Born Samuel Cook (the e was added in 1957), 22 January 1931, Clarksdale, Mississippi Died 11 December 1964, Los Angeles, California
Singer, songwriter, producer, entrepreneur
Sam Cooke was one of the most influential black vocalists of the post-World War II period. According to one of his album titles, he was "the man who invented soul", though the same claim has been made for Ray Charles. If the latter represented raw soul, Cooke symbolized sweet soul. Sam Cook was the fifth of eight children for the Reverend Charles Cook and his wife Annie Mae. The Cook family moved from Clarksdale, Mississippi, to Chicago in 1933. As a boy, Sam sang gospel songs with his siblings in a group called the Singing Children. Already then he showed an extraordinary voice. At age 15 he became the lead singer of the Highway Q.C.'s, a teenage gospel quartet. Sam became a star when he replaced R.H. Harris as lead singer of the prestigious and popular Soul Stirrers. This group, whose origins went back to 1926, had been signed by Art Rupe's Specialty label in 1950. The first session with Cook as their new front man took place on March 1, 1951, and resulted in the single "Jesus Gave Me Water"/"Peace in the Valley" (Specialty 802), a major gospel hit. Many singles would follow until 1956. The Soul Stirrers underwent a change of image : Cook was young and handsome and had a more sexual presence onstage, attracting many young girls.
Sam was probably gospel's first superstar, but by 1956 he felt the urge to make a name for himself as a solo singer with secular material. Art Rupe didn't like the idea, but Rupe's assistant Bumps Blackwell encouraged Sam and produced his first solo session in December 1956. "Lovable"/"Forever" was selected for single release (Specialty 596), but to avoid offense to the gospel fans, the record was credited to "Dale Cook". The smooth, creamy voice was too obvious to disguise and everyone knew it was Sam. There was one more session with the Soul Stirrers on April 10, 1957, but a split was inevitable.
Blackwell prepared Sam's second solo session, which took place on June 1, 1957. When Rupe unexpectedly showed up at the session, things came to a crisis. Rupe hated the song "You Send Me" and felt betrayed by Blackwell. And he let him know it, in front of Sam, the musicians, the (white) backup singers and the engineer. Both Sam and Bumps felt hurt and insulted. In the end, Rupe let both men go, allowing Blackwell to take the tapes with him (in exchange for past royalties due). Cooke and Blackwell went to a new label called Keen and "You Send Me", with its trademark "whooa-ooh-oh-oh-oh" yodel, became a massive hit, peaking at the top of the pop charts in December 1957 (for two weeks, also # 1 R&B for six weeks). Art Rupe responded by overdubbing a track from the December 1956 session, "I'll Come Running Back To You", and releasing it on Specialty, now of course credited to Sam Cooke. This also went to # 1 R&B (and # 18 pop). Sam went on to score nine more hits on Keen (both pop and R&B), including "Everybody Likes To Cha Cha", "Only Sixteen" and (after Cooke had already left the label) "Wonderful World" (1960).
Sam Cooke was among the first modern black performers to attend to the business side of the music industry and founded both a record label and a publishing company as an extension of his career as a singer and composer. His own label, SAR, was set up in 1959, in association with his manager, Roy Crain, and J.W. Alexander. The biggest hit on the label was "Soothe Me" (# 4 R&B, # 42 pop) by the Sims Twins, in 1961, written and produced by Cooke. SAR also released the original version of the Rolling Stones hit "It's All Over Now", by the Valentinos (1964).
Following a royalties dispute with Keen, RCA Records paid Sam $100,000 to join the label in January 1960. At first his producers, Hugo and Luigi, didn't quite know what to do with him. The first RCA single, "Teenage Sonata", was only a minor hit and the second one, "You Understand Me", didn't chart at all. But then came "Chain Gang" (# 2, both pop and R&B) with its sound of clinking metal and rhythmic grunts, and hit after hit would follow. Some titles: "Cupid", "Twistin' the Night Away" (his biggest UK hit), "Bring It On Home To Me", "Another Saturday Night", "Little Red Rooster" (the only song from this list that Sam didn't write himself), "Shake" and the evocative "A Change Is Gonna Come", which came to exemplify the 1960s Civil Rights movement. He was an icon of black success in turbulent times.
Cooke tried many styles at RCA, but the material selected for his albums was often middle-of-the-road, with schmalzy arrangements, especially the first two RCA LP's. But the hit singles of the early 1960s confirmed his international status as a pop/soul superstar. He played nightclubs, made TV appearances and toured throughout the USA. In October 1962 he undertook a tour of the UK with Little Richard and Gene Vincent.
Then suddenly it was all over. Cooke was in L.A. partying when he met 22-year old Elisa Boyer at a club on December 11, 1964. They drove to South Central where they registered at the Hacienda Motel as Mr. and Mrs. Sam Cooke. Later Boyer left the room with most of Cooke's clothing and his money. Wearing only his shoes and a sports jacket, Sam broke into the motel's office where he thought Boyer was hiding. There he found the motel's manager, Bertha Franklin, who said she didn't know about no girl. Totally out of control, Sam shook the woman by the shoulders. She managed to get away, went to get a gun and shot Cooke three times. "Lady, you shot me" were his last words. The shooting was ruled "justifiable homicide". After almost 40 years there still remain many questions about the circumstances of Cooke's death.
Between 1957 and 1965, Sam Cooke scored 30 Top 40 hits on the pop charts and 34 on the R&B charts. Many of his songs have been recorded by other artists after his death. In 1986 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
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Acknowledgements : Peter Guralnick, Lee Hildebrand, Michael Hill, Fred Bronson, Bruce Eder.
Dik, September 2013
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