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Back in the day, when I thought my writing career was leading me toward poetry, I tried to do a piece on Sam Cooke. It actually was a series patterned after Kamau Brathwaite's "Blues" series, which looks at a series of jazz musicians. (You can read "Miles," for instance, here.) I tried to do a series called "Soul" looking at Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, James Brown and Sam Cooke. Obviously I was heavily influenced Peter Guralnick. 


It's funny thinking back on that series, because it never quite worked. All of the poems were broken. What I couldn't know then is that more goes into writing than just writing, and that in order to write about something as heavy as "Soul" you need something beyond technique, you need to have lived. I didn't wanted to hear any of that. I was 19 years old, and convinced I should be the bard for my parent's music.

Anyway, the piece on Sam Cooke was based on this performance of "Having A Party." Sam Cooke was the original code-switcher. He started in gospel, then turned to heretical secular "race records." But not quite. Many of Cooke's biggest hits were clearly made for a world beyond the South Side. And yet in other cases, you could hear him singing for the boulevard--sometimes on different renditions of the same song.

For my money, Cooke's Live At The Harlem Square Club really brings out this dynamic--where you can really hear the crowd taking Cooke back to church. My favorite cut is the conclusion "Having A Party." I listen to this, and then listen to Rod Stewart's when I want to piss myself off. The call and response at the end is just beautiful. I always thought this would be a great funeral song--not to be too morbid on The Morning Coffee.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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