One marvelous bit of fun available on YouTube is this clip of Jackie Wilson and and his good friend Sam Cooke, who is supposed to be performing a lip synchronization of his recording “Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha.”
There are dozens and dozens of comments on YouTube about the video segment. Most of them are remarks about how wonderful it is that someone preserved this light-hearted moment between two of the greatest singers in history, how handsome they both are, how enormously talented they were, and how tragic that both their careers ended so much too soon.
What’s going on in the video. Some comments, however, indicate serious misunderstanding of what is happening. Some younger viewers think this video has another, “original” track, that it’s a video of a live performance, or that the video was made to deliberately mislead people.
In truth, when the camera light came on, Sam Cooke assumed he was just doing another day’s work, performing a routine task for a Sixties recording artist on tour: stop by the local television station, maybe record a brief interview, and make a lip synchronization video of your recent hit in the setting of the local teen dance party show. Only this time, Sam’s good friend caught him by surprise and provided a lesson in the cha cha cha.
The history of this video is covered in a book. The venue was Memphis, and the local television program was Talent Party. George Klein, who became host of the show in 1964, has written a book entitled Elvis, My Best Man: Radio Days, Rock ‘n’ Roll Nights, and My Lifelong Friendship with Elvis Presley, and one of the chapters is about Klein hosting Talent Party, a gig he landed with a little help from Elvis.
The program had at one point been a typical sort of local version of American Bandstand, but according to Klein, the station decided to stop having teenagers dance on the show due to fear that whites and Blacks would start dancing together on live television.
I am skeptical about some of the facts given in this excerpt, but I will reserve my comments and questions until you have the chance to read it.
One of my favorite Talent Party moments occurred in my first year as host, when, with the help of Wink Martindale, I got Sam Cooke booked to do the show. He was coming through Memphis as part of a co-headlining tour with Jackie Wilson, in which they’d take turns city-by-city as to who opened and who closed that night’s show. I’d met Sam before at a show at Ellis [Auditorium], and we got along well enough that I decided to ask him for a favor: I wondered if he’d invite Jackie Wilson to come along with us. Sam did, and Jackie said yes, though Sam gave me a firm warning: “Jackie loves the ladies, and if you don’t lead him by the hand out of here after the show, you can forget about seeing him again tonight.”
I worked hard to get them both to the studio quickly after the show, and couldn’t wait to shoot a couple songs each with such great talents. But as Sam was doing a practice take of his song “Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha,” I noticed that Jackie was mouthing along with every word and I got an idea.
“Jackie, you really know Sam’s stuff,” I said.
“Man, we’re like brothers. I know everything he’s ever done.”
“Well, tell me what you think of this. When we start really shooting this one, why don’t you sneak around back, and when Sam’s done with the first verse, you pop through the curtains and take over the song.”
Jackie loved the idea, and while he certainly surprised the heck out of Sam, Sam loved it too, and they were both having a ball as they tried to match each other line for line and dance move for dance move. Footage of the magical moment is still out there on the Internet, and you can’t help but smile when you see the smiles on their faces.
The date of the video. So here is my problem: I have trouble believing that this clip is from 1964. The date “1960” appears at the conclusion of the clip, and that makes sense, as Jackie and Sam were definitely touring the South together that year.
The date “1964” does not make sense. “Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha” was a hit in 1959, when it reached position #31 on the Billboard Hot Hundred. Between the success of “Cha Cha Cha” and 1964, Sam Cooke placed fifteen hits on that same chart, and ten of those were in the coveted Top Twenty. Why would he be making a lip synch clip for an old song that was a lesser hit? The record business then was about selling what was current. Artists promoted the vinyl available in the record stores.
Klein’s claim. Well, what if the correct date is 1960, and 1964 is just a typographical error in the book, or perhaps a mental slip of the author’s memory? Sorry, but neither of those explanations work. Klein took over the show in 1964, and his book makes the claim that he integrated the program that year, putting on the program’s first Black artist, Fats Domino. I’m not certain of many things in life, but I think both Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke were African Americans. If Klein’s claim to integrating Talent Party was to hold up, he had to explain away a video that was available on the Internet at the time his book was being published.
So the issue becomes this: did Klein make up his part in producing this historic video clip, or is his account accurate? His position would be bolstered if Sam and Jackie toured the South together again in 1964. I do not happen to know that they did that, but maybe someone reading this will know.
There would still be, however, the awkward matter of the date at the end of the video segment.
Is the history of American music “real” history? Why am I making a fuss about this? After all, isn’t it just a bit of “infotainment”?
For me, no. I take the history of music seriously, particularly the history of American popular music of the Fifties and Sixties, when badly exploited Black artists did so much to raise the consciousness of young white teenagers about racism.
Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke were not only two massively talented, hard-working men who created great music: they were also flesh-and-blood human beings living in a land where success was segregated and a second-class experience for them, two singers every bit as great and arguably better than Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley. We owe it to what they achieved and to their memories to get their stories straight.
Does anyone reading this know if Sam and Jackie toured together again in 1964? Does anyone reading this have any further information on the making of this wonderful video clip?