By Bridget McNamara
You Send Me, one of many hits in Darrian Ford’s show “The Cooke Book – The Music of Sam Cooke,” is an apt summary of just what Chicago native Ford’s performance is capable of: sending listening souls on a journey of delight and sensation.
Darrian will perform The Cooke Book at Lincoln Hall on August 29th and 30th after a raucous beginning to the Chicago shows at City Winery on August 4th.
In his show honoring the late legend, Ford’s dynamic entertainer personality, soaring voice and irresistible humor lend passion and spine-tingling vocals as a tribute to another Chicago-born musician, the undisputed king of Soul Sam Cooke.
The show is not an impression of the famed soul singer, but instead a musical chronology of a too-short life, one steeped in music. The production traces the path that Cooke’s career traveled, from his beginnings in gospel into what seems in retrospect to be an almost effortless transition to topping the secular charts.
Darrian Ford, the show’s creator and star performer, is no stranger to song and dance – his lengthy and impressive theater, dance and Broadway career and resume have proven that.
Ford began his professional theater career at age 13. At 15, he danced with the Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theater and at 19 moved to New York City to dance in the companies of Alvin Ailey and Donald Byrd/The Group.
He made his Broadway debut as Charlie in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s State Fair, about which the New York Times said “…note the expert dancing of the irrepressibly comic Darrian Ford.”
He also appeared in the Broadway and First National production of The Who’s TOMMY and the First National Smokey Joe’s Café, for which he won The Black Theater Alliance Award for Best Actor in a Musical. His most recent theatrical work was in the First National tour of The Color Purple, adding to an already prolific career.
Ford’s ventures beyond the stage include a number of storied experiences, like co-starring opposite Halle Berry in HBO’s Introducing Dorothy Dandridge as Fayard Nicholas of the legendary Nicholas Brothers.
In addition to making a dozen appearances on daytime talk shows, Ford is a singer and songwriter who has been featured on many of his Broadway colleague’s albums. He is currently working on an album to accompany the show, which he hopes will include a full orchestra to produce Cooke’s music in the way it deserves.
“Today, even most mainstream music has been influenced by Sam Cooke, without many people knowing his name or the extent of his musical reach,” says Ford. “When I became drawn to his music and realized how little attention and acclaim it had received given how much influence he had, I felt that it was my calling to represent the man and his music in the best way I know how. Having such an amazing band behind me only makes the show better and allows me to pay tribute in a grander, more appropriate way.”
Ford’s performance is indeed enhanced by his band, who all sing in addition to playing their instruments; they keep up with Ford’s energy with ease and delight on stage. The addition of so many voices lends a nuance and depth on top of Ford’s already soaring, effortless vocals.
Ford pointedly does not try to sound like Cooke, who had a very distinctive sound – so distinctive that when he released his first secular hit under a pseudonym, those who loved his music recognized his voice despite the name. But Darrian’s devotion to the music and the man comes through in each and every performance.
Sam Cooke, born in 1931, blended sensuality and spirituality, sophistication and soul, movie idol looks and gospel singer poise all during a short but remarkable career.
You Send Me, a part of Ford’s set and one of Cooke’s earliest secular hits, was the first of a staggering 29 Top 40 Hits by the Chicago-raised son of a Baptist minister. In addition to his enormously successful repertoire, Cooke established himself as a groundbreaking Black entrepreneur within the mainstream music industry, founding his own publishing company, Kags Music, and launching a record label, SAR/Derby.
Tragically, Cooke was shot and killed in a Los Angeles motel in 1964, at the age of 33. The range and importance of his impact on the music industry is all the more remarkable in consideration of the short time he lived. His influence can be heard in every generation of music since, and Ford sets out to recognize and do justice to that talent and influence.
“We sing 22 songs over the course of the show,” Ford explains, “and it’s hard to choose a favorite. I love the mid-ballads. The spiritual songs are especially fun because it feels like I’m almost leaving myself and just becoming a vessel for the music.”
The set ranges from spiritual to secular, including gospel standards like Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen and famous hits like Cupid, Chain Gang and Twistin’ the Night Away.
Although there is traditionally a lot of speculation surrounding Cooke’s death, Ford addresses none of the sensationalized stories in his show. It is a celebration of life and music, not the opposite.
“Anything that detracts or distracts from the music and the dialogue surrounding it has no place in this show,” says Ford. “I and the band want this to be a performance full of joy, even during slower or sadder songs. Stories written about Cooke’s death tend to forget or ignore the incredible influence and impact he had on the world of music in favor of supposed scandal.
“Gospel and spiritual music are enduring barometers of truth for many who go on to thrive in other genres of music,” Ford mused about the lasting power of Cooke’s music. “That is to say that the profound honesty, vulnerability and oneness of purpose that one feels in gospels and spirituals can be achieved in other music – and when it is, it signals the very soul of the artist.”
Indeed, Ford’s own soul seems to be bared on his stage for all those who attend to see and to share theirs in return.