Blessed with movie-star good looks and a great voice with almost choir-boy purity, Sam Cooke wrote and/or recorded more Top 40 hits (29) than Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard combined, yet many pop fans were surprised in 1986 when he was one of the first 10 artists inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That's because lots of those early hits were tame by early rock standards. For every soulful "You Send Me," there was "Everybody Wants to Cha Cha Cha" and "Cupid." Cooke turned out those pale pop ditties because he (and his record company) wanted to appeal to mainstream white pop fans, not just Black R&B ones. He even played the famous Copa night club in New York in 1964, complete with a cane and top hat, singing pop hits such as "Mona Lisa" and "Hey There."
The other side of Sam Cooke is showcased in this live album, which was recorded in 1963 (before the Copa album) at Miami's Harlem Square Club, but shelved because it was considered to raw and gritty for his mainstream image. When the album was finally released in 1985, it was an eye-opener. It showed his contributions to the passionate and soulful gospel-pop synthesis that was reflected in the works of Otis Redding, Al Green, Smokey Robinson and others influenced by Cooke. The collection not only explains why he deserved to be one of the first figures inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but also ranks as one of the most important soul singers ever.
Dusty Springfield - "Dusty in Memphis"
Though she may be best known these days for "What Have I Done to Deserve This," her sensational 1987 hit with the Pet Shop Boys, Dusty has a string of hits that go back to the early days of The Beatles, including the bouncy, country-folk "Silver Threads and Golden Needles." But her most celebrated collection is unquestionably "Dusty in Memphis."
After signing with Atlantic Records, Dusty went to Memphis to record an album under the production team, including the famed Jerry Wexler, that had earlier worked with Aretha Franklin. Instead of being an all-out soul exercise, however, the album simply gave a Memphis R&B flavor to a wide range of material, including tunes by Carole King and Randy Newman. The standout track was Dusty's exquisite interpretation of John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins' country-soul marvel, "Son of a Preacher Man."
Bob Dylan - "Love and Theft"
This doesn't match the historical punch of Dylan's great 1960s albums or even the urgency of 1979's gospel-based "Slow Train Coming," but this gem - part of Dylan's amazing late-career run - may just be his most entertaining album. "Love and Theft" was the first time since "Highway 61 Revisited" that the music in a Dylan album was likely to catch your attention before the words. The arrangements - favored by the pre-rock country strains of country, blues, folk and even supper-club styles - are about as far from 2001 as you could get, and all the more delightful for it. Not that Dylan ignored the words; the lyrics serve as a wondrous, deceptively casual jigsaw puzzle of wit and wisdom that sometimes teases but more often jabs.
"Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum," the opening tune, rumbles out of the speakers with the liberating energy and authority that have been the hallmarks of great rock 'n' roll since the beginning. From the runaway-train intensity of the rhythm section to the locomotive wail of the guitars, the track is such a striking sonic force that you will probably find yourself turning up the volume and playing it over before moving on. Among the other highlights: the jump-blues exuberance of "Summer Days" and the Bing Crosby-like croon of "Moonlight."
Various Artists - "Movin' On Up"
When this collection of '60s protest music was put out in 1994, it seemed especially timely. It was just two years after the Rodney King police brutality case in Los Angeles and it served as a reminder of how little things had changed since the music was recorded three decades earlier. Another quarter century later, the album again seems especially timely.
The music ranges from landmark '60s hits, including The Impressions' "Keep On Pushing" and James Brown's "Say It Loud (I'm Black & I'm Proud)," to such other memorable moments as Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddamn," about four young girls killed in a Birmingham church bombing, and Otis Redding's moving version of Sam Cooke's haunting "A Change is Gonna Come."
Sinead O'Connor - "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got"
As a critic, you've go to guard against letting one good song or single make you overstate an artist's potential. But Sinead's version of Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U" was such a haunting statement of obsession and need that I took to train from London to Manchester, where she was performing that night, because her musical vision seemed so immense. And, the trip was well worth it. She sang that song, along with some of her own marvelous compositions from this album, including "Feel So Different", "You Cause As Much Sorrow', and "The Last Day of the Acquaintance".
Recalling the intimacy and intensity of John Lennon's landmark first solo album, "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got" is an eloquent statement about personal exorcisms and spiritual transformation. I interviewed her after the concert and was struck by the seriousness of her art and her impact on her fans. "This album is about finding yourself and finding a certain fulfillment, but I want to make it clear that I do not feel I am someone with all the answers, someone who is trying to covert others... Maybe the one lesson of the albums is that you can find the answers if you look hard enough. Everything in the new album happened to me - and I learned from it.' O'Connor's much publicized personal problems have tended to overshadow her art, but make no mistake about it: she is one of the truly great artists of the rock 'n' roll era.
