Like many so many people, one of my favorite soul singers of all time has to be Sam Cooke. When in November 2011, I saw that RCA were releasing an eight disc box set of some of Sam Cooke’s greatest albums, I just had to have a copy. It’s a good way to replace much loved vinyl and at £24, $36 or €30, represents great value for money. Since I got the RCA Albums Collection, to give the box set its correct title, I’ve been absorbed my the music of Sam Cooke. Now I’m not going to say that each and every one of the albums is outstanding, because that isn’t the case. Some are better than others, but of the eight albums, one stood out for me. That album is the bluesy sounding Night Beat, released in 1963.

Night Beat was released by Sam Cooke in August 1963, and remarkably, was the thirteenth album he’d released since 1957, not counting 1962 Best of Sam Cooke. Compared to modern day artists, this is an amazing statistic, because nowadays, few artists will even get to album number thirteen. Today, many artists will struggle to release an album every other year, never mind annually. As if thirteen albums in seven years isn’t an impressive statistic, Night Beat only took four days to record. Recording took place between 22-25 February 1963, at the RCA Studios in Hollywood, California. With Hugo and Luigi producing what would become Night Beat, and Rene Hall the guitarist and arranger acting as conductor, what was an all-star band was assembled. Accompanying Sam on Night Beat was a sixteen year old Billy Preston, whose organ playing is stunning, and befitting on an older, much more experienced and mature musician. Billy Preston is one of the few musicians who deserves the accolade of musical prodigy. Another well known name who played on Night Beat is Hal Blaine, who played in Elvis Presley’s band, was one of the Wrecking Crew, and played on hits by The Ronettes and The Beach Boys. Joining this duo was jazz guitarist Barney Kessel, bassist and drummer Edward Hall, guitarist Cliff White and bassist Clifford Hills. Over four days, twelve tracks were recorded, and what became Night Beat would be released later in 1963.

August 1963 was chosen as the release date for Night Beat. On Night Beat’s release on the RCA Victor label, it reached number sixty-two in the US Billboard 200. This seems a somewhat disappointing chart position, given the album’s quality. However, since then, Night Beat is seen as one of Sam Cooke’s greatest albums, which I’ll now tell you about.

Night Beat opens with Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen, a traditional song, arranged by Sam Cooke himself. It’s just a slow moody bass that precedes Sam’s really emotive vocal. With just cymbals gently hissing joining the arrangement, Sam demonstrates his talent as a vocalist, singing almost unaccompanied. He delivers the lyrics perfectly, as if he can relate to the loneliness and loss caused by his girlfriend that he’s singing about. Although very different to other tracks on Night Beat, it’s hugely powerful and emotive.

Lost and Lookin’ has a similar introduction, with just the bass and cymbals accompanying Sam. Again, the lyrics deal with a girlfriend leaving a guy, and the pain and heartache he feels. Like the previous track, Sam gets across the sense of despair and loneliness in the lyrics, delivering James W. Alexander and Lowell Jordan’s lyrics thoughtfully and beautifully.

There’s a real change in the sound on Mean Old World, written by Sam Cooke, which opens with Ray Johnson playing piano before Billy Preston makes his debut on organ. Billy’s playing adds to the sense of sadness and loneliness of Sam’s vocal, while the rhythm section play slowly and carefully. As Sam’s forlorn vocal soars, the organ adds an atmospherics sound, while the piano plays a leading role in the arrangement. Together, Sam and his band combine perfectly, the result being a song that although is full of sadness, is sung and played beautifully, resulting in one of Night Beat’s highlights.

Many of the tracks on Night Beat deal with relationships, and specifically the break up of them. Please Don’t Drive Me Away, is another example of this. The track has a real bluesy feel and sound, with piano and rhythm section combining to create a shuffling beat. Atop the arrangement sits Sam’s vocal, as he pleads with his girlfriend not “to drive him away.” Adding to this sound is Billy Preston’s wailing Hammond organ, with stabs of it dropping in and out of the track, adding to the emotion and desperation in Sam’s voice. This bluesy track is very different to many of Sam’s best known tracks, and displays another, and very welcome, side to his music.

Continuing the bluesy sound is I Lost Everything, which features a desperate vocal from Sam, whose lost the woman he loves. With searing guitars and the rhythm section combining, the Hammond organ adds a sympathetically sad sound to the slow arrangement. Later, a piano joins, seemingly adding just the finishing touch to the arrangement as a desperate Sam gives a realistic portrayal of a man has indeed, lost everything.

Closing SIde One of Night Beat is Get Yourself Another Fool, another slow bluesy track. With piano and bass combining brilliantly to open the track before Sam’s vocal enters. His vocal is drenched in sadness and regret, while the Hammond organ subtly adds to track’s sadness. It’s the piano that leads the track, with searing guitars chiming sadly when Sam’s vocal drops out. This too, adds to the sadness and emotion of the track, and when combined with Sam’s forlorn vocal, is a stunning track, one of Night Beat’s best.

