If you are in search of a late-night record, Sam Cooke’s Night Beat is that quiet mood-piece that delivers.

 

“It’s just past closing time and Sam is singing for himself. There’s an empty table right over there. Welcome to NIGHT BEAT.”

Night Beat stands in stark contrast to Cooke’s crowd-pleasing hits

Those are words from the original album notes. And truly, if you are in search of a late-night record, Sam Cooke’s Night Beat is that quiet mood-piece that delivers—melancholy made swingingly sublime, like a warm quiet refuge from the cold outside. For its sessions, Cooke went for an intimate setting, offering a stark contrast to his lushly produced, crowd-pleasing Top 10 hits like “You Send Me” and “Twistin’ the Night Away.” The result is a lightly swinging midnight-blues built on a chassis of cool, spare instrumentation, and relaxed emotional gait.

It’s hard not to be drawn in instantly. “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” sets the somber and bluesy tone. Then the barely-there bass fills and a ghostly cymbal are all that lurk behind Cooke’s soaring vocals and exquisite phrasing of the pained lyrics on “Lost and Lookin’.” You can feel the air and the night humming in the auditory space left vacant by the players; and when the vaguely honky-tonk piano kicks off the third song, “Mean Old World,” and the drums leap in, it feels like a banquet of excess.

Given the album’s unified mood, it can be thought of not in the context of Sam Cooke’s journey from gospel to soul, or from the chitlin’ circuit to American Bandstand, but against a number of other albums in search of (or arising directly from) that fugitive 3 a.m., smoke-filled studio vibe. That puts it in the company of Ray Charles albums like The Genius After Hours and The Genius Sings The Blues, Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning, and even perhaps Closing Time and The Heart of Saturday Night by Tom Waits.

His voice is the sweetest, most elastic instrument in the history of soul

But what those records don’t have is Sam Cooke’s voice—perhaps the sweetest and most elastic instrument in the history of soul. And here he lives in the middle region of his vocal power: He doesn’t often rise to the ecstatic broken scream that invigorates his work with the Soul Stirrers and dominates Live At The Harlem Square Club, or the dirty low-down growl that is its earthy, sex-charged opposite, although both are resorted to sparingly, as the mood dictates. Mainly he offers that extraordinary melisma—the delirious bending and blending of notes to squeeze out unexpected moods and meanings, a skill at which none has ever matched him. It’s all clarity and poise on a bedrock of swinging, gently loping, medium-tempo blues. No man was ever so relaxed and laid-back with his gifts—“Play it, Billy! Answer him, Ray!” he urges gently—and it all seems so marvelously easy and inborn to him. Sam Cooke had only another 21 months to live; who knows what else we might have seen from him? This small-scale, quietly triumphant masterpiece will give you some idea.

 

If you need more late-night Sam than Night Beat alone can satisfy, we gathered some of his smokiest ballads to make this sort-of sequel to his masterful mood-piece.