Tom Waits - "The Heart of Saturday Night"
Songwriters have long been a major joy for me, and I felt this Southern California native was someone worth watching the first time I heard the song, "Ol' 55," on his 1973 debut album. As it turned out, that marvelously infectious tune about an early morning freeway ride didn't prepare me for this sometimes stunning second album. Waits, who was born and raised in Southern California, uses this area as his setting in most of the album's eleven compositions, but it's not the usual Southland scenes - the beach, the Sunset Strip or the peaceful isolation of the desert countryside - that interests him. Waits' songs are about the underbelly of life - the late night neon-lit world of bus stations, truck stops, barrooms or just a routine ride down.
But it's not the locale, of course, that gives the music such richness and character; the real thrust of Tom's music is the search by people who feel out of step with the regal (i.e. daytime) world, trying to carve out some happiness and sanity for themselves in the lonely, night-time hours when even a bus station can offer some refuge from the cold (at least emotionally) deserted streets. And search in an important pat of Waits' music. "San Diego Serenade" is a love song about the way one so easily ignores the important things around him or her: "Never saw the morning till I stayed up all night / Never saw the sunshine till I turned out the light / Never saw my hometown till I stayed away too long / And I never heard the melody till I needed the song."
Al Green - "Greatest Hits"
I fell in love with soul singers after hearing Ray Charles' string of hits in the 1950s, gradually adding Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Solomon Burke, Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye to my list of favorites. But no on had the consistency and character, both on record and (especially) on stage as Green, who was born in a small town in Arkansas in 1946 and burst onto the national pop and R&B scene in 1972 with four Top20 hits, including the spectacular "Tires of Being Alone" and silky, seductive "I'm Still in Love With You".
In the tradition of his idol Sam Cooke, Green knew the importance of understatement. His vocal style tends to be deliberately understated - a smooth, controlled manner that gives way to occasional, dramatic high falsetto bursts that exhibit extraordinary instincts of phrasing. He also has benefitted from his generous blend of several Southern musical styles - gospel to blues to country - into a richly appealing, even universal packages. I've listened to this album dozens of times, and never failed to marvel at his voice and style.
Various Artists - "The Harder They Come"
Though there have been a few lively hit singles in a reggae style earlier (Paul Simon's "Mother and Child Reunion" and Johnny Nash's "I Can See Clearly Now"), this soundtrack album (from the marvelous Jamaican crime film of the same name) was by far the best demonstration of the almost irresistible charm and appeal of the lively Jamaican musical style. The album features a variety of artists, chiefly Jimmy Cliff, in a virtual sampler of some of the most engaging reggae strains. Thanks greatly to the impact of the widely popular film itself, the music built enough of a taste for reggae that the genre's greatest star, Bob Marley (not on this album), would soon be wildly embraced in the United States.
Willie Nelson - "Phases and Stages"
Concept albums were rare in country music when Nelson wrote about the breakup of a marriage; the first half devoted to the woman's side of the story, and the second half to the man's side. The result is an often dark, beautifully crafted reflection f the contradictory, semi-desperate feelings that accompany such an emotional upheaval. Nelson's vocal style is deliberately underplayed; restrained, yet dramatic in the manner of an actor rather than a traditional country singer.
Broken love is a common theme in country music, but few artists have examined the subject in such a bold or comprehensive manner. As it turned out, the album wasn't a hit, but it did open a door for Nelson and concept albums. When he recorded the more accessible and traditional country-sounding collection, "Red-Headed Strange," a year later for another record label, it went to No.1 on the country charts and established the Texas-native as a country superstar. To my mind, "Phases and Stages" is the superior work.
"Paul Simon - Graceland"
Without question, this is Simon’s masterpiece. The music’s accessibility and charm of the music makes the album feel almost effortless, but the achievement was both complex and extraordinary. Simon, one of the premier songwriters in American pop history, blended American musical strains with South African roots traditions in ways that gave us something startlingly new, a mix that is likely to influence musicians around the world for generations to come.
Paul recorded “Graceland” in the mid-1980s, describing a worldwide struggle to balance feelings of seemingly unlimited scientific advances (the boy in the bubble) and unexpected social terrors (the bomb in the baby carriage), yet the album addresses today’s complexities just as powerfully. The music is joyful and warm, frequently inviting you to step onto the dance floor. Simon’s words, meanwhile, strive for an essential healing, addressing a world community with empathy and a shared, spiritually-tinged idealism. Ultimately, he tells us, we all will be received in Graceland.