The world didn’t know what “soul” was until Sam Cooke began “telling it like it is” in every song. He was the quintessential performer, appealing to all audiences. He was the heart of soul in 1957, composing and singing “You Send Me.” With that one song and his golden voice, and his rendition of the classic “Summertime,” on the reverse side of the record, he brought soul to the masses. But singing wasn’t his only talent, he was also a composer and entrepreneur. He formed his own company and record label long before musical artists did such things. He could have written the “How To…” books on starting a successful business, beginning your own record label and successfully applying and promoting all of it. Sam Cooke would have been a dynamic force in the music industry today had he not died at an early age. He is recognized in modern music as a major contributor to soul music, an influence on numerous singers, including Otis Redding, Art Garfunkel and Rod Stewart . He knew music from Gershwin to rock, and knew how to sell himself and his song like no one else of his time could. He didn’t have to work at it, it came naturally.
He Started Young
Born on January 22, 1931 in Clarksdale, Mississippi, one of eight children of Baptist minister Reverend Charles Cook and wife Annie Mae, Sam began his musical career at the age of 9 in a group called The Singing Children. When he was 14 he was lead singer for the Highway QC’s, where he met lifelong friend Lou Rawls. In 1950, he signed with gospel group The Soul Stirrers as lead singer. His gospel music has quite an effect on me and I’m someone who isn’t into gospel, with the exception of a few songs. All of Sam Cooke’s gospel music is great, but I have a favorite on this album. If you want to feel real emotion, and chills running through your body, take a listen to “The Hem of His Garment.”
Sam Cooke’s first pop/soul recording was “Lovable” in 1956 released under the alias Dale Cook so as not to offend his gospel followers. There was a stigma at that time for a gospel singer to become associated with popular music. But Cooke’s voice was so identifiable that no one was fooled by this ruse. The head of Specialty Records, where Cooke had recorded his gospel music gave his okay for him to record what they called “secular” music, but was disappointed when he heard him singing music from composers George and Ira Gershwin. After a disagreement between them, Cooke left the label.
In 1957 he appeared on a TV show and subsequently signed with Keen Records, where his first release “You Send Me” landed on the Number One spot on Billboard’s R&B chart and spent 6 weeks there, along with 3 weeks as Number One on Billboard’s pop chart. His crossover appeal was tremendous. Handsome and dynamic, he had a magnetic appeal, especially for the ladies in the audience. “You Send Me” is on the album shown above; Sam Cooke’s Greatest Hits.
He reached for the stars in every way; beginning his own record label SAR Records with J.W. Alexander and his manager Roy Crain. He signed several singers to his label including Bobby Womack and Johnnie Taylor. Showing his talent for business he established a publishing imprint and management firm. After that he left Keen for RCA and his first recording there struck gold with “Chain Gang” followed by “Cupid” “Bring It On Home To Me,” (Lou Rawls singing background!) and “Another Saturday Night,” and “Twistin’ the Night Away.” All of those are also on the album above. Since single recordings were the big sellers of the day he focused on those, and had 29 top 40 hits on the Pop charts and even more on the charts for R&B.
Have a listen to “Chain Gang,” one of my favorite Sam Cooke songs.
The Story Behind “A Change Is Gonna Come”
Cooke wrote most of his own songs and took part in the actual song arrangements. In 1963 he released an album with a distinct slant of the blues known as “Night Beat,” and in 1964 he released his critically acclaimed album “Aint’ That Good News.” On that album he recorded “A Change Is Gonna Come,” a song he wrote after being turned away at a whites only motel in Shreveport, Louisiana. He had called ahead and made the reservations, but when he and his wife and his group arrived to claim them, the desk clerk nervously looked at them and said there were no rooms available. Cooke and the group knew it was because of the color of their skin. They protested loudly to no avail and left, squealing tires and blaring horns. When they reached the motel where blacks were accepted, the police were waiting for them and arrested them for disturbing the peace. The New York Times ran an Associated Press report on the incident and the arrest. Cooke was incensed, writing this song about the struggle African Americans go through. It has been “covered” by so many artists I can’t name them all here, but it includes these and many more: Aretha Franklin, Eminem, Anita Baker, Kid Rock, Seal, Beyonce, Three Dog Night, Patti LaBelle, Tina Turner, The Righteous Brothers, Otis Redding. I could write this list from noon today until tomorrow and still not finish the names of those who have performed this song. It became the Number One anthem for the Civil Rights movement and is still perceived as such.
Sam Cooke performed “A Change Is Gonna Come” on The Johnny Carson show on February 7, 1964. He felt the song was ominous in nature, as did his protege Bobby Womack, who said “it sounds like death,” though later he changed it to “it sounds spooky.” Cooke responded, “Man, that’s how it sounds to me. That’s why I’m never going to sing it in public.”
Sam Cooke Honors and Awards:
- 1986 – Inducted as a charter member of the “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”
- 1987 – Inducted into the “Songwriters Hall of Fame.”
- 1999 – Honored with “Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.”
- 1999 – Rhythm and Blues Foundation Pioneer Award
- 2008 – Named the fourth “Greatest Singer of All Time” by Rolling Stone Magazine.
- 2011 – Chicago Illinois renamed a portion of East 36th Street near Cottage Grove Avenue as “Sam Cooke Way” in remembrance of the singer near a corner where he hung out and sang as a teenager.
Sam Cooke was 33 years old when he died. If he had lived he had the potential for becoming a true force in the music industry. His business sense and his singing talent could have propelled him to the top. There’s no limit to what he could have done and been. But it was taken from him. He is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery, in the Garden of Honor, Glendale, California. You can read more about his mysterious death at Sam Cooke’s Mysterious Death.
For more indepth reading on Sam Cooke’s life and times you might like these books.
More “not to be missed selections” from Sam Cooke.