To observe Sam Cooke’s birthday — Cooke would have turned 81 today — we’re introducing a new feature here at Pop Culture Has AIDS. Three-Minute Records will look back on the greatest songs in pop music history, inspired by the famous line in Bruce Springsteen’s “No Surrender”: “We learned more from a three-minute record than we ever learned in school.” (hat tip) And if you ever snuck a peek at the high school and college transcripts for David Simon Cowell and me, you would know that truth is particularly valid for us.
Sam Cooke’s “Having a Party” is not always thought of as one of Cooke’s best tracks. The song, released in 1962 as the B-side to “Bring It On Home to Me,” peaked at #17 on the U.S. singles chart and #4 on the R&B singles chart. Thirteen of Cooke’s singles fared better, led by #1 “You Send Me” and #2 “Chain Gang.” Its vinyl-mate, “Bring It On Home,” also rose higher on the charts and is better-known as one of Cooke’s signature hits.
At the same time, “Party” doesn’t have the same creative cache as “A Change is Gonna Come.” In the Cooke canon, it’s just another hit record. And that’s not fair to one of the absolute best songs of the 1960s.
Listen up, so we’re all on the same page:
The song’s first surprise — and its first delight — comes mere seconds in. “Having a Party” kicks off with a gentle, lilting guitar that indicates this song will be one of any of a hundred ballads from the ’50s and ’60s that start off the same way and feature the same sound. Songs by Elvis Presley, The Drifters, The Everly Brothers and Roy Orbison all fit this particular bill. But then almost immediately, those strings kick in.
At first listen, the strings’ melody is almost jaunty — a simple little hook not out of place in a ’60s pop songs. But listen a little closer, and the sadness contained in that melody makes itself apparent.
It’s a clichéd rock and roll trick to hide dark or sad lyrics in happy music. “Having a Party” takes the opposite tack: it couches fun lyrics about parties and dancing in a wistful, almost mournful, piece of music. So strong is the song’s disguise that it even namechecks other contemporary hit songs and dances a la “Land of a Thousand Dances.”
On the surface, “Having a Party” is about having a party. About a moment of happiness. But underneath, it’s about the desperate quest for the party to never end and the crushing knowledge that it will no matter what you do. If you spoke no English, and only heard the track’s instrumental music and Cooke’s smooth but sorrowful voice singing in a foreign tongue, the evocation would be darkness and endings, not twisting and pals.
Although the lyrics play it close to the vest, the song’s true sentiment can be found in the lines:
So listen, Mr. DJ
Keep those records playing
‘Cause I’m having such a good time
Dancing with my baby
That’s not merely a simple request from Cooke, or his character in the song. It’s a despairing, hopeless plea not to let this moment end.
“Having a Party” is about the instant right after the night has peaked, when you’ve realized that sad fact and you’re clinging to the fading euphoria. All signs point to the fact that it’s over, it’s shutting down, and you should go home. But you fight it, endlessly chasing a feeling that’s already lost.
“Having a Party” is sitting on a back porch with a few lingering friends, late on a September evening on what could be very well be the last warm night of summer — helplessly watching as the last few beers disappear from the cooler.
It’s the sweet smell of late-season Southern humidity and the last day of baseball season. Maybe that’s not all instantly apparent in lines like, “We’re having a party/everybody’s swinging/dancing to the music/on the radio” — but it’s all in there. It’s there in the saxophone that comes in at the 1:43 mark. It’s there in the way those strings return under Cooke’s vocals in the third verse, after dropping out earlier to allow the vocals to take their place in the call-and-response with the guitar. Most of all, it’s there in the way Cooke holds his notes — reaching and achingly.
Sam Cooke’s voice isn’t raw emotion like Wilson Pickett or undulating sexuality like Elvis or pure soul like Otis Redding. It’s relentlessly smooth and flawless, so the hurt and depth held within requires a deeper search.
In “Dream Boogie,” his essential biography of Cooke, Peter Guralnick describes the recording session for “Having a Party in incredible detail. The tone of the April 1962 session in Los Angeles matches the song perfectly:
“It was, as engineer Al Schmitt said, a happy, feel-good kind of session, and as they listened to the playback of the twelfth take, Barbara [Cooke, Sam’s wife] and Sugar Hall started to do a slow twist, and J.W. [Alexander] and some of the musicians joined in. Then they overdubbed the additional voices and hand claps of just about everyone in the room, and the music swelled and took on an almost anthemic quality — it had all the uncalculated fervor that defines a group of people who have lived through good times and bad times together and cherish the good times despite the near-certain knowledge that they are not going to last.
Indeed, while Cooke’s life and career would have more highs, both would only last two and a half more years, and heartbreak and tragedy would soon visit upon all the people in the story above. Knowing the details of Cooke’s tragic, bizarre end only makes “Having a Party” more poignant.
The song marks the beginning of the end of…something. Both to Cooke, its writer and performer, and to the listener.
And of course — of course — “Having a Party” doesn’t simply stop, it fades out.