1993, I, like so many young white people before me, discovered Sam Cooke. It was December. The dry, crisp cold of a California winter permeated the walls of my unremarkable family home. It was quiet. There were no waves at the beach.
I had heard Cooke’s hits, of course, grown up with them in the canon of popular music on radio stations, movie soundtracks, and old records belonging to grown‑ups. But only recently had I started listening to his music. Based on its cover art, I had bought a used copy of Night Beat(1963), an album that predated MTV’s Unplugged series by decades but delivered a similar bare-bones aesthetic.
At 17, anger was the prevailing emotion of my musical life. I already understood the extroverted rage of 1970s punk, 1980s gangsta rap and grunge. Cooke’s music was a challenge. His songs needed to be listened to – to be read closely – for me to understand their weight. He was slick – part pop, part gospel, part R&B – but beneath the clean vocal lines and period string arrangements I sensed something darker. The lyrics mixed racial politics with lovers’ woes. Most of his songs were about experiences I hadn’t had, but they still felt intimate, recognisable. I told my friends about them. They rolled their eyes and turned back to their Rage Against the Machine CDs.
Undaunted, I practiced the rituals of teenage fandom alone: I bought all Cooke’s greatest hits compilations, then searched used record shops for the original albums. I dog-eared Sweet Soul Music (1986), Peter Guralnick’s book about the ascendance of Southern soul (his massive biography, Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, wouldn’t be published till 2005). I spent hours staring at CDs and album covers, marvelling at the squeaky-clean cut of Cooke’s jawline and giggling at the dated graphic design. And I took to the living room floor, cuddling with my dusty plastic boom box and pressing ‘play’ again and again….