By Brent James
Nestled inconspicuously on 12th Street in West Oakland in a neighborhood known as Prescott (or the “Lower Bottoms” to the longtime residents of the area) is a quaint little building that you will probably miss if you blink. A structure of brick and hardwood and matted red carpets that haven’t been touched since the 1960s, the building standing at 1658 12th Street is the Continental Club – a once a mighty Jazz and Blues supper joint that helped Oakland and the East Bay Area garner the reputation of being the “Motown of the West.” Along with Slim Jenkins’ Supper Club, Esther’s Orbit Room, and dozens of other nightclubs that sprawled along 7th Street, the stages in these rooms once hosted the likes of Jackie Wilson, Aretha Franklin, Lou Rawls, Etta James, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Ike and Tina Turner, and even Jimi Hendrix. The list goes on and the stories are endless if you’re lucky enough to get some face time with the “old timers” of the area. In this neighborhood, people still say “good morning” and spend many a Summer night on their porches, so that’s pretty easy to do.
By Brent James
Sam Cooke is, of course, an American Master, but he was also a man of the people. He charmed everyone he met, was a brilliant song writer and the first African American to own his own record label. He started his career in gospel and realized that if he wanted to advance himself and take better care of his family (see footage below), he needed to move out into the world of pop. With his careful cover choices and his well-honed genius for writing about topics that appealed to a mass audience, he became one of the first black entertainers to crossover and garner a huge number of white fans.
Playing segregated halls (eventually refusing to) and enduring despicable treatment in the South throughout the late 50s and early 60s, Cooke realized he was in a position as a popular artist to say something about what was going on in America. He covered Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" regularly, but also was inspired to write his own anthem for the movement, "A Change Is Gonna Come," to this day one of the most affecting songs ever to grace the airwaves.
Cooke was, beyond everything else, a self-made man, one who bowed to no one and who crossed boundaries no one thought possible at the time. He gained the respect of the people with his integrity, enthusiasm and smarts. Like many talented artists, his life was cut short early and tragically, at a hotel in Los Angeles in December 1964 when he was shot to death at the age of 33.