When a tablemate at City Winery noticed that I was reviewing “The Cooke Book: The Music of Sam Cooke,” she asked me what the traits of a good tribute show are. I didn’t have a ready response as the band took the stage, but only a few minutes into Darrian Ford’s high-energy performance as the King of Soul, I knew the answer.
A winning tribute show is not about slavish imitation, no matter what an army of Elvis lookalikes in fringed buckskin might try to tell you. A genuine tribute is about reinvention. If Sam Cooke, who died at age 33 in a motel shooting in 1964, were to be reborn today, he couldn’t have found a better vessel for the soul of his music than Darrian Ford.
What makes Ford’s tribute work is that aside from some essential commonalities — both African American men grew up in Chicago (Cooke was born “Cook,” without the e, in Clarksdale, Mississippi) — their performance styles are different enough to allow fresh meaning to emerge from Cooke’s iconic music.
Cooke delivered his songs with a smoothness that eased them over the color barrier at the same time that it sometimes belied their more serious subjects, as in “Chain Gang.” Ford, a dancer before he added acting and singing to his skill set to become a Broadway triple threat, enacts each song with a physicality that teases out new meanings. Even those who grew up with the music of Sam Cooke and know his lyrics well enough to sing along — encouraged to do so by Ford, with his megawatt smile — may find themselves marveling at previously unheard nuances of a song like “Cupid.”
Ford’s powerful, flexible voice adds punch to favorites that include “Another Saturday Night,” “If I Had a Hammer,” “Wonderful World” and “You Send Me.” The accomplished musicians in Ford’s backup band kick things up a few more notches, with musical director John Cicora on guitar, Ben Joseph on piano, Tim Ipsen on bass, and Alfonzo Johns on drums. Jaymes Osborne adds his voice to Ford’s for some songs, most notably in “Bring It Home to Me.” When the show is performed later this month at Lincoln Hall, Kael Mboya will take Joseph’s place at the keyboard.
Ford created “The Cooke Book” in 2008, when it was produced at North Carolina Theater. He continues to perform it around the country in between gigs on stage and screen. One of the show’s strengths is the way Ford traces the evolution of Cooke’s music from gospel to soul with only a few words of narrative, letting the songs speak for themselves. Swap out “God” for “Sweetie,” Ford explains, and you’ve made the leap from gospel to love song.
By the time Ford sings “A Change is Gonna Come,” written a year before Cooke’s death as the B-side for another song, audience members hear for themselves the gospel roots of what became an anthem for the American Civil Rights Movement. Ford is more than a dynamic performer. He’s a terrific teacher. He’s the King of Soul reincarnated for a whole new life.
‘THE COOKE BOOK — The Music of Sam Cooke’
August 4 at 8 pm at City Winery, 1200 W. Randolph, Chicago
August 29 and 30 at 8 pm at Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago
Tickets: Lincoln Hall