Title: The Complete Keen Years: 1957-1960
Artist: Sam Cooke
Format: 5-CD Box Set, Digital
Release date: February 7, 2020
After six extremely successful years as lead singer of the influential gospel quartet, the Soul Stirrers, Sam Cooke left the group in 1957 to embark on a solo career. Becoming one of the first gospel stars to go pop, Cooke’s gospelized-pop template paved the way for soul music. Just six weeks after recording his final session with the Soul Stirrers, Cooke released his first single under his own name, “You Send Me.” Not only did he manage to crossover on his first attempt, he took the pop music world by storm while also landing at #1 on the R&B charts. Over the next three years, Cooke released a quick succession of albums on the Keen label. All are faithfully remastered and reproduced with original album covers in this 5-CD box set, which includes excellent liner notes by Michael Corcoran, rare photos from the Keen archives, and complete session details.
Those who know Sam Cooke primarily for the hits that bookended his career—“You Send Me” and the posthumously released “A Change is Gonna Come”—might be surprised by the range of material on his earlier albums for Keen. His self-titled debut album, released in January 1958, was produced by Bumps Blackwell and featured a number of standards ranging from “Ol’ Man River” and “Summertime” to “Danny Boy, with Cooke’s sophisticated renditions modeled after Nat King Cole and Harry Belafonte. Less than a year later he dropped his sophomore release, Encore, consisting of heavily orchestrated songs made famous by the Ink Spots and Mills Brothers, as well as those performed by white artists such as Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. At the time, albums such as these were almost exclusive pitched to white record buyers, hence the selection of American Songbook standards and the abundance of love songs on his third release, Tribute to the Lady. Cooke was also thinking strategically, setting his sights on urban nightclubs instead of bookings along the chitlin’ circuit.
By the fourth album in this set, Hit Kit from 1959, we finally hear a collection of Cooke’s singles, with half of the tracks penned by the singer. Included are the original mono releases, with the stereo versions added as bonus tracks (as is the case with the Tribute to the Lady disc). Though songs such as “Only Sixteen” and “You Were Made For Me” were ideally suited for the late 1950s, Cooke never received his share of pop airplay. The final album in this set, The Wonderful World of Sam Cooke released in 1960, included songs from his final sessions for Keen plus a few singles and previously unreleased bonus tracks. Listeners will hear more of the classic Cooke sound on this disc, which features gospel songs such as his original “That’s Heaven to Me” along with bonus tracks “Deep River” and “Steal Away,” and his classic title track “(What a) Wonderful World.”
As Corcoran states in the liner notes, the Cooke’s Keen years were “a link between his gospel glory and RCA heyday…and a big part of the musical education of Sam Cooke; records he had to make before his songwriting caught up to his voice, and his message surpassed his manner.” For those looking to take a deep dive into Sam Cooke’s early solo career, The Complete Keen Years: 1957-1960 is the place to begin.
Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss