Album Reviews: Sam Cooke - The Complete Keen Years, Plus Michael Doucet, Michel Petrucciani, Chris Maxwell

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From a career standpoint, Sam Cooke’s Keen Records period bears comparison to Elvis Presley’s days at Sun. Presley made seminal recordings at the latter label before his new manager, the hard-driving Colonel Tom Parker, signed him up for stardom at the much larger RCA. Similarly, Cooke spent an important transitional period at Keen before another tough-talking manager, Allen Klein, moved him to RCA, where he scored many of his biggest hits, including “Cupid,” “Chain Gang,” and “Another Saturday Night.” (Unfortunately, Cooke’s days at RCA were much shorter than Presley’s: he signed with the company in 1963 and was shot to death only about a year later, at age 33.)

As its title suggests, the new Complete Keen Years 1957-1960, a five-CD set, collects all of his work for the label. It includes his eponymous debut for Keen; a second album called EncoreHit Kit, which in this reissue supplements his mono Keen singles with nine stereo bonus tracks; Tribute to the Lady, which features covers of Billie Holiday classics like “Good Morning  Heartache,” “She’s Funny That Way,” “God Bless the Child,” and “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues,” all offered here in both stereo and mono; and The Wonderful World of Sam Cooke, which includes six bonus tracks. All of the material has been beautifully restored and remastered.

Cooke’s years at Keen found him taking his first steps away from gospel, which he was still performing as a member of the Soul Stirrers a mere six weeks before his first Keen session. And what a session it was: it produced “You Send Me,” the No. 1 pop hit that shifted both Cooke’s career and the label into high gear and introduced white audiences to the singer’s vocal prowess.

Like such contemporaries as Bobby Darin, Cooke at least initially saw himself as a mainstream entertainer with appeal to a wide range of audiences and age groups, not just pop/rock aficionados, and much of the Keen material reflects that. Cooke—who incidentally added the “e” to his last name when he joined Keen—covers lots of standards here, including “Moonlight in Vermont,” "That Lucky Old Sun,” and "Danny Boy." 

His gorgeous tenor enlivens all of this music, but he shines brightest when he injects pop flavoring into numbers like “Win Your Love for Me” and “Let’s Go Steady Again.” Notably, many of the best and most successful performances are self-penned, including such hit singles as “(What a) Wonderful World” (cowritten with Herb Alpert and Lou Adler), “Only Sixteen,” and the aforementioned “You Send Me. 

If you’re interested primarily in these and Cooke’s other best-known numbers, note that you can find all of them (and much more) on the excellent four-CD The Man Who Invented Soul, which appeared in 2000. But if you really want to understand his journey—including the many terrific albeit lesser-known highlights of his early years—you also need both 1992’s Sam Cooke with the Soul Stirrers and this fine new Keen collection, which contains lots of material that isn’t readily available elsewhere.

BRIEFLY NOTED

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Michael Doucet, Lacher PriseCajun and Cajun-influenced music seems to be enjoying a bit of a renaissance these days, which would be good news even if the trend’s only lasting impact were to shine a brighter light on Louisiana musician Michael Doucet, whose four-decade-long career included a long stint fronting the Grammy-winning BeauSoleil. 

This latest release finds him leading a new band and mixing originals with traditional tunes and covers of “Lula, Lula Don’t You Go to Bingo,” by Boozoo Chavis, the zydeco pioneer, and “He’s Got All the Whiskey,” by Cajun singer/songwriter Bobby Charles. Throughout, the rhythms and lively accordion and fiddle work will put you in a mood to party. Doucet says the reason we’re on earth is “to have a good time,” and that’s clearly what he’s doing throughout Lacher Prise.

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Michel Petrucciani, ColorsMichel Petrucciani, who died in 1999 at age 36, managed to become a world-renowned jazz pianist despite suffering from osteogenesis, a bone disease that stunted his growth and kept him in an almost constant state of physical pain. This two-disc anthology, which focuses on self-penned material recorded between 1994 and 1997, offers a mix of live and studio tracks, all of which showcase the keyboard wizardry that earned him acclaim. 

Highlights include the melancholy, 11-minute “Trilogy in Blois”; the lively “Little Peace in C for U,” with violinist Stephane Grappeli; and “Montelimar,” which has not previously appeared on an LP. The liner notes incorporate tributes from such admirers and collaborators as Lenny White, Steve Gadd, and saxophonist Charles Lloyd, who was so impressed with Petrucciani that he came out of retirement to perform with him.  

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Chris Maxwell, New Store No. 2“Write what you know,” advised Mark Twain, and that’s what Chris Maxwell seems to have largely done on this second solo album. The Woodstock, New York-based singer/songwriter—whose past credits include the 1990s band Skeleton Key and scores for assorted TV series—wrote the soulful title track about his grandfather and the store he opened in Arkansas after emigrating from Beirut, Lebanon. Also here are “Cause and Effect,” which draws details from a car accident that killed Maxwell’s best friend when he was a teenager; and “Walking Through the Water,” about his brother, a drug addict who died last year. 

As such subjects—and titles like “Jack Lee’s Dead” and “The Song Turns Blue”— suggest, there’s a whole lot of melancholy on this album. There’s also an occasional misstep. (“Most of What I Know I Learned from Women” isn’t as interesting as its title suggests it might be.) But the bulk of this melodious, artfully made CD manages to deliver music that is as satisfying as it is sad. 

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Jeff Burger (byjeffburger.com), a longtime magazine editor, has written about music, politics, and popular culture for more than 75 periodicals. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches…

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