Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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SAM COOKE
The Best of Sam Cooke
RCA/Legacy

***

SAM COOKE
Night Beat
RCA/Legacy

****

SAM COOKE
One Night Stand--Live at the Harlem Square Club
RCA/Legacy

Two key Sam Cooke albums, and one redundant one, remember a puzzling soul singer

Musically, Rock and Roll hall of Fame charter member Sam Cooke is a stumper. His voice wasn't just smooth and gritty at the same time, it was also infinitely relaxed--for the many who adore it, a sing-the-phonebook voice. But he was so intent on the pop market that some curmudgeons might prefer the phone book to his orchestral accompaniments. Fortunately, these albums avoid his clumsier commercial endeavors. Even so, bypass Best of for Abkco's 30-track Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964, which includes all of its 15 songs. But Night Beat gets points for conceiving pop as lounge R&B rather than violin schlock, even if Cooke isn't always up to the blues-tinged standards he covers and tries to write. And Live at the Harlem Square Club, recorded at a black venue, takes his hits fast and rough. Mythmakers claim this is the real Cooke, which he would have denied. But it's an impressive document whose rousing climax suggests what might have ensued if he hadn't died two years later.

Blender, Oct. 2005