Arguably one of the greatest singers of all time, Sam Cooke wielded enormous influence over the direction of black music in the 1950s and 1960s through songs like "You Send Me," "Havin' A Party," "Bring it on Home to Me" and "Shake," which fused white pop and black R&B into a new musical direction called soul music. In doing so, he helped to unify audiences in a way that politics, geography and even religion could not achieve. A major figure in gospel music as leader of the legendary Soul Stirrers in the mid-1950s, Cooke brooked controversy by moving into secular music. But the success of "You Send Me" established him as a star in that field as well, in addition to being one of the rare black artists appreciated by both black and white audiences. Cooke broke down musical borders throughout his all-too-brief career, including the gulf between pop and folk with the civil rights anthem "A Change Is Gonna Come." At the height of his powers, Cooke's life was cut short in an altercation at a Los Angeles motel, bringing to an end one of the most promising careers in popular music. However, his legacy, as heard in the songs of artists ranging from Otis Redding to Rod Stewart, kept alive his message of love, acceptance and joy for the miracle of song.
Born Samuel Cook in Clarksdale, MS on Jan. 22, 1931, he was one of eight children by Reverend Charles Cook, a Baptist minister, and his wife, Annie Mae. When Cooke was two years old, his family relocated to Chicago's South Side, where his father established himself as a significant figure in the city's religious community. The church also provided Cooke with his first taste of singing before an audience, and he quickly developed into a gifted gospel singer. He gained his earliest notices as a member of the Singing Children, a gospel group he formed with his siblings, before founding the Highway Q.C.'s with fellow teenaged members of the Highway Baptist Church. The group would later serve as the launching pad for Lou Rawls and Johnnie Taylor, who, like Cooke, enjoyed singing careers in secular music prior to stardom.
In 1950, Cooke became the lead vocalist in the Soul Stirrers, one of the country's most popular gospel groups. His youthful presence, handsome features, and dramatic phrasing, which owed much to mainstream vocal groups like the Ink Spots, drew a youthful crowd to the veteran act through a series of chart hits like "That's Heaven to Me" and "Touch the Hem of His Garment." By the mid-'50s, Cooke was a major star on the gospel circuit, but soon discovered that the scope of fame and influence afforded by the genre was far overshadowed by that of the pop world, as well as the financial remuneration. As "Dale Cooke," he recorded the 1956 R&B single "Lovable," a reworking of the Soul Stirrers' "Wonderful." The song was only a modest hit, but word spread throughout the gospel community that Sam Cooke was in fact the voice on the record. He soon found himself on the receiving end of a backlash from his former gospel fans, and was soon replaced in the Soul Stirrers' lineup by Johnnie Taylor. Producer Bumps Blackwell brokered for Cooke's release from his contract with the Soul Stirrers' label, Specialty Records, and signed him to a new imprint, Keen Records.
His first single for the record was the swooning romantic ballad "You Send Me" (1957), which shot to the top of both the pop and R&B charts. But beyond its phenomenal record sales of nearly two million copies, the single represented a new direction in popular music - a merging of white pop and black R&B, delivered with the impassioned tone of gospel music, and with an elegance of production not heard outside of jazz. This combination of elements marked the beginning of soul music, a genre that crossed lines of color, income and age to find popularity - and more significantly - financial success among a diverse demographic of listeners. For the next two years, Cooke delivered a string of Top 40 pop hits, including "Only Sixteen" and "Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha." But he quickly grew disenchanted with the monetary returns from his contract with Keen, which could not offer the sort of payday as a major label like RCA or Atlantic, both of which had approached Cooke with offers.
