Don’t let the cover of Night Beat fool you with its zany, wonky 60s typeface, it doesn’t do its content any justice. On first glance Cooke’s slight smile seems beguiling as well, but there’s definitely a hint of tiredness and sadness in his expression that becomes easier to identify after listening to the album. Night Beat is one of the truly unique early 60s pop albums that doesn’t play like singles padded with filler, and is easily among the more impressive soul releases, and I daresay even blues releases. Fans of Sam Cooke’s renowned songs, particularly his singles, should visit Night Beat as their next port of call, an ideal night-time listen that contains a powerfully poignant side to ‘Mr. Soul’ unheard elsewhere in his work.
Recorded in the ludicrously short space of three nights, Sam Cooke’s 1963 release Night Beat is a surprisingly powerful presence among the work of arguably the greatest soul singer to have ever lived. Compared to Cooke’s previous releases and electric live performances of the era, Night Beat is a deceptively titled and illustrated album that features ‘Mr. Soul’ at his most intimate, personal and melancholy.
Aided by some of the best session musicians of the era, Night Beat combines raw blues, soft rhythm and blues arrangements and gospel-style organs (played by a 16 year old Billy Preston) that all simply act as vassals for Cooke’s characteristically sublime, smooth vocals that are at times heart-wrenchingly emotional and powerful. The album’s A-side is particularly compelling, with the tracks “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen”, “Lost and Lookin’”, “Mean Old World”, “Please Don’t Drive Me Away” and “I Lost Everything” being among the best of Cooke’s work, but the first half’s finale “Get Yourself Another Fool” is soulful blues at its best, with Billy Preston’s organ playing invoking the typically passionate aura of church gospel, Barney Kessell following Cooke’s verses with sublime, bluesy electric guitar and Cooke himself brilliantly inflecting the sorrowful sort of disillusionment after a breakup, with the refrain “Use me for a tool / Get yourself another fool”.
However, common for a pop album released in the early 1960s, Night Beat does contain obvious radio singles that distinctly feel out of place, the perpetrators being the B-side’s cover songs “Little Red Rooster”, “You Gotta Move” and particularly the closing track “Shake Rattle and Roll”, where Cooke almost sounds uncomfortable covering Big Joe Turner’s classic in the context of the album. Seeing as it was an industry standard at the time to prioritise and promote radio singles over album content, I can’t really fault it here – besides, they’re all perfectly enjoyable songs in their own right.
Even considering its slight unevenness due to the easily distinguishable radio singles, Night Beat is a captivating record, sharing the same type of sorrow and despondence as Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours, despite the arrangements of both releases being at polar opposites. The significant shift in tone on this album in a way acts as the archetype for Cooke’s later work, an obvious comparison being 1964’s civil rights staple “A Change is Gonna Come”, a ballad tinged with sadness and optimism which uses similar arrangements as on Night Beat.