Side two of Night Beat opens with a track written by Willie Dixon, Little Red Rooster, which gives Sam’s band the chance to demonstrate their considerable talents. With Billy Preston on Hammond organ and Ray Johnson on piano combining to create a fantastic sounding backdrop, Sam delivers Willie’s lyrics slowly. Billy Preston’s organ playing is just outstanding, and when combined with the piano playing of Ray Johnson, things really start to swing. Even Sam seems impressed by the virtuoso skills of the then sixteen year old Billy Preston, who easily holds his own with experience musicians like Ray Johnson. Both Ray and Billy drive the track along, each encouraging the other to new heights, making Willie Dixon’s classic swing. Add to this a great vocal from Sam, and it’s an impressive and very different track to anything on Side One.

Sam Cooke wrote a trio of tracks on Night Beat, with Laughing and Clowning the second of the trio. Many people forget that apart from being a hugely talented singer, Sam was also a talented songwriter. It’s Ray Johnson’s piano playing that opens this bluesy sounding track. When Sam’s vocal enters, there’s a sense of despondency in his vocal, at the loss of his girlfriend, and yet people expect him to be the “life of the party.” Here, it’s a case of “the tears of a clown when no-one is around.” As the arrangement meanders along, Ray Johnson’s piano plays a vital part in the blues tinged arrangement, and later, is joined by Billy Preston’s Hammond organ. Like so many other tracks like this, Sam was a master of being able to deliver songs about relationships and emotions with a gritty realism, that many singers just can’t achieve. When he does this, there’s a real beauty in his voice, even though he’s singing about heartache and despair. 

As Trouble Blues opens, Sam just hums slowly, while the rhythm section play, before his downcast and despondent vocal enters. It’s joined by the piano as he sings of his heartache, caused by his relationship breaking up. However, there’s positivity in the vocal too, as he sings that someday soon, he’ll get over her. Later, adding it’s atmospheric and sad sound is the Hammond organ, which adds to the sadness of Sam’s version of Charles Brown’s. This seems to be the missing ingredient, one that turns a good version of this track into a truly great one.

You Gotta Move is the last of the trio of Sam Cooke penned tracks on Night Beat. Again, it’s a track with a lovely bluesy sound, where the piano and Hammond organ are vital to the track’s ultimate success. With just the rhythm section accompanying the piano and Hammond organ accompanying him, Sam delivers his lyrics with a combination of enthusiasm, emotion and passion. Delivering the lyrics with a swing, against another great arrangement from a really tight and talented band, you can’t help but love a track that sounds as good as this one does.

When Fools Paradise opens, the tempo is slow, with just the rhythm section and piano accompanying Sam’s vocal. He’s full of regret at the things he’s done, the time he’s wasted “drinking and gambling, staying out all night.” As he sings how, he’s “learned his lesson,” Billy Preston’s Hammond organ cuts in, adding to the emotion of a man almost seeking forgiveness and redemption. This works really well, adding to the power and emotion of this really moving, dramatic and quite beautiful track. 

Night Beat closes with Sam’s version of a track written by Charles Calhoun, Shake, Rattle and Roll. After an album full of bluesy sounding tracks, Sam decides to end the album with a real swing. Here, his band raise their game for an old classic track, even singing backing vocals in a call and response style. Driven along by a rhythm section of bassist Cliff Hills and drummer Hal Blaine, they combine with guitarists Rene Hall and Clifton White, while Ray Johnson on piano and Billy Preston all play their part in ensuring Night Beat ends with a satisfactory swinging sound. Sam delivers his vocal joyously, enjoying the track’s good-time sound, provided by his band. Even though this track is nearly fifty years old, it still sounds great, and has an almost timeless sound, like all good music. What better way is there to close Night Beat?

Tragically, just over a year after Night Beat was released in August 1963, Sam Cooke died in December 1964 aged just thirty-three. After this he only released one further album, Ain’t That Good News in March 1964. It too, was a stunning album, a fitting finale to a career that was tragically cut short. In some ways, it seems fitting that Sam Cooke released the two best albums of his career just prior to his death. Although Ain’t That Good News is an excellent album, I much prefer the bluesy sound of Night Beat. On that album were some great bluesy tracks, which Sam delivered with a combination of emotion, sadness and regret. Many of these songs are about relationships and the break up of them, and Sam delivers these songs with a gritty, realism. Backed by a hugely talented band which included organist Billy Preston, pianist Ray Johnson and drummer Hal Blaine, they helped Sam create an album that nearly fifty years later still sounds stunning and has a timeless quality. Although it’s quite different to many of Sam’s other albums, it has strength in depth, with twelve quality tracks, one following the other. Of the eight albums that can be found in the RCA Albums Collection which contains eight of Sam’s album Cooke’s albums, this is the best. So, if you either like soul music, or love the music of Sam Cooke, then Night Beat is an album that belongs in your music collection. Standout Tracks: Mean Old World, Get Yourself Another Fool, Trouble Blues and You Gotta Move.


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