ARTS / Lives of the Great Songs: But it's lasted so very long: You Send Me: Some songs are born great. And some have greatness thrust upon them. Nick Hornby continues our series

SAM COOKE may or may not have been the first soul singer, just as Iggy Pop may or may not have been the first punk, and Joe Turner the first rock'n'roll singer, and 'Mouldy Old Dough' by Lieutenant Pigeon the first ambient house record. It doesn't really matter much either way. But Cooke is certainly the first and most uncomplicated example of a gospel singer who went secular to make hits.

This journey from church to chart came to characterise soul music, and several other singers (notably Aretha Franklin) followed Cooke's trail; but Cooke snubbed the Lord in 1957, before any of them. 'You Send Me', released that autumn, was his first commercially successful post-gospel record. (It reached No 1 in the US chart, and No 29 here.) If anyone wanted to make a case for 'You Send Me' as the first popular soul 45 - and these things are important to some people - you would have to have something pretty recherche up your sleeve to rebut the argument.

The original version of 'You Send Me' does not sound much like a soul 45 now. It has a sugary (white) girl chorus, a hopelessly dated MOR quickstep beat, and it ends with a corny, horrible and hilariously bathetic twangy guitar chord. Pat Boone could have used exactly the same arrangement, and nobody would have accused him of coming over all funky. Art Rupe, owner of the R&B-and-gospel label Specialty, was so appalled by the girly chorus that he refused to put the recording out on his label, and the producer, Bumps Blackwell, had to take it elsewhere. 'You Send Me' does have charm, and not all of the period variety: its chaste, dreamy sentiment can transport even the most cynical to a place where heartfelt romantic gesture has meaning. Nobody wants to be grown-up and complicated all the time.

In fact, 'You Send Me', a Sam Cooke composition, isn't much of a song at all. Its lyrics consist of just one verse ('At first I thought it was infatuation/But it's lasted so very long/ And now I find myself wanting/To marry you and take you home'); the rest is an endless repetition of the phrases 'You send me', 'You thrill me' and 'Honest you do'. Cooke may have had the original soul voice (only he has managed to combine the sweetness and the grain simultaneously), but he didn't give himself much to sing with it.

Yet 'You Send Me', like 'Cupid', 'Only Sixteen', 'Wonderful World' and so many other Sam Cooke songs, has enjoyed an extraordinary longevity. After he was shot dead in a Los Angeles motel in 1964, Cooke seemed to acquire a whole new set of meanings for the nascent soul-music community, and it was de rigueur for singers to cover at least one Cooke song. (Otis Redding, never a man to do things by halves, had a bash at five.) Cooke assumed an equal, if not identical, importance for those singers who were not black but wished they were: Rod Stewart, Eric Burdon of the Animals and Van Morrison have all shown off their croaks on 'Bring It on Home', and Mick Jagger gave 'Good Times' a good seeing-to.

It hardly mattered, then, that 'You Send Me' was a bit of pop fluff. Aretha Franklin, Mavis Staples and Otis Redding were determined to turn it into a great song even if it killed them, even if they had to rearrange it and rewrite it and slow it down and add lyrics and give it more gravitas than it really deserved.

Redding was the first of this illustrious trio to try his hand, on Pain in My Heart, his first album. His version is a tantalising hint of what might have been if Bumps Blackwell had taken Cooke to see Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records. ('He only had to pick up the phone,' Wexler said years later. 'Sam Cooke was our kind of singer.') Redding was backed, not by strings or girly choirs, but by Booker T and the MGs, Atlantic's brilliant house band; what could they have done with Cooke, one wonders? This is 'You Send Me' as straight R&B, and only the horn charts have survived from the original. Unsurprisingly, they no longer fit properly.

When Aretha Franklin recorded 'You Send Me' in 1968, she was near the beginning of the longest hot streak in the entire history of pop: between 1967 and 1972 she recorded 11 almost flawless albums for Atlantic on the trot. Her version of the song closes the first side of the album Aretha Now, and has to follow both 'Think' and 'I Say a Little Prayer'; that it holds its own in this sort of company is a measure of its success.

Aretha's own, piercingly beautiful, solo piano intro changes everything: ironically, given the genesis of the song (Cooke was, after all, trying to dump God and make himself a few quid when he wrote it), this is 'You Send Me' as straight gospel. The Franklin voice swoops over and under Cooke's melody line, she double-tracks herself to thrilling effect, and the chorus is provided by the Sweet Inspirations, who feature on all Aretha's Atlantic work, rather than the wannabe Beverley Sisters who ruined the original; at this point 'You Send Me' becomes a great song in spite of itself. Disappointingly, Aretha finds it necessary to tinker with the words: 'I want you to marry me/ Please take me home', she begs. And this from the woman with the most intimidating voice in soul history, the woman who sang 'Respect'.

Mavis Staples of the Staples Singers was not quite in Aretha's league - her deep, rich, treacly voice never allowed her to soar over her material in the same way. But for a while she was the next best thing, and she was lucky enough to record two solo albums for Stax at the end of the Sixties, soul's golden age. (She was also lucky enough to be produced by Steve Cropper, Booker T and the MGs' guitarist, and by now something of an authority on Sam Cooke cover versions; by 1969 he must have recorded more Sam Cooke songs than Sam Cooke ever did. He almost certainly would have played on the other two Stax/Atlantic versions of 'You Send Me', by Percy Sledge and Solomon Burke.) Staples has 'You Send Me' down as an agonised, torchy and unfeasibly sexy ballad; she slows it down, and finds all sorts of things hidden in its nooks and crannies.

Fairground Attraction covered it, prettily but unremarkably, on their record Ay Fond Kiss; it also pops up on Steve Miller's Fly Like an Eagle as an acoustic throwaway, although regrettably we are not allowed to throw it away until Miller has shown us some pretty fancy vocal trills. In the late Seventies, Roy Ayers recorded a seven-minute jazz-funk interpretation. Everybody, especially vocalist Carla Vaughan, gets to show off, and the result is as pleasant and unaffecting as all the other seven-minute late-Seventies jazz-funk ballads.

Only two acts have really had anything new to add. The Everly Brothers recorded the song during one of their frequent, brief and usually disastrous reunions in the Eighties. They see the song as a mournful, wistful hymn - not unlike 'All I Have to Do is Dream', funnily enough - which doesn't make much sense, given the explicit celebration of the song, but sounds terrific anyway. On his 1974 album Smiler, Rod Stewart squashed 'You Send Me' on to the end of 'Bring It on Home', dispensed with its verse, and contented himself with chuckling a lot over a sweeping string arrangement. It works brilliantly; by now, one is used to the idea that this flimsiest of songs, this piece of dated teen-pop corn, can become a raucous, riotous, laddish show-stopper should anyone wish it to be so.

To hear 'You Send Me', tune in to Virgin 1215 between 9.30 and 10am today, when Graham Dene will play two of the versions discussed here. Virgin is on 1215 kHz medium wave (AM).

Nick Hornby is the author of 'Fever Pitch' (Gollancz, pounds 4.99) and the editor of the football anthology 'My Favourite Year' (Witherby, pounds 9.99).