This Cooke Book needs a new recipe
There are people who call Sam Cooke "The Man Who Invented Soul."
It's pretty clear that Cooke, who has been dead for almost half a century, had a role to play as he and Ray Charles, James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Curtis Mayfield and Smokey Robinson all were recording music in the same five or six year period. Each one of them could easily wear the crown of "The Man."
Friday night "The Cooke Book" - a tribute to Cooke - opened in Vogel Hall in the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. The show as created by Darrian Ford, a Broadway singer and dancer, who also starred Friday night.
It's difficult to pigeonhole this show. It's not a concert. It's not a tribute cover band. It's not theater.
What it is seems to be a couple of hours of the great songs of Sam Cooke boiled down to a musical theater audience level and delivered with practiced smiles, dance moves, patter with the band and a timorous set of vocal chords that sometimes hit but often missed channeling one of the great singers of our time.
Let me get this out of the way right off the top. Ford is a very polished singer, dancer and performer. He's got this one down pat.
That may well be the problem. It's too pat.
There are things about soul music that make it like nothing else in the world. I'm not going to try and define "soul." It's too difficult.
But all soul music has some things in common. There is passion in the songs. When the song is about yearning, you can hear the yearning. Much of it has a strong sexual overtone. There is grit. There is the kind of enthusiasm that helps both you and the singer get lost in the music.
Sure, there's a difference between the rasp of Ray Charles and the sweetness of Smokey Robinson or Sam Cooke. But they all got inside their own songs and invited listeners to share this tiny space.
Ford is just too careful. There is none of the recklessness of soul music.
He introduced the classic song "Frankie & Johnnie" by calling it "playful" and sang the song like it was a parlor game instead of a dreadful lament of a woman done wrong and how she fixed the man who did it to her.
I hesitate to say this for fear that people may take it the wrong way. But the show is just too white.
Soul music is black music and, with the exception of a few white artists, soul and black are almost synonymous. Ford is a black man but he and his musicians have taken songs that stirred a nation and turned them into music that would be suitable for a commercial for an airline or a cosmetic.
Sam Cooke was very involved in the civil rights movement and even though his music was not part of the protest movement, there was always an undercurrent that change was coming. "Change is Gonna Come," published after he died in 1964, became an anthem for the civil rights movement.
Sam Cooke was important and his music was important. That's what was kind of sad about the show Friday night. It just didn't capture the importance of this man and his music.
The "Cooke Book" runs through Sunday at Vogel Hall. Information is available at marcuscenter.org.
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