Abstract

Though African American singer, songwriter, and entrepreneur Sam Cooke (1931–1964) is commonly celebrated as a pioneering soul singer, the preponderance of Cooke recordings suggesting to many critics a “white” middle-of-the-road pop sound has troubled this reception. From June 1957 until the end of 1959, Cooke recorded for the independent label Keen Records, where he charted a course for realizing his professional and socioeconomic aspirations, including his determination to harness the prestige attached to the long-playing album and the “album artist.” This article explores relationships between the repertory, performances, and production on three Keen album tracks: “Danny Boy,” “My Foolish Heart,” and “I've Got a Right to Sing the Blues.” These recordings reveal Cooke's seldom-noted proximity to contemporaneous figures and concerns: “Irish tenor” Morton Downey, who built a career on the fluidity between ethnic identity and pop's transparent “whiteness”; Billy Eckstine, who struggled to navigate the racial and sexual politics of the pop balladeer; and the black studio musicians whose campaign for employment equity in 1950s Los Angeles found resonance with Cooke's vision. Taking Cooke's endeavor seriously positions us to assess freshly Cooke's skills as a vocalist, the processes through which “pop” becomes racialized as white, and intractable methodological challenges in black music studies.

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