THE COMPLETE KEEN YEARS: 1957-1960
ABKCO (5-CD Box Set)
By Chris M. Junior
His earliest recordings were with The Soul Stirrers for Specialty Records, and most of his Billboard Hot 100 chart entries were on RCA Victor. But it was while signed to Keen Records that Sam Cooke transitioned from group gospel singer to bona fide solo pop star, his vocal prowess and ability to personalize diverse material matching that of another future Rock and Roll Hall of Famer: Elvis Presley.
Released in January as part of a yearlong celebration leading up to the 90th anniversary of Cooke’s birth, The Complete Keen Years: 1957-1960 is a five-disc box set sourced from recently recovered original masters. By putting Cooke’s Keen albums in chronological order for this collection, which also contains bonus tracks, ABKCO also sequences Cooke’s evolution and artistic growth during those years.
Like many of his contemporaries, Cooke leaned on outside material, and he consistently made the most out of it. He tackled the oft-covered “Summertime” from the opera Porgy and Bess twice, with excellent results. On “Part 1” (included on Disc 5), he sings it fairly smooth and straightforward, throwing in soothing hums periodically, but on the swaggering “Part 2” (on Disc 1), there’s a slight edge to his voice throughout as he ad-libs “Don’t cry” at the start and between verses. There have been many interesting, moving versions of the ballad “Danny Boy,” but Cooke’s (also on Disc 1) is among the few that’s suitable for dancing. Disc 3 contains the entirety of 1959’s Tribute to The Lady, his take on songs from jazz great Billie Holiday’s catalog that’s respectful but is by no means a mirror image.
Where Cooke had an edge on Presley in particular was as a songwriter. Credited at the time to one of Cooke’s brothers, “You Send Me” got the ball rolling, and Cooke’s final Top 40 pop hit on Keen was “Wonderful World,” which he co-wrote with Herb Alpert and Lou Adler. By the time he’d contributed to the latter song, Cooke’s growth as a writer and sense for what made lyrics relatable had reached new heights. “I don’t know what it would have been if he didn’t get involved, but what it became was because of him,” Adler said of the song in Peter Guralnick’s Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke. “Sam always told me, ‘You got to be talking to somebody.’” This collection shows Cooke spoke volumes while with Keen.