This is a fascinating document. Presented in chronological order (aside from a few live songs tacked on to the end), it charts the growth not just of Sam Cooke as an artist, but the slow birth of secularized soul from 50's gospel roots. All the recordings sound great, and credit most be given to the folks at Specialty for preserving the masters - outtakes included - with such obvious care. The earliest material here, from 1951, would probably be considered "pop gospel" for the time. It flows nicely, isn't much for histrionics and makes for smooth listening. If you didn't know better, it might take you a song or two before it becomes obvious that it's Sam Cooke singing, and not just some guy who maybe sounds like him. But by 1953, Cooke's vocal style is impossible to mistake; he dominates the songs, and when Paul Foster pops up now and then, the contrast between his "blacker" gospel voice and Cooke's velvet tone is amazing - and it's not that Foster isn't amazing too, by the way. By the third disc, the line between gospel and pop has become utterly blurred - a song like "I'll Come Running Back To You" has as good a claim to be the first "soul" song as any. It's obviously gospel-influenced, and the lyrics are ambiguous enough that you could make a claim for it being a gospel tune, but . . . something, somehow has changed. Aside from historical importance, it's a riveting song and possibly Cooke's single best performance.
The attractions of this box are its completeness, great sound and nice packaging. If you're inclined to by anything of Cooke's beyond a simple greatest hits collection, I'd urge you to buy this package - there isn't really one single-disc distillation of this material that covers all the bases covered here, so by the time you buy the two or three that might, you'd pay about as much as you would for this.
There are only a few rare packages that convey so beautifully an important aspect of important American music, whether it's the Nuggets box or the Anthology Of American Folk Music. This is clearly in the league; any music fan with expansive tastes should own it.