Writings About Music

Sam Cooke: Musical Origin Mystery of the Beatles Solved

It has always been amazing to me how original the Beatles sound. Their first albums display a rasa (mood, expression) that seemed to come out of nowhere, and explanations that they were influenced by Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, and even the great Chuck Berry seemed superficial in relation to the expressive essence.

And then I heard Sam Cooke for the first time singing You Send Me. I immediately knew this was a musical moment as powerful as the Beatles' I Want To Hold Your Hand, Coltrane’s My Favorite Things and The Doors Light My Fire. Similar to what Lester Young achieved decades earlier in jazz, Cooke accomplished in popular music: a musical expression that transcends race or ethnicity; a new artistic plateau that focused on the individual rather than stereotypes; hope for civilization.

Rasa is a Hindu concept that translates to mean transcendental expression or essence, and Cooke’s musical vision radiates joy, peacefulness, fearlessness, and lack of inhibition. Mixed with all this is a profound musical sophistication, clarity of expression, and a magnetic presence.

If you listen to the voices of Paul McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison on their first LPs, the essence of Sam Cooke is there, too, and I believe this cannot be a coincidence, no matter whether it was conscious or not. This includes limpidity of diction, and technical perfection bolstering their powerful exuberance. Also noteworthy is the spare use of vibrato focusing on pure tone flavored with thrilling vocal melismas.

Pure tone, spare use of vibrato, absolute clarity of line, and joyful, unpretentious expression were also the revolutionary contributions of Lester Young that helped to transform jazz, inspiring artists as diverse as Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Lee Konitz and Miles Davis, among many others. In his last recorded interview - there are only two that I know of - Parker stated that above all he admired music that was very clean and precise.

Given the musical evidence, I imagine that Sam Cooke was well-versed in Lester Young's saxophone playing, and will attempt to find out the answer. One important connection they share is a fact: Nat King Cole's singing is one of Cooke's commonly known influences, and Cole was the pianist on some of Young's greatest recordings. Not many know that Nat King Cole was one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time, including being the favorite of Bill Evans.

I am curious to hear what Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and George Martin have to say about Sam Cooke, and will ask if the opportunity ever presents itself. It’s not completely out of the question. In the past, I received a letter from Martin in England, not to mention a long conversation with George Harrison over tea one Saturday evening in Lahaina. We do know that the early Beatles, including before they became a group, practically lived for the American recordings that reached the shores of Liverpool, and I have no doubt that Sam Cooke's output was paramount.

- Michael Robinson, February 2010, Los Angeles

© 2010 Michael Robinson All rights reserved

I just watched a documentary, The Compleat Beatles (1982), and in the film, keyboardist Billy Preston states that he met the Beatles while on tour with Little Richard and Sam Cooke (!) in 1962, and the shows included various English groups, including the Beatles, who he became close friends with. This is confirmation of my theory about the influence from Sam Cooke I heard and conjectured about above in the music of the Beatles, proving that they had intimate, in-person knowledge and experience with Cooke’s music.

- Michael Robinson, January 2014, Los Angeles

© 2014 Michael Robinson All rights reserved


Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and writer (musicologist).