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04 August 2007 @ 05:25 am

In the 1980's and early 90's one of my favorite haunts was the now departed '3rd Street Jazz & Rock' music store, the greatest record store in the Philadelphia area. I would literally spend 3-4 hours there each time I went. And I would leave with 10-15 LP's. Always the cream of the crop: Clyde McPhatter, Jackie Wilson, Otis Redding, Solomon Burke, Wynonie Harris, Roy Brown, Garnet Mimms, Louis Jordan & the Tympani Five, Little Willie John, etc. The music that electrified me in those vapid days when robotic, assembly line garbage by pretty boys with spray-painted hair passed for 'cutting edge music' in the 1980's.

Let me preface this by saying that since I was about 10 years old my absolute favorite singer has been – and most likely will always be – Sam Cooke. He was, in my opinion, the greatest voice to ever step up to a microphone. It defies description in its perfection. The phrasing, the tonality, the texture, the passion and deftness he put into each syllable. He was somebody who, as the old line goes, could sing the phone book and make it exciting.

I first heard Sam Cooke when I was at a childhood friend of mine's home. His mother had the 'Best of Sam Cooke' on LP. I was mesmerized from the first listen. I was amazed I hadn't heard him before. I knew everything by Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. Why had this guy been kept under wraps?



I asked to borrow the album and, being the creep that I am, it is still sitting comfortably in my record collection today. The songs on that LP were so amazing, and his delivery so infectious, I couldn't listen to it enough: You Send Me, Only Sixteen, Everybody Loves To Cha Cha Cha, For Sentimental Reasons, Wonderful World, Summertime, Chain Gang, Cupid, Twistin' The Night Away, Sad Mood, Having A Party, and Bring It On Home. And the fact that he WROTE most of the songs just floored me. This guy clearly didn't need to write (Sinatra didn't write!) His voice was overwhelmingly captivating. I still think that every time I put on one of his CD's.

Anyway, one of the great difficulties about being a new Sam Cooke fan in the 1970's was how little was available (other than his gospel recordings with the Soul Stirrers, but I was not interested in gospel music at that age). Other than the 'Best of' album, there were only repackagings of his first solo album from 1957 with 'You Send Me', 'Bells of Saint Mary's', and 'Moonlight in Vermont'. Other than 'You Send Me', his '57 tracks were not songs that he had written and were not of the fiery nature of ' Twistin' the Night Away', 'Bring it on Home', and 'Chain Gang'. And THAT'S what I wanted to hear more of!

So, many years later, in the mid 80's, while on one of my many pilgrimages to '3rd Street Jazz & Rock', I was ecstatic to find they had in stock some Japanese imports of Sam Cooke's early 60's LPs. At that time the records were probably selling for around $16.99, twice the cost of an average LP. But I knew they were impossible LP's to get hold of and I didn't think twice about paying the full amount to get these records. There were 3 LP's in total: Twistin' the Night Away, A Change is Gonna Come, and Ain't That Good News. After converting them to tapes, I listened to them relentlessly both at home and in my car for years and years.



While I loved discovering the magic of Meet Me at Mary's Place, Rome Wasn't Built in a Day, Shake, Soothe Me, Somebody Have Mercy, and Somebody's Gonna Miss Me, there was one song in particular that haunted me. It's a song that I had known my whole life, but had never thought much of. It's a song called, 'The Riddle Song'.

Everybody knows 'The Riddle Song'. It's even made an example of in the film 'Animal House' as a horrible song. A guy is playing the song on his guitar when 'Bluto' Blutarsky hears the lines about, "I gave my love a cherry that had no stone, I gave my love a chicken that had no bone", and Bluto proceeds to smash the guy's guitar into pieces. That's how I thought of the song for years.

Until I heard Sam Cooke's version.

The thing that always haunted me about Sam's version was every time I heard it I imagined it being used to great effect in a movie. I could imagine the scene vividly. A guy is rushing into a hospital where he's just been notified that his wife has gone into labor. As he runs into the hospital, a doctor stops him, while the song plays throughout the scene:

I gave my love a cherry that had no stone
I gave my love a chicken that had no bone
I gave my love a ring that had no end
I gave my love a baby with no crying

You don't hear the dialogue in the scene, but it's clear as the smile on his face drops, and you can read his lips say, "What?", that he's been told terrible news about the baby.

How can there be a cherry that has no stone
How can there be a chicken that has no bone
How can there be a ring that has no end
How can there be a baby with no crying

You realize that he's been told that his baby's died. And he walks dazed into the room where his wife is to comfort her as the song finishes.


A cherry when it's blooming, it has no stone
A chicken when it's pipping, ain't got no bone
A ring when it's rolling, it has no end
And a baby when it's sleeping, there's no crying
A baby when it's sleeping
There's no crying

So, for years, every time I'd listen to 'The Riddle Song' by Sam Cooke, I'd imagine this powerful scene in a movie. Thinking that I had come up with this great twist on the "How can there be a baby with no crying / A baby when it's sleeping, there's no crying" lyric. And every time I'd hear it, and imagine this scene, it would bring tears to my eyes. I could imagine the death scene so vividly.

In 1995, the first biography ever written about Sam Cooke was released called, "You Send Me: The Life and Times of Sam Cooke". Prior to this book I knew very little about Sam's personal life outside of his music. As I'm reading the book, I find out that in June of 1963 Sam's only son, Vincent, at 18 months old, fell into the family swimming pool and drowned. As soon as I read that, I didn't even need to check his track discography, I knew Sam's version of 'The Riddle Song' was undoubtedly recorded AFTER his son's death (his recording was made on December 21, 1963), and was recorded directly BECAUSE his son had died.

What amazed me the most, and is one of many reasons Sam Cooke is my absolute favorite singer, was that he conveyed that deeply painful emotion of a baby's death in this otherwise simple tune in such a way that it always brought tears to my eyes without my even knowing why. He went beyond the lyrics, beyond the arrangement, and even beyond his seemingly innocent delivery and he conveyed that. THAT is why what he did was pure magic!


In the book they make no mention of the song having any great significance to Sam. And in the recent documentary 'Sam Cooke – Legend', they even have a clip of the song, but it's presented early in the documentary out of context (using it to emphasize the death of an ex-wife), long before they mention his son's death and how it devastated him for the last year and a half of his life. The meaning I get from it seems to have eluded everyone else.

If you've never heard the song, here's a brief clip taken from the Legend DVD. His performance is taken from The Jerry Lewis Show on December 7, 1963.

I love you, Sam Cooke!

Current Music: Best of Sam Cooke