Wednesday, September 21, 2016

SHG: Sam Cooke: "Chain Gang"

Sam Cooke: “Chain Gang”
Entered the chart on: 8/29/1960
Peaked on: 10/3/1960
Weeks at #2: 2
Songs at #1: “My Heart Has a Mind of Its Own” by Connie Francis and “Mr. Custer” by Larry Verne

Looking at the above hurts. Nobody should have to suffer the indignity of being blocked from the top spot by the leap-frogging “Mr. Custer,” possibly the most tasteless and execrable of 60s novelty songs, and believe me, there’s some serious competition for that trophy. Least of all Sam Cooke, who’s actually pretty likable.

Maybe I’m just talking out my butthole, as I frequently am, but I see Sam Cooke as one of the inheritors of Nat “King” Cole’s legacy. But whereas Nat sang ballads because it paid more than the instrumental piano jazz at which he also excelled, Sam sounds like he’d be more comfortable singing ballads, but sang whatever his producers threw his way, frequently some bordering-on-vapid teen-oriented uptempo material like the trendy “Twistin’ the Night Away” and the high-school themed “Wonderful World.” He elevated such material with commitment and superlative singing, one of those vocalist who could sing proverbial entries out of the phone book and make it sound good.

And then there’s this song which, at least as regards lyrical content, might just be the strangest song we’ve come across thus far at Second Hand Goods.

I’d say the vast majority of songs we’ve reviewed thus far tend to fall into the categories of “It’s wonderful to be in love” or “It sucks not to be in love,” or some variation thereof. And then there’s “Chain Gang.” Do note that said chain gang, unlike the Pretenders’ “Back on the Chain Gang,” is not a metaphor. It’s just a song about the sound of the men working on the chain gang. All right, I’ve heard Cooke did intend this as a metaphor for the Civil Rights struggle.

Whatever it was, Glenn Osser went all out with the arrangement, with the anvil clinking, the grunting hook and the bass singer offering counterpoint to Sam’s soaring lead. It sure must have resonated with a lot of listeners in any case. Regardless of whether the theme was metaphorical or not, Cooke sells it. His voice is so supple and express it he could pretty much sell me anything and I’d buy it.

This isn’t knocking “You Send Me” off the top of my Sam Cooke favorites, but it’s still a damn classic. Splendid.

Rating: 5

1 comment:

  1. There's actually a decent YouTube video for this with a bit of Chain Gang history at