The Copacabana reopens for Sam Cooke

Baby boomers no more appreciated Sam Cooke’s slick conquest of the Jewish supper club set when it was first recorded and issued on RCA Victor in 1964—the same year Cooke died—than they did Bobby Darin’s. To some teens at the time, “You Send Me,” and “Splish Splash,” were theirs, but this dated style Copacabana review was their parents’. In retrospect, the million plus seller “You Send Me,” was much closer to easy listening than to rock’n roll, and while Darin’s foray into the teen market with tunes like “Splish Splash, and “Dream Lover,” was explicit to the point of being exploitive, Cooke’s chart success with songs like “Chain Gang,” was far more subtly drawn. Perhaps that’s because, having already succeeded as a gospel singer with the Soul Stirrers, and as a soul star on the black “chitlin’ circuit,” he was less in need of pop stardom. Darin may have roamed, but it was within a more limited territory, until events of the ‘60s—musically and otherwise— shattered his slick showbiz pretenses.

If you draw a big arc and put Harry Belafonte on one end, and James Brown on the other, you’d have to put Otis Redding midway between center and James Brown, and Sam Cooke midway on the other side, along with Jackie Wilson and the original Motown groups—when they did their nightclub shtick. James Brown aimed his act at black audiences and didn’t make any apologies for its raw sexuality. Brown welcomed mainstream acceptance but he didn’t cater to it—and not surprisingly he didn’t get it until well after his most potent performing years had passed. It’s doubtful Brown could have taken his act—in any form—to the Copacabana.

Belafonte’s brand of well-scrubbed calypso made up with craft and sheer talent for what it lacked in authenticity, and was clearly aimed at, and accepted by a white mainstream—and at the time, very Jewish— audience. When Belafonte asks the “whole mispochah” (Yiddish for “family”) to sing along on Belafonte at Carnegie Hall’s “Matilda,” he knew who his audience was.

Otis Redding, operating within the integrated Stax/Volt universe was keenly aware of what was happening in rock music, incorporating Lennon/McCartney and Jagger/Richards in his repertoire, but on his own raw, energetic terms. With “Dock of the Bay,” he moved toward a folkier gentle side, and had he not been killed, who knows where that might have led him? Probably not to the Copacabana. It’s unlikely country boy Otis would have been interested in conquering that fading scene —though Darin played it for the last time in 1969.

If you dismissed Sam Cooke Live at the Copa when it was first released, this superbly produced reissue may have you reconsidering this facet of Cooke’s career, thanks to the vivid sound, the passing of time, and especially to Peter Guralnick’s dramatic telling of the events leading up to Cooke’s Copa stint—including an earlier failure at the famed nightclub. One can’t help but come away with an appreciation and respect for what Cooke achieved here, even if facile sounding, jazzy nightclub renderings of Dylan’s “Blowin’ In the Wind,” “If I Had a Hammer,” “Bill Bailey,” and other standards sounds like a potentially grim repertoire.

It doesn’t spoil the story to say that from the moment Sammy Davis Jr. introduces Cooke (via a recording left off the original vinyl) to the accompaniment of a small orchestra arranged and conducted by Réne Hall, and through to concert’s end, the veteran commands the stage, segueing between songs with slick, small combo-backed empty patter, and more importantly not hitting a false, or inappropriate note throughout (though he does confuse verses in “If I Had a Hammer,” correcting himself mid-line with a laugh).

Handsome and poised, Cooke was smooth, yet he could swing without breaking a sweat, and even his grittiest cries were honey-toned. His phrasing and control—if you choose to pay attention—were astonishing, and the ease with which he delivered rapid-fire surprises and difficult to achieve vocal effects make them easy to skim over precisely because they were rendered with such seeming effortlessness. Above all, Cooke’s style was utterly original, and when you reconsider it today, his influence on a decade’s worth of singers, from Smokey, to Otis, to Al Green and even Aretha Franklin was enormous. Mostly you’ll hear Rod Stewart, whose voice wouldn’t even exist without Sam Cooke, and Stewart would acknowledge the debt.

In the case of Sam Cooke Live at the Copa, the sum of the performance is greater than the parts, as some of Cooke’s affectations, especially his little giggles, hiccups and mood breaking, nervous affectations, can be annoying. If you listen past those and concentrate on Cooke’s insistent inventiveness and the simmering band behind him (featuring Bobby Womack on guitar—introduced by Cooke as "Bobby Valentino"), this is, from start to finish, a mesmerizing performance, admittedly couched in show biz conventions long since dated, but still well worth your while.

I don’t have the original RCA issue (LSP-2970), but the 1978 reissue is plagued by an annoying artificial reverb tacked onto Cooke’s voice. I don’t know whether that was on the original, but it disqualifies it from consideration, though otherwise it sounds fine—not surprising with Al Schmitt’s name attached to the project. The original ABKCO vinyl, cut from digital, is gray, cold and awful. However, on this hybrid 5.1 SACD reissue, ABKCO picks up where it left off on the Stones catalog. The sonics on the 2 channel SACD layer are superb, with a transparent, harmonically complex, 3 dimensional sensation of Cooke out front working the stage, and nicely rendered instruments arrayed across it. The miking is close, especially on Cooke’s voice, preserving the intimacy of a night club performance.

Bob Ludwig’s mastering preserves the energy and dynamics, along with some of the bright raw edges that help make it sound “live.” Even in 2 channels, the sensation of the Copa space comes through intact. However, the 5.1 channel version really is even more convincing spatially, though it must have been artificially generated, since I doubt this was more than a 3 channel recording. Whatever was done to create the space (the press blurb says the film “Goodfellas,” which had scenes filmed at the club was studied) worked surprisingly well.

Add an attractive Digipak gatefold presentation, filled with excellent documentation and annotation and you have a first class reissue in every way. Highly recommended.

If you want to hear Cooke in a more at home setting, singing to a more familiar audience, check out Sam Cooke Live at The Harlem Square Club, 1963. I have the 1985 RCA vinyl issue (AFL1-5181) but I'm sure it's been reissued on CD. The original credits list Bob Simpson as the engineer, with assistance from Tony Salvatore. If you're an RCA "Living Stereo" enthusiast, you know the names, and you can imagine the sound!