In The Dust #1: Sam Cooke’s ‘Night Beat’
Once a week In The Dust rolls up its sleeves and digs to the back of the rack to find that record, the one you never knew you always wanted, the one that’s lost, but not forgotten. (Listen via Spotify)
Most of you probably know Sam Cooke best for his seminal classic, “A Change Is Gonna Come”. Some of you might know Sam Cooke best for his 1964 album, Ain’t That Good News. A few of you might even know Sam Cooke best for his active role in the American Civil Rights Movement. No matter how you know him, the fact is, you do.
He is commonly known as The King of Soul, widely regarded as a pioneer, if not a founder, of American Soul music. His brilliant career was cut short at the age of 33 when he was shot to death in an altercation with the manager of the Hacienda Hotel in Los Angeles. His legacy and unsurpassed talent continue to shine, perhaps brightest on his 1963 classic, Night Beat, an album that was well received when it was released but is now routinely overshadowed by others in his oeuvre.
Night Beat is named so for a reason. Much like In The Wee Small Hours (possibly Sinatra’s best album and arguably the first concept record), Cooke’s blues-tinged Night Beat is composed largely of carefully selected standards. It begins as a stoic, dimly lit expression of woe and the difficulties of life, as if delivered at midnight from a favorite chair at the end of a long, trying day.
The album’s opening track, “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen“, offers an immediate look into the soul of this set: positivity in the face of despair. Cooke croons, “If you get there before I do / Oh, oh yes lord / Don’t forget to tell all my friends I’m comin’ too / Whoa, oh yes lord / Still, nobody knows the trouble that I’ve seen / Nobody knows my sorrow / Nobody knows the trouble that I’ve seen / Glory, hallelujah”. In the face of everything, when all one knows is tumbling down, there is peace on the horizon for those with the constitution to persevere, a message Cooke expounds piece by piece throughout the album as a salve for the wounds of a much-maligned and mistreated fanbase, a message of faith with roots deep in Religion and deeper still in the blues.
“Lost and Lookin’”, the album’s stark, arresting second track, features the refrain, “I’m lost / And I’m lookin’ for my baby,” a phrase Cooke delivers with such emotion that it is clear his ‘baby’ is his only hope for a life worth living. “Mean Old World”, the next track and possibly Cooke’s finest vocal performance on the album, furthers that narrative with the refrain, “This is a mean old world to live in all by yourself.” Cooke howls with abandon, jumping from note to note with desperation, as if frantically trying to escape the impending darkness of a solitary future. The album proceeds in a similar vein with morose, shuffling “Please Don’t Drive Me Away”, a Chicago-blues plea for love and loyalty, followed by “I Lost Everything”, Cooke’s woozy, teary-eyed lament for desire fallen on deaf ears.
The centerpiece of the record, “Get Yourself Another Fool”, signifies a change in Cooke’s woebegone psyche. Cooke, in a delicate melody, cheery but not overjoyed, content but not satisfied, and with all the bitter-sweetness of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”, refuses to be played by anyone any longer, floating willfully over the gospel-smacked organ styling of a 16-year old Billy Preston (later a massively famous keyboardist/organist and the only non-Fab Four ever to receive a musician’s credit on a Beatles album).
With “Get Yourself Another Fool”, the spirit of the album changes and begins to rise, growing stronger with each remaining track. “Little Red Rooster”, an infectious, twelve-bar, AAB standard, echoes “Get Yourself Another Fool” and supposes that it’s the rooster’s time to do what he wants, everyone else be damned. The rooster does exactly that, despite anyone’s wishes, but as “Laughin’ and Clownin” shows, for newfound resolve like the rooster’s to stick, it needs constant reassurance. Cooke bemoans the difficulties of keeping a brave face in the mouth of heartbreak. “Laughin’ and clownin’,” he sings with shame, “just to keep from cryin’ … I keep on laughin’ and clownin’ / just to take my mind off you.”
“Trouble Blues” speaks directly to the struggle of “Laughin’ and Clownin’”, maintaining from beneath an ominous swath of reverb that while things seemed bright at first, there is turbulence now, there will be ahead and it takes yet even more will to see change through. He revisits his cycle of sadness, anger, acceptance and near relapse and surmises, “…You leaving, baby / you know that’s wrong / But oh, someday, someday darling / I won’t be trouble no more.” To achieve this, Cooke holds firm, saying, in his bouncy, swinging cover of the Mississippi Fred McDowell delta classic, “If you keep on mistreatin’ me, baby / You gotta move”.
Finally, Cooke is fed up, and on “Fool’s Paradise”, over a tinkling, broken-finger piano that seems to be shaking its head right along with him, he looks back on a life of mistakes, “I often think of the live I’ve led / And oh, It’s a wonder, I ain’t dead / Drinking and gambling, staying out all night / Living is a fool’s paradise.” With a melancholy but grateful air, he emerges from his various stages of grief to conclude that things can and will be different, and they are his to change.
And now, he celebrates.
“Shake, Rattle and Roll”, the album’s closing track, is a joyous, rollicking boogie-woogie step out in which Cooke severs the ball from the chain of his emotions and approaches the world with wisdom, rather than self-pity. “Get out of that bed,” the song begins, “wash your face and hands.” Life begins now, the pain and darkness of recent working as propulsion to reach above and beyond the old ways, which are always looming. “When you’re wearing them dresses / the sun come shining through / I can’t believe my eyes / all of it belongs to you.”
Cooke, in the course of this suite, never sought to change his instincts or his urges, only his behavior. In the face of this temptress, he reflects a new way of responding to his carnal side. “Now I believe to my soul / you’re the devil in nylon hose / O, you won’t do right to save you / not your soul.” All she wants to do is, “Shake, rattle and roll.” She can do what she pleases, but Cooke won’t be any part of it. He was done dirty, but is washed clean. He chooses to dance and sing along rather than so soon be bogged down in the same sludge.
This is the message at the core of Night Beat. In the short 37 minutes of this 12-song suite, we followed Cooke down, cringed as he was pushed there and wanted nothing more than to pull him out, but this is not a be-there-for-your-brother story. Cooke found himself alone at the bottom, as most do, and so Night Beat is a guide to redemption, delivered in a methodically sequenced, soulfully crafted, soothing embrace for the lonely and low. For those alone on the bottom, with difficulty imagining what it looks like above, Sam is there to show you, to put hot soup in your cold winter hands and assure you that there is no hole too deep when there are always the tools to build a ladder.