Sam Cooke released two albums in 1963, and the second, Night Beat, is often cited as the best of all his long-players. But the first, Mr. Soul, shouldn't be ignored, despite some flaws in its conception and execution. At the time, the powers-that-were at RCA Victor didn't know which audience to aim for with Cooke's albums. LPs were seldom huge sellers among teenage listeners, so the notion of trying to connect to an adult audience -- à la Nat King Cole -- probably seemed logical, and Mr. Soul suffered somewhat from this uncertainty of purpose and audience; it is a soul album, to be sure, but by the standards of the time a somewhat tentative one in many spots. Unlike Night Beat, which was an exercise in production restraint, Mr. Soul is over-produced and relies too much on strings where they aren't needed and choruses that are overdone, even when they work. But Cooke rises above all of it, and turns even some of the more questionably arranged songs, such as "Send Me Some Lovin'," into mini-masterpieces. A couple of tracks off of this album, "(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons" and "Nothing Can Change This Love," were part of Cooke's live repertoire at the time and have, indeed, found a separate life on various compilations, but the rest was unavailable for over 45 years, until Sony/BMG re-released most of Cooke's RCA library. The best of that rest -- which is most of it -- shows him still rising to the peak of his powers, his voice wrapping itself around lyrics and melodies that might seem too familiar ("Cry Me a River," etc.) and bland, and making them much more significant and powerful than they seemingly have a right to be. The strings are overworked at times, but where they are held back, as on "Little Girl," their presence only adds to the impact of the track -- and elsewhere, Cooke quietly overpowers them. Modern listeners should bear in mind that, as a soul album, this is a fairly laid-back record -- those expecting anything like the exuberance of Otis Redding, or Clyde McPhatter or Ben E. King, may be disappointed at first; Cooke does work up a sweat on various parts and phrases, but a lot of what is here, by virtue of the label's wishes for a crossover record, is what might be terms "cool" soul -- smooth and sometimes bluesy, in a low-key way, quietly emotive on numbers such as "These Foolish Things," with the hot moments in special abundance on numbers like "Chains of Love" and "Send Me Some Lovin'." But even in these cool, restrained settings, Cooke's was still one of the finest voices of his century, and worth taking in for every breath and nuance.
AllMusic Review by Bruce Eder