Sam Cooke is undoubtedly one of the greatest musicians of all time. One of the first major artists with crossover appeal, Cooke found a way to balance his gospel roots and religious black audiences on the chitlin circuits and in churches with the mainstream radio artists of the time, and though his life was tragically cut short in 1963 in what is still an unsolved mystery, his songs will be remembered for years to come, even if listeners might not know who is singing. Remember that scene in Animal House where John Belushi loads his cafeteria tray up with food then imitates a pimple and starts a food fight? Well the song playing in the background is “Wonderful World”, an oft-covered and universally recognized teen anthem. Ever heard Otis Redding or Aretha Franklin sing “A Change is Gonna Come”? Well, you haven’t truly heard the song until you’ve heard Cooke’s sing the original, which will inevitably move you and take your breath away. Ever heard “Summertime”, “Cupid”, “You Send Me”, or “Chain Gang”. Obviously you have, and whether you knew it or not, you were listening to a man with one of the most awe-inspiring and moving voices ever; an artist whose music reflected two different, distinct communities, and an artist whose songs were embraced by both for different reasons.
You may ask yourself why I just went on a rant about the legend that was Sam Cooke. I am telling you this because, in the past year, two more well-known artists in the alternative music scene, Britt Daniel (of Spoon) and Colin Meloy (of The Decemberists) have taken Cooke’s passionate “Bring it on Home to Me” and made it their own, each with different results. I love all three, and not just because “Bring it on Home to Me” is my absolute favorite Cooke song and one of my ten favorite songs of all time. Meloy covers Sam Cooke on his aptly titled EP, Colin Meloy Sings Sam Cooke, remaking classics such as “Let the Good Times Roll” and “Cupid”, as well as the aforementioned cover. His version removes much of the raspiness and pain that Cooke embodies in the original, opting to make the song more of an innocent acoustic ballad, with nary a instrument save from Meloy’s voice, the acoustic guitar, and an unknown female harmony. Meloy’s cover is everything that a cover should be: it maintains the value and sanctity of the original while tweaking both the emotion and the instrumentation of the song. In short, it does the song justice.
Daniel, on the other hand, takes the song to a whole new level; a level at which I am utterly captivated by every word that rolls of Britt’s twangy toungue. He uses guitar sparingly during the song, and replaces the piano and percussion rhythm of the original with a tambourine and Daniel’s layered vocals. Famous black poet and novelist Ralph Ellison once described the blues impulse as “fingering the jagged grain of our existance”. By this meaning, Daniel’s jagged and pained perfectly captures the sprit of the blues impulse, channeling the emotion of the great Sam Cooke.
Listen to the original and both covers for yourself, and tell me if you hear what I hear. Or just tell me I’m full of hot air. Either way, tell me something. Y’all don’t comment enough.