The bridge was “A Change Is Gonna Come,” one of Sam Cooke’s last tunes. The overlap was Solomon Burke, Taj Mahal, the Manhattans, the Dixie Hummingbirds, Cissy Houston, the timelessly elegant Soul Stirrer LeRoy Crume and headliner Aretha Franklin, authoritative and widescreen as ever. The occasion was two concerts that must be viewed as one, capping a weeklong celebration of Sam Cooke, the soul-gospel pioneer shot to death at age 33 in 1964.
Mourning didn’t rule either show. Exultation and exaltation were the watchwords as a star-studded roster of soul and gospel icons strutted and wailed their stuff.
The Nov. 5 show, the pop date, lasted nearly four hours. Despite some weakness — Cissy Houston couldn’t quite find the Cooke groove on “Only 16” and Boston-based soul trickster Peter Wolf seemed a bit stoked on “Looking for a Love” — it wound up strong, with an amazing Burke-Franklin duet on “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Burke and Franklin are huge both in voice and girth; both are startling singers who came into their own 40 years ago delivering hits for Atlantic Records.
In addition to performers spanning the Blind Boys If Alabama, Otis Clay, Elvis Costello and, in a nod to a younger generation, the soulful Gavin DeGraw, the show featured NAACP Chairman Julian Bond and actor Morgan Freeman as emcees. The evening began with a video from former President Bill Clinton, who hailed Cooke as an “emblem of hope.”
The next night’s date was more local; Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum President and CEO Terry Stewart was the primary emcee, but the event also featured addresses from Cleveland reverends and stirring performances by massive Cleveland choirs from the New Spirit Revival Center and the Morning Star Baptist Church. The New Spirit choir lifted Houston to the heights of the evening’s first tune, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” paving the way for the Manhattans’ “Were You There?,” a tune so spirited it got people to shout and stomp as hard as the group members themselves.
There were many highlights over the weekend, spanning Costello’s delicious update of Charles Brown’s “Get Yourself Another Fool” (he noted that Cooke recorded it 20 years after Brown, and Costello recorded it 20 years ago), the Manhattans’ fervent reading of Cooke’s “Chain Gang” and Taj Mahal’s pointed “Little Red Rooster,” a Howlin’ Wolf tune Cooke did in the early ’60s. Stewart said that Cooke had plans to record a “gutbucket blues” album, but death cut him short.
Death figured less than transfiguration this weekend, however. In their homage to the Cooke family and their celebration of seminal figures such as early Cooke gospel groups the Highway QCs and the Soul Stirrers, the Rock Hall and cosponsors Case Western Reserve University and Allen Klein Enterprises did themselves proud.
The weekend concerts ended with Lou Rawls, Franklin and Burke harmonizing on an unrehearsed gospel workout for which they were joined by the Manhattans, Crume and William Bell (his version of “You Send Me” Nov. 5 failed to lift like the original) that brought the audience to its feet once again.
Underlined by Peter Guralnick’s stirring, exhaustive Cooke biography, “Dream Boogie,” the 10th installment of the Rock Hall’s American Music Masters presentations gave luminous props to Cooke, a seminal figure in American popular music. And you couldn’t experience it anywhere but Cleveland.