Album Review: The Supremes – We Remember Sam Cooke

Gospel-informed soul singer Sam Cooke died tragically in December 1964 in murky circumstances; at the time, Cooke was enjoying a sustained peak as a songwriter, performer and recording artist. In the wake of his untimely death, a number of tribute projects paid respect to his artistry. Prominent among those was the pointedly-titled We Remember Sam Cooke, the fifth studio album form Motown vocal powerhouse The Supremes.

Featuring 11 songs – all Cooke compositions save “Wonderful World” (a Cooke co-write with Lou Adler and Herb Alpert) – We Remember Sam Cooke hiys the sweet spot between reverence and creative expression. Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard make the songs their own, giving them the Supremes stamp while holding onto what make the tunes successful in the first place.

“You Send Me” is the first and highest-profile cut on the LP (newly reissued as part of Elemental Music’s Motown vinyl reissue series). The arrangement doesn’t go anywhere adventurous, bt then it doesn’t need to. There’s a subtle country flavor applied to the girl-group-y reading of “Nothing Can Change this Love,” with hints of the Phil Spector sonic aesthetic. That cavernous wall-of-sound vibe is carried through on “Cupid.” the arrangement has a detached character – almost as if the vocals were recorded across town from the instruments – but it’s catchy nonetheless. Still, a mono mix (or simply folding down the stereo mix used here) could have corrected those sonic shortcomings.

It’s a bit strange hearing the “Ugh! Ah!” of “Chain Gang,” sung by The Supremes, backed by sassy brass section; the mental image of the trio in cocktail gowns, crooning sweetly about prison workers is a bit jarring. Far more successful (and apropos) is a cover of “Bring it on Home to Me,” in which The Supremes totally own the classic.

The trio switches the gender for “Only Sixteen,” and once again, the song fits Ross and her cohorts like a (elbow-length) glove. One of the record’s most upbeat moments is “Havin’ a Party.” The easy-listening arrangement has just the right amount of bounce. And for “Shake,” the Supremes finally tear the roof off the joint; it sounds for all the world like a hit single, but in fact neither “Shake” nor any of the album’s ten other tracks would be released as a single.

“Wonderful World” is lovely but adds nothing new to the song; while it does no harm, most listeners will be happy sticking with the original. Cooke’s gospel roots are paid tribute with “A Change is Gonna Come.” The syrupy strings threaten to overwhelm the vocals, but one supposes that the song demands as much. We Remember Sam Cooke closes with “(Ain’t That) Good News.” The bouncy gospel vibe is a bit of a stylistic departure for the Supremes, and it deftly illustrates the trio’s range.

A nicely put together straight-reissue, Elemental’s vinyl release of We Remember Sam Cooke is a welcome addition. The record hasn’t been available in the U.S. on vinyl since 1965; even the CD version dates way back to 1991.