Sam Cooke vs. Marvin Gaye: A Response

Ta-Nehisi Coates is weighing in on this claim about who tops who.  Postbourgie says Sam, no contest.  TNC waffles — it’s the old spikes of excellence vs. body of work wheeze, but what got me going is that when he sees the lines blurring as white kids rise to clap for Sam Cooke’s rendition of “Blowing in the Wind,” that gives me the excuse (as if I needed one) to post this retort on Marvin Gaye’s behalf.

This was a Rubicon, IMHO.  A revelatory approach to this song.

There’s the virtuosity — no singer me, but still I know from talking to a lot of performers how challenging it is, how brave you have to be to stand out there on an island, all by yourself, sing damn near a cappela, and hit every moment of feeling just as you imagine it — especially on a tune as famously singer-hostile as the Star Spangled Banner.  On national TV. Live.

And there is sheer fact of ownership.  That song, for that moment, is Marvin’s property, lock stock and barrel — and he’s laying the fact that this song belongs not just to one narrow idea of America but to a much bigger one.  And he’s doing so to start a celebration of America’s blackest major sport beamed out on mass media, when that term actually meant something.  If in Sam Cooke’s performance TNC sees a major milestone, then this is surely another.

And to the larger claim:  I’m biased. (And those others are not? — ed.)

Marvin Gaye provided a big part of the soundtrack of my youth, and Cooke, for all his unquestioned wonderfulness, much less so.  So my props go here to the man who I still think had an almost perfect sense of the song.

My blog, remember.  Here, if no where else, I get to pick the winner. ;)

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4 Comments on “Sam Cooke vs. Marvin Gaye: A Response”

  1. shani-o Says:

    Since it’s your blog, I’ll let it go. :-)

    But I think your point about Gaye being your soundtrack is exactly why so many people my age (20s) love him — because our parents did. But my parents are, um, older, and we listened to a lot more Sam (and other pre-1970 geniuses like Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions) in my house than Marvin.

  2. timothyjamaal Says:

    I’m a biased Marvin Gaye fan though I love Sam Cooke too. But I think the unfortunate reality is that Sam Cooke’s death in 1964 took away what he could’ve done. Ironically Marvin Gaye was already making his stamp on R&B just as his hero/rival was taken from us so violently. Both Marvin & Sam were early heroes of soul music. I think the one thing that Marvin showed that Sam was unable to do is show his versatility throughout anything he recorded be it rock, pop, doo-wop dance, soul, R&B, ballads, standards, funk, blues and jazz. He also recorded a FULL album of socially conscious material, something I think only Bob Marley and Rage Against the Machine and Public Enemy did whereas folks like Sly Stone, the Beatles, the Temptations, Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, Stevie Wonder and the like mixed the political and social affairs with romantic themes. Sam’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” is a prominent song but so is Marvin’s “What’s Going On”. I think people of all ages need to delve deep into both Marvin & Sam’s catalogs. Both of them deserve the title as the “greatest singers that ever lived” because they were. Sam was for 15 years, Marvin for about 23. Their memories will live on as their music is still played.

  3. Karim Says:

    As an artist, I’ll take Marvin in a landslide. But I do recognize that Sam Cooke died before he had a chance to do more as a musician. Nonetheless, I can’t assume that Sam would have amassed a catalogue like that of Marvin Gaye in the 70′s. Vocally, I’ll take Marvin in a landslide. I honestly don’t see why this is close. Sam was great, but nobody had a voice like Marvin. Sam Cooke had an overall great voice, but it was the same on every song and in every note. His versaitility and range weren’t anything special. Marvin Gaye on the other hand, could construct his voice like a 20 instrument orchestra. The high notes, the low notes, the hard notes, the soft notes, the long notes, the short notes, the rough notes, the smooth notes etc. And he’d hit them all with such style and technique that would make anyone else’s seem clumsy. Marvin Gaye is just incomparabel…straight up. I’d even take Otis Redding over Sam Cooke. The soul that man possesed makes me sweat.

  4. judy Says:

    I love them both. On my ipod I have about 100 Sam Cooke songs – and that ain’t all of them. So he did a whole lot. No reason to do a versus thing. They are giants along with Sammy, Curtis. James, Rick, Michael and more. What richness!


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