The boy is a month shy of two and old enough to know: Sam Cooke is the greatest singer that has ever sung. But, don’t take my word for it, take the boy’s. He listens mostly to LPs. That’s because his Dad listens mostly to LPs and he hasn’t had much of a choice. But here’s a fact: records will give you back music. We are saturated to the point where we can soak up no more. MP3s, CDs, iTunes, Amazon and the etceteras have given us a bounty beyond need. Personally, I was finding myself not listening to music so much as consuming it. Everything was for the radio. I was listening for song segues, musical connections, and bits of trivia. I was thinking about music in terms of four song sets, half hours, three hour blocks. Those strange format chunks of time radio is divided into but that no one else really thinks about. To a degree it is as it must be, the man behind the curtain and all that, but if that’s all there is, if it’s nothing more than clockworks being wound how is that interesting, useful, creative, inspiring, thoughtful, fun, provocative – all the things good music really is?
A small child’s ear is not infallible. The boy enjoys some really terrible stuff and that’s the truth, but it’s not so much what he listens to I think, but how he listens. He listens with his whole body. He dances and sways, sings along, laughs and protests, shimmies, hollers and is anything but passive.
The LPs have become important to him. He loves the dust jackets, all those big pictures, he carries them around instead of a blanket. He loves watching the records spin. He’s allowed to turn the player on, but not what he yearns for most, to turn the arm and drop the needle down. When he’s older I tell him.
Records are twenty minute sides, give or take. The listener can’t be passive, not if music is to be kept playing. Years and money have been spent to devise a scheme where we no longer have to walk across the room and flip the record after each side. With a click hundreds of hours can spill out of a speaker, but it just isn’t the same. I tell you, records will give you back music.
The boy’s favorite record is The Best of Sam Cooke. The exact one pictured above. When I say favorite I mean we’re wearing the sucker out. We can easily listen to it five or six times a day straight through, flip, flip, flip, flip, flip. His protests are loud, almost angry if a substitute is secretly slipped on instead. Don’t you try and trick me he seems to say as he points toward the imposter record and yells “Cooke, Cooke!” He likes Chain Gang and Everybody Loves the Cha, Cha, Cha, but he’s mad about Only Sixteen.
Cooke wrote the song in 1959 maybe for Lou Rawls’ sister. At least so Peter Guralnick says (for the record, he would know). Barbara Campbell received the credit however so Specialty Records couldn’t make money off of it. It was originally intended to be sung by teen heart throb Steve Rowland, but after his producers turned it down Cooke recorded it himself. How could they not hear it? It’s perfect sweet cynicism. The whole thing glides along easily and I suppose could be lost over cocktails, but that was Cooke’s charm, everything he did sounded effortless. Perhaps that’s to his detriment, it’s singers like this that words like talented and gifted get affixed which undercut how hard he actually worked at the craft, how many years he had been singing and how much thought had gone into the songwriting. But how can it not be heard:
She was too young to fall in love
And I was too young to know
The boy is too young to know, I unfortunately am not. Someday I suppose he will know, until then he glides along as effortlessly as Sam Cooke does in these things that come natural until they don’t.
Oh, I’ve aged a year since then
Only Sixteen, Sam Cooke