Sam Cooke’s Early Years Collected in New 5-CD Set: Review

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From a career standpoint, Sam Cooke’s Keen Records period bears comparison to Elvis Presley’s days at Sun. Presley made seminal recordings at the latter label before his new manager, the hard-driving Colonel Tom Parker, signed him up for stardom at the much larger RCA. Similarly, Cooke spent an important transitional period at Keen before moving to RCA, where he scored many of his biggest hits, including “Cupid,” “Chain Gang” and “Another Saturday Night.” (Unfortunately, Cooke’s days as an active recording artist at RCA were much shorter than Presley’s: he signed with the company in 1960. Another tough-talking manager, Allen Klein, renegotiated Cooke’s contract with the label in 1963; the star was shot to death a year later, at age 33.)

As its title suggests, the new Complete Keen Years 1957-1960, a five-CD set, collects all of his work for the label. It includes his eponymous debut for Keen; a second album called Encore; Hit Kit, which in this reissue supplements his mono Keen singles with nine stereo bonus tracks; Tribute to the Lady, which features covers of Billie Holiday classics like “Good Morning  Heartache,” “She’s Funny That Way,” “God Bless the Child” and “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues,” all offered here in both stereo and mono; and The Wonderful World of Sam Cooke, which includes six bonus tracks. All of the material has been beautifully restored and remastered.

Related: The day that Sam Cooke was shot dead

Sam Cooke (Photo by Wally Seawell, used with permission)

Cooke’s years at Keen found him taking his first steps away from gospel, which he was still performing as a member of the Soul Stirrers a mere six weeks before his first Keen session. And what a session it was: it produced “You Send Me,” the No. 1 pop hit that shifted both Cooke’s career and the label into high gear and introduced white audiences to the singer’s vocal prowess.

Like such contemporaries as Bobby Darin, Cooke at least initially saw himself as a mainstream entertainer with appeal to a wide range of audiences and age groups, not just pop/rock aficionados, and much of the Keen material reflects that. Cooke—who incidentally added the “e” to his last name when he joined Keen—covers lots of standards here, including “Moonlight in Vermont,” “Danny Boy” and “That Lucky Old Sun.”

His gorgeous tenor enlivens all of this music, but he shines brightest when he injects pop flavoring into numbers like “Win Your Love for Me” and “Let’s Go Steady Again.” Notably, many of the best and most successful performances are self-penned, including such hit singles as “(What a) Wonderful World” (cowritten with Herb Alpert and Lou Adler), “Only Sixteen” and the aforementioned “You Send Me.”

If you’re interested primarily in these and Cooke’s other best-known numbers, note that you can find all of them (and much more) on the excellent four-CD The Man Who Invented Soul, which appeared in 2000. But if you really want to understand his journey—including the many terrific albeit lesser-known highlights of his early years—you also need both 1992’s Sam Cooke with the Soul Stirrers and this fine new Keen collection, which contains lots of material that isn’t readily available elsewhere.

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