Sam Cooke - Biography
By Adam McKibbin
Sam Cooke was one of the most popular and enduring soul singers of his generation. Although he was only 33 years old at the time of his death, he had already released 29 Top Forty hits, and was one of the first R&B singers to transcend a genre audience and become a mainstream star. Posthumously, he was among the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and was awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Sam Cooke was born as “Sam Cook” in Mississippi on January 22, 1931, the fifth of eight children raised by Reverend Charles Cook and his wife Annie Mae. His time in the South was short-lived, as the Reverend soon was summoned to Chicago to become minister at the Church of Christ Holiness Church. Young Sam, who would later add an “e” to his name in order to give a boost to his singing career, quickly gained attention by singing in gospel groups with his siblings.
Cooke’s talent and charisma did not go unnoticed, even by his high school classmates, who prophetically awarded him the title of “Most Likely To Succeed.” To be fair, he already had a head start on most of his classmates; he was already the lead singer in a popular gospel group called the Highway QCs, and regularly played alongside some of the country’s top touring acts when they would pass through Chicago.
The best, of course, was yet to come. Cooke’s supple tone quickly became a signature, and he graduated from the Highway QCs to the Soul Stirrers, one of the top gospel acts of their time (and, in 1989, the first gospel quartet to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame). With the increased exposure came nearly immediate fame, although the fame was relative - gospel audiences were loyal, but couldn’t come close to matching the size and subsequent fame and fortune offered by pop audiences.
Cooke found himself at a crossroads. In his mid-twenties, he had already become one of the most successful gospel singers in the country, but yearned to branch out with his music and affect a broader audience. By crossing over into secular music - a forbidden fruit for gospel singers - he risked losing everything he’d established. Even his management couldn’t agree on how to proceed.
Finally, Cooke copped out and adapted a not-very-covert alias (“Dale Cooke”) to throw his gospel fans off his trail. Dale Cooke released a smooth secular single, “Lovable,” at the beginning of 1957. “Lovable” sold around 25,000 copies - huge numbers for a gospel record, but nothing remarkable by pop standards. What was remarkable was the similarities between Dale Cooke and Sam Cooke. Despite the naming subterfuge, fans of the Soul Stirrers quickly caught on; some remained loyal and followed Cooke throughout his career, while others began booing Cooke whenever he appeared on stage.
The newly polarizing pop singer found support in a possibly surprising place - his strict, God-fearing father. “It isn’t what you sing that is so important,” the Reverend told his troubled son, “but rather the fact that God gave you a good voice to use. He must want you to make people happy by singing, so go ahead and do so.”
With his father’s blessing, Cooke began his rapid rise to superstardom. He went into the studio with producer Bumps Blackwell to give his interpretation of George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” but it was the B-side that shot him into the mainstream. The sweetly yearning “You Send Me” shot to the top of the Billboard R&B chart, secured Cooke an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, and commanded the #1 spot on the pop charts, knocking off Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock.”
“You Send Me” sold well over a million copies, but not everyone was so fond of the track, and it led to Cooke changing record labels. Specialty Records boss Art Rupe was dismayed that Cooke and Blackwell employed a white chorus on the track, feeling it diluted the R&B qualities of the song. Rupe and Blackwell reached an agreement, essentially trading back royalties for Cooke’s contract and the session tapes including “You Send Me.” Cooke was not a free agent for long, landing with Keen Records.
His early work for Keen cast him in the role of balladeer, beginning with a tender take on Nat “King” Cole’s “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons.” His self-titled debut album (1958 Keen) climbed to #16 on the albums chart. A year later, he’d salute Billie Holiday with Tribute to the Lady (1959 Keen), a collection of songs that Holiday had helped popularize.
While he was a sensitive interpreter, Cooke was every bit as fine a songwriter as a singer, and the vast majority of his hit songs were originals. He chalked up part of his power as a songwriter to simple observation, and aside from a canny understanding of the human condition, he also had a sharp eye for emerging trends in the music industry. On “Everybody Loves To Cha Cha Cha” and “Win Your Love For Me,” Cooke incorporated the sort of driving Latin rhythms that he correctly assumed would grow in popularity.
Cooke’s trailblazing continued even away from the stage and studio. He formed his own music publishing company, Kags, in order to maximize profits and maintain creative control. Hoping to give struggling black musicians an avenue to exposure, Cooke formed SAR Records with J.W. Alexander. Few musicians - let alone black R&B artists - had exerted this sort of entrepreneurial determination and foresight.
Cooke married his old childhood flame Barbara Campbell in 1959. But their romance wasn’t quite storybook, as Campbell had already given birth to their daughter, Linda, in 1953 - one of the three children born to Cooke by three different women in a five-week span. Cooke wound up marrying another woman altogether, but this first marriage proved to be short-lived - in part because of Cooke’s womanizing ways, which would continue throughout his career. The three illegitimate children fathered in 1953 would not be the last, and paternity claims would continue to follow him around and bedevil his management.
