Two Kings, Two Birthdays, Two Songs

Lead Belly and Sam Cooke.

The “King of the 12-String Guitar” and the “King of Soul.”

Last week, as I read the birthday entries for those two artists on my January list of “Historic Days In Music” – January 20, 1888 for Lead Belly and January 22, 1931 for Sam Cooke – two songs came to mind; two excellent, very different, and decidedly noteworthy songs.

The songs that started dancing through my head were “Relax Your Mind” and “Having A Party.”

I first heard Lead Belly’s “Relax Your Mind” as performed by Happy & Artie Traum. I discovered the brothers’ spirited rendition on my cassette copy of the 1994 Sony Music/Legacy album titled Bring It On Home, Vol.1.

Lead Belly recorded “Relax Your Mind” as part of a long and productive recording session in October of 1948. Sadly, it would prove to be his last recording session.

The session was one of several that had been arranged by Jazz historians Fred Ramsey and Charles Edward Smith. Ramsey had turned his New York City apartment into a recording studio, inspired by his purchase of a brand new reel-to-reel magnetic tape recorder. (This was cutting edge technology in 1948!) The duo started recording Lead Belly with this new machine in late September and, when the sessions ended in October, found they had compiled a collection of over 90 songs!

But Fred Ramsey and Charles Smith had recorded more than just Lead Belly’s songs.

Since recording to magnetic tape did not have the time limitation of recording direct to disc – one side of a blank recording disc could only hold three to five minutes of music while a reel of seemingly-endless magnetic tape could hold up to thirty minutes! – Ramsey and Smith were able to capture and preserve the stories that Lead Belly would tell about each song the way he did when he played them in concert.

This recording of “Relax Your Mind” includes one of those stories.

Sit back and listen.


Lead Belly died on December 6, 1949. His recording of “Relax Your Mind” was released in 1953 by Folkways Records as part of a series of three, 2-disc sets collectively titled Leadbelly’s Last Sessions. (Smithsonian Folkways released the complete collection in 1994 on the 4-CD set pictured above.)

Sam Cooke’s “Having A Party” became permanently entrenched in my musical consciousness after attending a concert by Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes in the late 1970’s. The band’s knockout version of the song was one of the highlights of their live shows.

Sam Cooke himself got the party started on April 26, 1962 at RCA Studio 1 in Hollywood, California. He cut his classic “Bring It On Home To Me” in the same session.

Arranger and conductor Rene Hall put together an 18-piece ensemble for the recording of “Having A Party”: three guitarists, two bass guitarists, two cellists, two violists, six violinists, one pianist, one drummer and one saxophone player. Lou Rawls added back-up vocals to Sam’s lead.

Give a listen.


“Having A Party” – b/w “Bring It On Home To Me” – was released by RCA Records on May 8, 1962 on a 7″, 45-rpm single. The record reached the #4 position on Billboard”s Hot R&B Sides chart and #17 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Two kings, two birthdays, two songs.

What songs come to mind when you think about Lead Belly and Sam Cooke?

JTLYK: January 20, 1888 is not the only date considered to be Lead Belly’s birthday. The others are: January 21 & 29, 1885; January 15 & 21, 1888; January 20, 1889 (the date on his gravestone); and January 23, 1889 (the date Lead Belly himself wrote on his draft registration card in 1942).


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