Clip: Dave Hoekstra on Joe Henry & Sam Cooke
- 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