Sam Cooke spent his career trying to mesh his earthy, soulful instincts, steeped in gospel, with his drive for mainstream success. Although that dichotomy was not unique to Cooke, in his case it created a nice tension that puts even his most lightweight offerings on notice.
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Now, a newly remastered version of Sam Cooke at the Copa is available, illustrating that conflict perfectly. The recording captures the tail end of Cooke's second Copacabana gig, which was important if only because Cooke had a score to settle. It seems that his 1958 debut at the New York nightspot went so badly that Variety declared the "handsome Negro lad" was not ready for the "savvy Copa crowd." Such patronizing remarks must have cut deeply, because six years later, when Cooke got this second shot at the white bread watering hole, he told friends that he intended to "stand the fucker on its ear."
Which -- this recording confirms -- he did with ease. Although he probably would have been more comfortable across town at the Apollo -- and he certainly would have rocked harder -- he takes charge of the room from the first note and breathes unexpected life into the sort of show-biz schlock that is usually associated with the likes of Sammy Davis Jr.
Cooke's rollicking horn arrangements and exuberant singing transform such empty-headed tinsel as "The Tennessee Waltz" and "Bill Bailey" into soul masterpieces. And he roots out an R&B groove in the dour "Blowin' in the Wind" that predates Stevie Wonder's similar efforts by several years.
One could argue that the whole thing was a joke on Cooke's part. He took a beating, came back with a show built on soul-tinged versions of suburban favorites and had Ward and June Cleaver eating out of his hands. Of course, there's the flip side that the joke may ultimately have been on Sam -- after the show, he still wasn't allowed to get a drink in the place.