As one of the premiere singers of the 70s and 80s, Gerald Alston was comfortable enough in his skin that he never took offense when listeners compared his melifluous voice to that of perhaps the greatest soul singer of a previous generation, Sam Cooke. Said Alston, "Ever since I can remember, the warm and beautiful voice of Sam Cooke has been an inspiration to me. His diction, delivery and his wonderful way of telling a story was like no other. He always sang from the heart and always made you feel as though it was you he was singing to."
And while as a member of the Manhattans, Alston convincincly covered a few Cooke covers ("You Send Me," "A Change Is Gonna Come"), it seemed only natural that, at some point in his career, he would dedicate an entire album to the man who was his vocal inspiration. That day has finally arrived with Gerald Alston Sings Sam Cooke, Alston's first solo disc in over a decade. Working with producer Al Goodman (Ray, Goodman & Brown), Alston has picked a dozen of Cooke's most popular compositions, with alternatingly faithful and unusual covers of these classic songs.
One of the dangers of taking on the Sam Cooke songbook is that Cooke's biggest compositions have been recorded so many times by so many different artists, it is difficult to pump anything fresh into them. But the good news is that Sings succeeds in this regard, driven principally by Alston's convincing vocals. Gerald is still the same versatile singer he was more than three decades ago when he burst on the popular music scene via "Kiss and Say Goodbye," but the years have added more of an interpreter's touch as well a slight rasp to his voice, both of which have turned him from a great singer to a true song stylist. Those skills are in full bloom on the new disc, as he pays tribute to Cooke while placing his own unique mark on the collection.
Opening with an acoustic guitar intro on "You Send Me," the disc shows that it is going to veer from the typical retro, simplistic approach often taken with covers of Cooke's composition. It is an important statement, and portends to more fine moments to follow. "Twistin' The Night Away," with the full horn section, simply pops out of the speakers, and the organ-backed cover of "Only Sixteen" and the mildly bluesy bar band take on "Bring It On Home To Me" similarly work wonderfully. And saxophonist Gerald Albright's guest spots on the jazzy "Sentimental Reasons" and "Wonderful World," take these familiar songs on a new, attractive path.
Kudos to Goodman and arranger Travis Milner for generally creating a strong musical backdrop for the disc. While a few spots (the live version of "A Change Is Gonna Come" and the synthetic string intro to "Sentimental Reasons") rely a bit too much on electronics, overall the album uses a live band and horn section, immediately putting it a step above most independent projects being released by classic soul artists.
On paper, the combination of Sam Cooke's classic compositions and Gerald Alston's voice should be a winner. And fortunately for soul and pop music fans, this is one collection where reality has met the theoretical. Now in his mid-50s, Alston sounds better than ever and he has chosen a great project for his solo reintroduction. Gerald Alston Sings Sam Cooke is a wonderful, loving tribute to a legendary performer and serves as a reminder that Gerald Alston is of one of the finest vocalists of our time. Highly recommended.
By Chris Rizik