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A clearer-than-ever portrait of a true legend

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Most every single time the 20th century’s greatest singer/songwriters find themselves getting lionized or even litanized, it seems one towering figure is strangely, sorrowfully AWOL. Despite this man’s myriad accomplishments both on the stage, behind the scenes, in the control room or, of course, in front of the microphone, his name is all-too-rarely uttered alongside those of John Lennon, Smokey Robinson, Bob Dylan, Buddy Holly or even Hank Williams.

Nevertheless, Jan. 22, 2011, would have been Sam Cooke‘s 80th birthday, and I spent it the only way I knew how: with lights low and relaxed beneath headphones filled with ABKCO Records’ newly upgraded Sam Cooke: Portrait of a Legend —1951-1964 (recently made available for download in 88.2kHz/24bit audio).

Seventy-nine minutes and 30 tracks later, I emerge to report this is not only one of the best single-artist compilations ever assembled, but now one of the best sounding discs I have ever heard as well. “Twistin’ the Night Away,” for one, reels and writhes as never before, while on the opposite end of the emotional spectrum that famed guitar lick on “You Send Me” sounds newly sharp yet still slyly seductive. Speaking of which, the vocals on “I’ll Come Running Back to You” especially pulse with an intimate presence my ears have rarely experienced (under headphones), you can actually hear Cupid’s arrow fly right o’er the French horn, and the brass on “A Change Is Gonna Come” lend that particular epic even more depth and regal resonance … and I’m not just speaking sonically, either.

Take more than a few moments elsewhere to appreciate anew the man’s absolute mastery of not only songwriting, but also song arrangement. Ever experimenting in an era when recording artists seldom cared, or were even allowed to, Cooke seemed equally comfortable cha-cha-ing across your living room carpet one moment, then coaxing raw barnyard keyboard flourishes out of his accompanist (the 16-year-old Billy Preston!) all over “Little Red Rooster” the next.

Likewise, a wholly Ricky Nelson-worthy, banjo-driven country rhythm section somehow perfectly meshes with fierce Ray Charles horns on “Ain’t That Good News,” while the original rendering of that oft-covered “Wonderful World” herein reacquaints us with this song’s deceptively simple Caribbean, I kid you not, undertones.

The mind, not to mention ear, simply boggles at the thought of what Cooke would have been up to, say, in 1969 with at least 16 empty tape tracks at his disposal.

But of course, most obviously, it is the man’s voice we are forever drawn to, and still cannot help but marvel at. To cite but one lone example: just listen to Cooke vocally sparring with none other than Lou Rawls throughout “Bring It on Home to Me.” Tough, defiant and above all most uncharacteristically gritty — “Sam felt that he needed more weight; that that light [stuff] wouldn’t sustain him” in the wise words of song-and-biz-partner J. W. Alexander — this is a Sam Cooke securely positioning himself to move onwards and still upwards as the ’60s spread out before him.

Indeed, by the time of “Shake,” recorded at RCA Hollywood with Dave Hassinger during November 1964, Cooke seemed more than ready to hold his own within the emerging soul scene he himself inspired and created. Tragically, a month after recording it, Cooke was gone, “Shake” was duly adopted by Otis Redding for one, and the world was left “only” with a legacy of 29 Top 40 hits written, arranged, performed and produced by what is now clearly one of music’s greatest, most durable, yet proudly un-pigeonhole-able talents.

So as we head toward Sam Cooke’s 81st birthday, may I most strongly advise those on only a passing standing with those 29 hits (perhaps via everyone from Al Green to Peter Noone), you more than owe it to yourself to spend an evening or three with the first, the utterly original Sam Cooke: Portrait of a Legend as soon as you possibly can.

I’ll even lend you my personal headphones.

Musician/writer Gary Pig Gold is the co-founder of the To M’Lou Music label.