Sam Cooke was grounded in a very straightforward singing style: It was pure, beautiful and open-throated, extraordinarily direct and unapologetic. Let's say you're going to sing "I love you for sentimental reasons." How do you hit that "I"? Do you slur into it? Do you put in a little hidden "h"? The attack on that vowel sound is the tip-off to how bold a singer is. If you pour on the letter "i" from the back of your throat, the listener gets that there is no fudge in the first thousandth of a second. There's just confidence from the singer, that he knows the pitch, and here's the sound. That's what Sam was great at. He had guts as a singer.
Sam also threw a lot of notes at you. Today you hear everyone doing those melismatic notes that Mariah Carey made popular. Sam was the first guy I remember singing that way. When he's singing, "I love you for sentimental reasons/I hope you do believe me," the next line should be, "I've given you my heart." But he goes, "I've given you my-my-mah-muh-my heart/Given you my heart because I need you." It's as if he's saying, "Now that I've sung the word, I'm going to sing it again, because I've got all this feeling in my heart that demands expression." He gave us so much that he could have given us less, and that would've been enough, but he put in all those extra notes, as in "You Send Me," where he's scatting between the lines: "I know, I know, I know, when you hold me."
He had fabulous chops, but at the same time fabulous taste. I never felt that he was overdoing it, as I often feel with singers today. He stayed rhythmic and fluty and floaty; he always showed brilliant vocal control.
I must have sung "You Send Me" to myself walking up and down stairwells at least a thousand times. It was on the charts right when I was having my first little success with Paul Simon as Tom and Jerry. Our "Hey, Schoolgirl" was on the charts with "You Send Me" and "Jailhouse Rock." "Jingle Bell Rock" had just come out. I was just a kid, calling on radio stations for promotional purposes, and all I heard was "You Send Me." Sam was great to sing along with. He was my hero.
There was a deep sense of goodness about Sam. His father was a minister, and he obviously had spent a lot of time in church. His first success came early as a gospel singer, and he expanded into R&B and pop. It looked like he was making the right choices in life until he got shot by the night manager of a motel. You wonder who he had fallen in with.
Paul Simon, James Taylor and I covered "Wonderful World," which he also wrote. It was a teenage short story like Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen" or "School Days." You're stroking the teenager's sense of style with those pop songs. Sam was a master of that idiom. "Wonderful World" was unsophisticated but very Tin Pan Alley.
Sam came along before the album was discovered as an art form. You think of him in terms of songs. My favorites are "Sad Mood," "Wonderful World," "Summertime," "(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons" and "You Send Me." I think that "A Change Is Gonna Come" shows where he could have gone if he had lived through the Sixties, doing Marvin Gaye kind of lyrics about the society we live in. It was a tremendous loss when he was killed. I remember thinking, "Oh, that can't be." He was such a rising star, a fabulous singer with intelligence. And that brilliant smile.
I used to think he was just a great singer. Now I think he's better than that. Almost nobody since then can touch him.