In 1960, Cooke took up RCA's offer, leaving behind his second chart-topping single, "What a Wonderful World," which was released by Keen shortly after his departure. Once ensconced at RCA, Cooke began a lengthy string of Top 10 and 20 hits that continued to cross musical borders like his previous work. The No. 2 hit "Chain Gang" (1960) introduced a note of social consciousness into the soul environment, a notion that Cooke would continue to pursue throughout his career. Subsequent releases would touch on nearly every aspect of pop music, from lush ballads like "Cupid" to gospel call-and-response on "Bring it on Home to Me" to the effervescent dance hits "Havin' A Party" and "Twistin' the Night Away." To assert some control on the new direction of his career, Cooke launched his own publishing company, Kags Music, as well as a record label, SAR, which soon featured Bobby Womack and Johnnie Taylor on its roster, as well as his old act, the Soul Stirrers. Cooke was among the first black performers to exert such a degree of control on his work.
By 1963, Cooke was a bona fide hit maker as a singles artist, but had consistently failed to translate the vibrant immediacy of his material to a full-length album. Record labels during this period viewed LPs as the province of "adult" artists, while singles were decidedly aimed towards teens and listeners in their early twenties. Artists who attempted to record a full record found that their efforts were frequently buried under overripe arrangements and tepid production, as was the case with Cooke's Hits of the Fifties (1960) and Cooke's Tour, his first two albums for RCA. But with the release of Night Beat (1963), Cooke proved that he could effectively demonstrate his range and talent across two sides of a record. The moody, blues-driven album, powered by such studio talents as guitarist Barney Kessel, drummer Hal Blaine, and 16-year-old organist Billy Preston, showed Cooke as a mature performer who could stand toe to toe with established acts of the day. By this point, Cooke's financial affairs were being handled by his new business manager, the formidable Allen Klein, who brokered an unprecedented deal for his client that granted him not only artistic control, but the rights to all future recordings and 10 percent of record sales from Cooke's new label, Tracey Records.
At the height of this unparalleled success, however, Cooke suffered a devastating emotional blow that left him unable to record for most of the year. His 18-month-old son, Vincent, died in a drowning accident at his home, which deepened the discord he was experiencing with his wife, Barbara Cooke, over their respective extramarital affairs. Cooke began accepting any concert offers that came his way in an attempt to escape the pain of his loss. When he returned to music in 1964, a somber Cooke recorded what was arguably his most significant song, "A Change is Gonna Come." A heartfelt, yearning wish for long-promised freedom, it became an anthem of the civil rights movement, and placed Cooke on par with such politically-minded performers as Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul and Mary. At the same time, he had crafted a new direction for the soul movement with "Shake," a gritty blend of R&B and dance music that would later echo in the songs of James Brown and especially Otis Redding, who would enjoy a substantial hit with a 1965 cover version. To many in the industry, Cooke was poised on the brink of superstardom.
Unfortunately, Cooke would die before such a transition could occur. In the early morning hours of Dec. 11, 1964, Cooke was involved in an altercation at the Hacienda Motel in South Central Los Angeles with the motel's manager and a young woman, Elisa Boyer, who had checked into the motel with Cooke. Boyer later fled their room with most of Cooke's clothes, and the singer, half-naked and enraged, pursued her into the manager's office, where he was shot and killed. Stories circulated that an inebriated Cooke had attempted to rape Boyer, whose escape preceded his death, though her subsequent arrest for prostitution led many to believe that she had robbed the singer prior to her flight. Others, including Cooke's friend, soul singer Etta James, believed that Cooke was killed as part of a conspiracy against the singer, though these allegations were never verified. In the end, a jury decided that Cooke's death was justifiable homicide, which left an indelible black mark on the entertainer's reputation.
Cooke would enjoy posthumous hits with "Shake" and "A Change is Gonna Come," and his influence would be felt in music by a wide variety of artists - from Redding and Solomon Burke to the Rolling Stones, all of whom took cues from his incorporation of rock and pop into blues and soul music. Berry Gordy, Jr. would essentially build his entire Motown Records empire on the sound of Cooke's music, and in subsequent decades, such singers as Bruce Springsteen, Rod Stewart, James Taylor, Usher, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes would keep his legacy alive for generations of listeners. In 1986, Cooke was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award coming in 1999. He was named the fourth greatest singer of all time by Rolling Stone magazine in 2008.
By Paul Gaita