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.
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