Friday, December 11, 2009

Song Lyric of the Day (Sam Cooke, Celebrating His “Party” Before It Ended)

“We're havin' a party
Everybody's swingin'
Dancin' to the music
On the radio...”—“We’re Havin’ a Party,” words and music by Sam Cooke

At age 33, following eight years filled with 34 top 40 R&B hits, Sam Cooke came to the end of his party on this date in 1964 when he was shot to death in South Los Angeles by a motel manager during an altercation.

The soul singer, wearing just a jacket and shoe, had been drunkenly bellowing at the manager of the $3-a-night Hacienda Motel, following an assignation with a woman who ran off with his clothes and money. That’s where the questions begin.

Was the woman a hooker? Was she fleeing an attempted rape, or robbing him?

The police verdict—“justifiable homicide”—did nothing to solve the enigmas of that night. The questions not only lingered but multiplied across the decades, as reporters and biographers sought to make sense of the circumstances surrounding his passing.

No such ambiguity exists about Cooke’s enduring legacy as performer, composer, producer, businessman, and even political force. His tawdry ending should not obscure his transcendent achievements.

“A Change is Gonna Come,” inspired by Cooke’s desire to create an African-American protest song on the order of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” became one of the anthems of the civil-rights movement, covered by such figures as Aretha Franklin, Aaron Neville, Terence Trent Darby, Patti Labelle, Elvin Bishop, Van Morrison, and James Taylor. Additionally, Cooke refused to sing before segregated audiences, and pitched his songs so that they could be marketed to blacks and whites.

There would be no artificial barriers, as far as Cooke was concerned, between the races. He wanted everyone to enjoy his music—and increasingly, by the time of his death, they were.

As canny a businessman as he was inspired a performer, Cooke also blazed trails for artists of all races by gaining ownership of his career. His groundbreaking 1960 deal with RCA allowed him to retain control of his copyrights, at a time when many African-American musicians were left penniless or, like Duke Ellington, seriously shortchanged of what was rightfully theirs. Owning his own record label, he also formed management and music publishing companies.

In the 1970s, one of my favorite concert thrills was seeing Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes perform Cooke’s “Havin’ A Party.” I think the grand master of soul would have been delighted to see the ebullient Southside Johnny whip the audience into a frenzy with one of Cooke’s songs.

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