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Clip: Dave Hoekstra on Joe Henry & Sam Cooke

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  • Carl Z.
    Second of three articles by Hoekstra on Cooke. Cooke s greatest work was springboard for Joe
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 30, 2005
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      Second of three articles by Hoekstra on Cooke.


      Cooke's greatest work was springboard for Joe Henry

      October 30, 2005

      BY DAVE HOEKSTRA Staff Reporter

      The deep blues of Sam Cooke's "Night Beat" album served as a new
      morning for singer-songwriter-producer Joe Henry. In 2002, Henry used
      "Night Beat" as a minimalist framework when producing Solomon Burke's
      Grammy-winning disc "Don't Give Up on Me."

      In the winter of 1963, Cooke went into RCA Victor Studios in
      Hollywood, Calif., and sang within a small combo that included session
      drummer Hal Blaine and organist Billy Preston. By restructuring melody
      and down-tempoing material such as Willie Dixon's "Little Red
      Rooster," Charles Brown's "Trouble Blues" and his own "Mean Old
      World," the project became Cooke's answer to Frank Sinatra's "In the
      Wee Small Hours." It is Cooke's greatest work.

      Henry was drawn into this stark setting -- the kind of space that
      gives a vocalist a chance to breathe. He also used "Night Beat" as a
      reference while producing Bettye LaVette's "I've Got My Own Hell to
      Raise" (Anti-), one of the most emotive records of 2005.

      One of the most remarkable crossover singles of the 20th century was
      Sam Cooke's "Shake" / "A Change Is Gonna Come," which scaled the
      Billboard singles charts in January 1965, a month after the singer was
      murdered in a Los Angeles motel.

      But earlier this month, Henry released "I Believe to My Soul," a
      stunning 13-track collaboration with soul singers Ann Peebles, Irma
      Thomas, Allen Toussaint, Chicago's own Mavis Staples and Billy
      Preston. (The record is the debut effort for Henry's Work Song label,
      co-released by Rhino and Starbucks Hear Music. Proceeds go to the Red
      Cross to aid Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts.)

      "I listened to 'Night Beat' in preparation for recording Solomon's
      record," Henry explained earlier this week from Los Angeles. "It was
      very stripped down, very live, very improvised with song structures --
      but not the kind of arrangements that Solomon used when he was making
      records for Atlantic in the 1960s, where there were charts for the
      band. Sam got a few people together; it was, 'Hey, we're going to do
      these blues, and this is how it goes.' There is a great intimacy about
      that record, and I asked all the musicians who played on Solomon's
      record to listen to 'Night Beat.' Not to imitate it, but to listen how
      prominent the vocal is, how the band is responding -- he's a
      bandleader as well as a vocalist. That's what is dictating the

      This is the same dynamic fans see today when they watch Bob Dylan in
      concert. While many gripe about how Dylan no longer plays guitar, it
      is just as fascinating to watch him throw out cues as a vocalist.

      "Sure, that's true," said Henry, a huge Dylan fan. As early as his
      1992 solo release "Short Man's Room" (which features Dylan's haunting
      "Desire"-era violin), Henry believed that once a song is recorded, an
      artist is free to do something else with it.

      "I Believe to My Soul" was recorded over a week in June 2005 at
      Hollywood's historic Capitol B studios with the "Don't Give Up on Me"
      band: Doyle Bramhall and Chris Bruce on guitars, and Jay Bellerose on
      drums and percussion. In addition to being a featured artist,
      Toussaint plays piano throughout. The Steinway piano in the Capitol B
      studio is the same one Cooke's hero (and fellow Chicagoan) Nat "King"
      Cole used on all his hits. (The Capitol A studio was Sinatra's space.)

      About three years ago, Henry, 44, assembled a list of soul artists he
      wanted to work with. He always wanted to include five people, but the
      list shifted over time, depending on who was available and who was

      "Mavis was always on the list," he said. "Ann Peebles was on the list
      from the beginning. She was one of Richard Pryor's favorite singers.
      This project began to hatch as I was working on a screenplay based on
      the life of Richard Pryor."

      The screenplay spun off the Henry orchestral blues composition
      "Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation," the centerpiece of Henry's
      own CD "Scar" (2001, Mammoth). The track features free-jazz alto
      saxophonist Ornette Coleman. Henry wound up writing a piece for
      Esquire magazine about Coleman and Pryor, and how the idea of one of
      them led him to work with the other one. That article opened the door
      for the Pryor camp.

      "I spent two years working on the screenplay with my brother in
      Louisville," Henry said. "As inspiration I would listen to the music
      that was important to Richard during his zenith period of the '70s.
      Ann was really important to Richard, things like 'I Can't Stand the

      Henry was persistent in tracking down Peebles. She contributed the
      never-before-recorded ballad "When the Candle Burns Low." Henry also
      asked each artist to contribute two songs they had not previously
      recorded. Peebles delivered a seductive cover of Dylan's "Tonight I'll
      Be Staying Here With You." Staples did her hometown proud with Curtis
      Mayfield's "Keep on Pushing" and Leadbelly's "You Must Have That True
      Religion," framed by her immaculate phrasing.

      The result of "I Believe to My Soul" is a cohesiveness that honors
      understatement and connects the diverse influences of Chicago gospel
      (Staples), Memphis, New Orleans (Toussaint and Thomas) and Los Angeles
      (Preston, although he was born in Texas).

      Henry hopes that "I Believe to My Soul" will lead to a series of
      independent projects with the artists. "If you look at the Buena Vista
      Social Club as a model, their first record was a collaborative flag in
      the sand," Henry said. "Then Ry Cooder did full-scope solo records
      with the artists."

      What has Henry learned from his soul music projects is the importance
      of a great song and an engaging vocal performance. "Here, there's a
      power at play where the picture almost gets bigger the more you strip
      it down."
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