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In the Studio With Sam Cooke

(Editor’s note: The following was adapted from our October 1997 “Classic Tracks” column about the recording of “Bring It on Home to Me.”)

In 1960, with several hits already under his belt, the Mississippi-born and Chicago-raised Sam Cooke signed with RCA Records, which marks the beginning of his fruitful association with staff producers Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore and engineer Al Schmitt. Schmitt, who was already a 10-year veteran, says, “Sam was the best. He was the easiest person I ever worked with. He and [Henry] Mancini. Just a fabulous guy. We became really good friends. Everybody loved him. And he was a total professional, too.”

By the time Peretti, Creatore and Schmitt began working with Cooke, the elements of his sound were fairly well fixed. Rene Hall wrote many of the arrangements, which were often lush, string-filled affairs. Once Cooke started recording at RCA in Hollywood, Schmitt says, “Luigi ended up doing most of the production because Hugo didn’t fly, and he lived in New York. If he was going to come, he’d have to take the train out, so we didn’t see that much of him.”

Schmitt believes that some of his own famously calm studio demeanor comes from working with Peretti and Creatore: “One of the things about them is they were very patient about things. Luigi was this great guy, with a wonderful sense of humor, and he was very relaxed. He always knew it was going to get done, and he didn’t panic. He wasn’t a screamer. He didn’t curse. Unfortunately, some of the producers were like that; they were just maniacs. I worked on dates where a .32 automatic would be sitting on the producer’s desk. And working with Sam was cool, because he was so relaxed most of the time, so there wasn’t any tension. Everybody had a job to do and knew what they were doing and did it well, and that was it.”

Though Schmitt notes that Peretti and Creatore would make some suggestions from the control room, “Once we got our sounds, Sam pretty much produced himself. He wrote most of the songs; he knew what he wanted. He had a vision in his head of the way these things should be, and that was pretty much it. He worked fast in the studio. We’d do three and sometimes even four songs in three hours, and then we’d usually choose the best take and that was the record.”

In the early ’60s, RCA’s main studio was equipped with a custom console that had 16 inputs: “four groups of four,” Schmitt says. “But there was no EQ on the board and no limiters at all. I had one limiter that I’d patch in on something if I wanted it. So since I didn’t have much limited or EQ, I had to rely on microphone techniques to get the sounds I wanted.”

For Cooke’s vocal, Schmitt always used a tube Neumann U47. “For drums, back then it would vary; sometimes just one or two mics, three at the most. That Altec ‘salt-shaker’ was a mic a lot of us out here in California used at that point. It was good as an overhead. I also remember using a little 8-ball kind of microphone on the kick. I don’t even remember what it was; it was a cheap $25 mic in those days. But then you could buy a Telefunken for $300! When I was in New York, we used a lot of tube mics, and when I first arrived in California, I was surprised that not a lot of tube microphones were being used. But I used them all of the time, as many as I could scrape [together]. It took a while for people out here to get away from dynamic mics.”

Typical of most artists of that day, Cooke’s recording sessions were cut completely live, including lead vocals and strings. “RCA was a great room for strings,” Schmitt notes. “There was almost never any overdubbing with Sam, unless he was going to do his own backing vocal or something. And when I did ‘Bring It on Home,’ that was Lou Rawls with Sam and that was live; they sang it together.”

Sam Cooke’s “Bring it on Home to Me” made it up to Lucky 13 in August 1962. See who kept him company on the charts that year.