Portrait of a Legend

For as long as I can remember, my father has played his favorite records on our home stereo while cooking dinner, during Sunday dinners with extended family, and in the car while he drove us to school. These albums varied in genre, ranging from classic Frank Sinatra, to the Beatles, Neil Young, Van Morrison, then to Stevie Wonder. And each time one of his favorite songs or part of a song would come on, he’d shush us all, telling us to listen to this because it was “real music.” I distinctly remember the month leading up to Christmas four or five years ago, and asking my father what he would like (which, too often, ends with me buying him an umpteenth tie or shirt). But that particular year, he shocked me with an incredibly specific answer: the album, Sam Cooke, Portrait of a Legend: 1951-1964.

 So I got it for him, and just as I had figured, the album was added to our kitchen repertoire of music-to-cook-to-and-then-eat-dinner-by. And while this could’ve ended badly (still can’t get into Neil Young – sorry to any fans), I was pleasantly surprised by the music emanating from the speakers. Cooke’s smooth, soulful voice, paired with the catchy, old-fashioned style of the music, and elements of his gospel roots and popular secular music of the time (harmonies, simple, yet romantic lyrics, and a similar sound to that of the music Motown was releasing), all together made for an album that was impossible not to enjoy.  (Which also meant that I had to admit that my dad was right – again.)

 Needless to say, I was thrilled to cover Sam Cooke and some of his music in class, having been unaware of his crossover from gospel into mainstream music, and how his popularity spanned people of all ages and races. With this particular album (Portrait of a Legend), listeners get a compilation of his songs from 1951 to 1964. And truthfully, you can hear the change in his sound, and the meaning of his songs as the time passes. For example, in class, we listened to his song You Send Me, which ended up solidifying him as a secular, popular music artist. It is a simple song, the melody and words honest and sweet, with soft oohs underlaying Cooke’s smooth vocal. And though it solidified him as a musical success who could appeal to both black and white audiences, it was a song that only scratched the surface of what Cooke was capable.

 To pull another track from Portrait of a Legend is difficult, as I truly do enjoy all of the songs, but I wanted to pick one that was a true departure from You Send Me, and from most of Sam Cooke’s typical output. That song is  “A Change Gonna Come.”

It starts on a much more somber note than You Send Me, Cooke’s voice pouring out with a slight rasp that makes the listener truly feel his desperation and his honesty. It also harkens back to his gospel days, the words performed with that kind of holler that is the signature of gospel. And the words themselves, “Its been a long – a long time coming, but I know a change gonna come,” are certainly about something much more serious than young love or simple fun-loving. 

Written in 1963, Cooke could have pulled inspiration from many things happening not only in the country, but his own life. The country was in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, and Cooke’s hope for a change could certainly be applied to the hope for the end of the segregation and discrimination that still very much existed in the United States. It could even be said that this particular song, with its tone of weary hope, came to embody all the feelings of the Civil Rights Movement, and the desire for drastic change in the way our country functioned.

 But in his own personal life, Cooke had only just experienced the death of his young son earlier the same year. At 18 months old, his son Vincent drowned in a pool, and the song could certainly be said to have been influenced by something as traumatic as the loss of a child, and the hope for change in moving forward:

“There have been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long, but now I think I’m able to carry on…”

The horns underlaying that particular line echo the determination of creating change in his own life, and in the world. And it is that bleak, but still hopeful and somewhat optimistic tone of Cooke’s voice and the words he sings, that speak to these two incidents, and reach out and touch the hearts of listeners. It certainly still touches me, as does most of his music, fun-loving or not. And Sam Cooke’s Portrait of a Legend: 1951-1964 is an album that not only encompasses his songs, but the kind of artist and person he was, and is a reflection of the times in which he lived.

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