States, but can be purchased on line. Note: The entire disc is in mono. It's not clear to me whether these songs have ever been released in stereo.
Many fans are not big fans of Sam's "Tribute" album. On most of the songs, he adopts the persona of a lounge singer, and you can almost hear him grinning his way through "I've Gotta Right To Sing The Blues." His voice, as always, is first-rate - but there isn't a single note of sincerity in his singing. The big band arrangements are fabulous, but this is an album that Sam needed to record in his 50s (if only that were possible), not in his 20s.
Sam Cooke Compilation
Hard-core Sam Cooke fans are familiar with the commonly circulated hour-long video of Sam's classic TV performances. Which means that they also are familiar with the maddening dichotomy of quality it represents: Terrific performances, many of them live, presented in the sort of picture quality normally associated with convenience-store security cameras.
Now that same video compilation -- with one important addition -- has been issued on DVD, albeit one of suspect legality. (You can't find it in stores, but it can be purchased on line for about $35.)
The DVD faithfully duplicates the VHS version, and therein lies the problem. Sandwiched between the great renditions of "Basin Street Blues," "You Send Me" and "Blowin' In The Wind" is an endless array of poorly filmed and framed still photos and unreadable newspaper clippings. And the transitions between the various performances are, as always, marred by abrupt beginnings and endings that could easily have been smoothed over with graceful fade-outs that even the cheapest mastering software can facilitate.
What's even more strange is that the chapter stops are sprinkled indiscriminately throughout the disc, with no rhyme or reason. Advance to Chapter 3, and you land right in the middle of "Mary Mary Lou." Advance to Chapter 4, and you miss a few musical segments and wind up in the middle of what should be Chapter 7.
In short, the DVD is an absolute mess, from start to finish.
Even so, it's still a must-have purchase for the obsessive Sam Cooke fan. Here's why:
Picture Quality: Some of it is unforgivably bad, particularly the Ed Sullivan performances and the "American Bandstand" footage of "Aint That Good News." But those also happen to be the performances that can be easily acquired elsewhere in near-perfect quality. (See the Sam TV page for details.) The DVD footage from "The Tonight Show," "The George Klein Show," "Arthur Murray's Dance Party," "Shindig" and "The Mike Douglas Show" all offer picture quality that is a bit rough, but still quite acceptable.
The Format: A $33 DVD ain't cheap, but consider the alternative: A $25 VHS tape that is subject to being eaten by a VCR and really can't be duplicated for safekeeping without a major loss in picture quality. Because this is a DVD, you can make your own VHS copy as easily as you might make an audio tape of a CD -- and the loss of picture quality will be negligible. That also means you can edit out all the annoying still photos, and replace the Zapruderesque "Ed Sullivan Show" and "American Bandstand" footage with better source material. Without too much time and effort, you can create your own Sam Cooke VHS compilation that's much more watchable than this DVD.
Sam In Color: The one major difference between the old VHS version of this compilation and the new DVD is that the disc offers the color film footage of "Mary Mary Lou" that recently surfaced. (An excerpt can be seen on the officially released "Sam Cooke: Legend" DVD.) The color footage, unfortunately, isn't nearly as clear as the black-and-white footage of the same performance, and the black-and-white version also offers significantly better sound. That may be why the DVD maker included both versions, back to back - so you can take your pick.
The Extras: The Sam Cooke footage on this disc is coupled with "The Sounds Of Motown," a compilation of 1960s-era footage from the British TV show, "Ready Steady Go." Unlike the Sam Cooke material, all of the Motown footage looks and sounds great -- which it should, as it seems to be sourced from an officially released laserdisc, although I could be wrong on that point. In addition to performances by Smokey, Stevie, Marvin, Martha, The Temptations, etc., there are some great performances by the late Dusty Springfield, one of the best soul singers to ever come out of England.
So, all in all, I'd say this is one DVD every die-hard Sam Cooke fan should get. Yes, the "producers" failed to upgrade some key material with readily available footage of vastly improved quality. And, yes, they could have given us a more watchable version with accurate chapter stops that would enable viewers to program their player to skip all the still photos and newspaper clippings.
But, hey, it still has some great live performances of Sam Cooke! And that alone makes it worth $35.