When I was eight, I moved into my new bedroom. It was luridly pink – with pink walls, pink fluffy cushions, and a hot pink CD player. The only problem was I didn’t own a single CD. For the princely sum of £15, my mum bought me Now That’s What I Call Music! 59, because that’s what all my friends were listening to and I spent many hours happily performing my own dance to ‘She Will Be Loved’ – a classic, of course, even twelve years later.
Before that visit to Woolworth’s, however, she gave me one of her own CDs: the compilation album Wonderful World: The Best of Sam Cooke. Cooke was shot and killed in 1964, allegedly in self-defence, at the age of 33. She told me this before handing over the CD, but I felt no sense of melancholy at all as I played through those twelve songs.
My first favourite was the album’s second track – ‘Only Sixteen’. The guitar strums just once before Cooke’s voice resounds almost cheerfully with the song’s refrain. Cooke sings: “she was too young to fall in love / And I was too young to know”- at my tender age, I obviously thought sixteen very old and couldn’t understand what he was on about. I loved the exuberant joy of ‘Everybody Loves to Cha Cha’, especially because I thought the “baby” he sang about was his child, not his girlfriend.
The song that I played over and over again, however, skipping to it as soon as the CD player came on, was number seven: ‘Chain Gang’. The song is short (about two and a half minutes) and oddly repetitive; it begins with the sound of the clinks of the chain, and the grunts of the men as they begin their work – the kind of song that could never achieve quite the same impact performed live. In fact, Cooke was apparently so concerned about achieving the vocal effects he wanted that he went back to the studio three months later to re-record them.
His melodic voice doesn’t cut through these sounds of the chain gang – it fits itself between them, drawing his listener to them with “I hear something saying…”. These laboured sounds rhythmically continue until Cooke sings out: “that’s the sound of the men / Working on the chain / Gang”.
At eight, I had no idea what a chain gang was – and I didn’t ask. I didn’t know how they were associated with the chaining together of African-American convicts particularly, nor did I know that Sam Cooke was involved with the Civil Rights Movement – I hadn’t even heard of such a movement. Arguably his most famous song, what Rolling Stone called “the civil rights anthem, ‘A Change is Gonna Come’” was not on my compilation CD.
What I could understand, what anyone may understand, on listening to Sam Cooke for the first time and every single time after that, is the simply incomparable nature of his voice. The best adjectives to try and describe it are perhaps: pure, clean, and immensely powerful in a confident and understated way.What these can’t capture, however, is how such a voice, four decades after it was immortalised in vinyl and cassette, utterly enchanted me, so that I listened to it over and over, through an album that I quite clearly didn’t understand at all (even less so than ‘She Will Be Loved’ or any of the other songs on Now 59).
When I passed my driving test two years ago, I dug out Wonderful World and played it as I drove to and from school. I finally learnt what a chain gang was, researching it and some of the history of Cooke’s other songs. And recently, I watched a recorded live performance of the ninth song on my album: ‘Twistin’ the Night Away’. It was one of the most strangely moving things I’ve ever seen: the vital voice I knew so well booming out of the clear figure of this beautiful man from 1963, just a year away from his death. Cooke bounces, dances and twists the night away, his voice just as incredible as the very first time I heard it.