Book of the Day

Today’s book recounts the untimely death of two great musical influences.

*Includes pictures

*Includes a bibliography for further reading

*Includes a table of contents

If Sam Cooke, one of the greatest African-American soul singers in the genre’s history, had been Irish, he might have kept company with the likes of the great balladeer and classical tenor John McCormack. If he had been born Italian, he might have starred in the refined, lyrical Mozart opera roles usually reserved for those with an extreme musical sensitivity. Such was the level of excellence in Cooke’s inner understanding of his own voice, which was capable of exquisite classical precision and a finesse in phrasing that lay far beyond the norm. He could have prospered and attained greatness in any genre of his choice, but considering the timing of the American audience, and his African-American heritage, Sam Cooke instead pioneered a new genre and became its greatest practitioner by blending black musical traditions that incorporated all the refinement and beauty of European classical genres yet still spoke from the heart of his rural American roots.

Record producer John Wexler was more than accurate when he summed up Sam Cooke’s talent as a complete package: “It was all there – the exquisite exact intonation, the sovereign control of tone and timbre, the command of the subtlest pitch shadings, bends and slurs.” Wexler is in general agreement with the rest of the professional music world and the listening public, whether the term is absolutely understood or not, that Cooke, among all his contemporaries, was “unequalled for sheer musicality.”

The timing of Cooke’s appearance was perfect, coming as it did at a historical intersection where blues, jazz, country, gospel, and numerous traditional black forms met on the verge of transforming into new musical blends that included rock and new variant forms of jazz. In this genre, soul music, Cooke, above all others, had what it took to lead its ascent in the American pop music industry. As a masterful singer of any of the stylistic blends that went into soul, bringing the older forms along with him, and as both a songwriter and entrepreneur, Cooke would prove to be “one of the most influential black vocalists of the post-World War II period.”

Unlike other public figures in the arts, Otis Redding had a logical and clear mind for business, and in only a few years, he was able to parlay his meager beginnings into a recording and publishing company, not to mention the Big “O” Ranch in Georgia, where he would spend some of his most cherished family time. Although the “proudly confessed country boy [with the] big gravelly voice” never reached above #21 on the pop charts’ top 40 until the end of his life and career, his appearances “incited pandemonium through the thunderous intensity of his performances, which included vocal ad-libs and false endings,” a free-wheeling improvisatory approach to everything in the moment. It is thought by some that the general public was not quite prepared for Otis Redding the unscripted free spirit, nor was it thoroughly familiar with the purity of soul’s rural, Southern roots, not yet a major industry for the country or the world. His stage style, perhaps, was “too intensely soulful for the mainstream market of that time,” and, some have thought, that his true breakthrough into greatness was accomplished only days before his death with the iconic and less soul-oriented “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” In this departure from the traditional style of his Macon childhood, Redding’s most famous piece is not about one-to-one love, but about life itself, and it would go on to break the pop chart curse, “stay[ing] high in the rankings for four weeks.” The tragic timing of his death robbed Redding of the chance to parlay his success to the next level, but in retrospect, later audiences have not experienced him as either behind the times or inordinately modern.

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