Delores, Cooke’s first wife, died in a car accident shortly after their separation. In tribute, Cooke reworked “Somewhere There’s A God” into “Somewhere There’s A Girl.” As a curious footnote, the Womacks provided backing vocals on the track; a few years later, after Cooke’s own tragic death, Bobby Womack would marry Barbara, his widow.
1959 also brought professional change for Cooke, as he made an acrimonious departure from Keen Records, suing the label for unpaid royalties. In the end, he walked away with the masters from his Keen sessions. On the hunt for a new label, Cooke put his own label to good use; while he wanted to devote SAR entirely to launching the careers of up-and-comers and providing a home for other African-American artists, he released the single “Just For You” on SAR as bait for major labels. The press praised the song, and the majors reliably came calling. Atlantic Records was one attractive suitor, but Cooke insisted on retaining his copyrights and thus ensuring that he would see money on the many occasions when his songs would be successfully covered. He wound up at RCA, and it was a hardly a consolation prize; the label was among the most powerful in the business, and gave him a half-million dollar guarantee with the promise of the creative control that he so desired.
Cooke repaid their faith, and RCA Studio would host some of Cooke’s greatest performances, and thus some of the finest moments in the history of soul music. But first there were some growing pains. Eager to get their prized new acquisition out on the market, RCA released a water-treading live album, Cooke’s Tour (1960 RCA) and rapidly followed it with Hits of the Fifties (1960 RCA), which again found Cooke looking backwards and covering pop hits like “The Great Pretender” and “Unchained Melody” from the previous decade. Cooke was never anything less than capable, but at this point it was clear that his talents were best suited to more progressive material.
In the meantime, Keen milked their catalog by releasing “(What A) Wonderful World” as a single (1960) and watched it shoot up the charts; RCA fared even better with the release of “Chain Gang” in the same year. Both songs would be lasting signature hits for Cooke, presenting two distinct sides of his catalog - “Wonderful World” an effervescent, charming love song and “Chain Gang” hinting at the more aggressive, call-and-response nature of Cooke’s riveting live shows, as well as the social consciousness that would later directly inform one of his last and greatest songs.
Sam and Barbara had two more children together - daughter Tracey and son Vincent - although Sam continued his extramarital affairs, even seeking refuge from his fame in the arms of prostitutes. When he wrote “Another Saturday Night” during a UK tour in 1962, the lonesome lyrics (“Another Saturday night and I ain’t got nobody”) were much more a product of imagination than experience. That same year, on the single “Bring It On Home To Me,” a classic duet with Lou Rawls, he painted himself as the victim of infidelity - and, in the end, wound up forgiving the woman who’d wronged him. Forgiveness, particularly in this context, was a virtue that Cooke would advocate to his live audiences as well. Given that his wife Barbara was alleged to have responded to his numerous affairs by starting a few of her own, the subject may have been one on which he was uniquely qualified to comment.
Despite his success on the singles charts, Cooke had gone through a commercial dry spell with his albums - a streak that ended with Twistin’ The Night Away (1962 RCA). The twist figured into no fewer than five songs on the album, most notably the title track and Hank Ballard’s “The Twist,” the trend-setting tune popularized by Chubby Checker. Again, Cooke tried to keep his focus forward, and he filled out Twistin’ The Night Away with a hint of the bluesy, soulful songs that were to come.
In early 1963, Cooke assembled a quartet and returned to the studio for one of the most stripped-down and introspective albums of his career, Night Beat (1963 RCA). Here he again flexed his interpretive muscle, as he’d only written three of the album’s 12 tracks. Unlike other albums in his catalog, there was little concession to pop gloss on Night Beat, instead, Cooke played out his affection for Charles Brown, Howlin’ Wolf and other bluesmen. The album sticks out as something of an anomaly in the Cooke catalog, but critics suspect that it was a point of departure to which Cooke intended to return.
While his career continued to blossom in the early Sixties, the civil rights movement was gaining strength and prominence. As teens twisted to Cooke’s music and swooned over his matinee looks, the singer pored over cultural histories and cultivated friendships with boxing champ Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) and Malcolm X. He knew Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from his touring days with the Soul Stirrers. In 1963, King would write his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and, in August, deliver his “I Have A Dream” speech in Washington, DC. Cooke, in the meantime, had plenty of run-ins with the vicious realities of segregation and racism while on the road. Cooke would sometimes have to enter the very venues he was headlining through their back entrances, and grew increasingly agitated with the power structure of the music industry, which always found a way to funnel profits into the coffers of its typically white executives rather than its artists.
In reaction, Cooke continued to strengthen his own entrepreneurial holdings, and refused to play shows at venues that enforced segregation. In October of 1963, Cooke was arrested after being turned away at a Holiday Inn in Louisiana. Along with his wife, his brother, and an old friend, he was charged with disturbing the peace after engaging in an argument with the hotel manager.
But 1963 would be a tragic year for Cooke for reasons that had little to do with societal strife. In the summer, his 18-month-old son Vincent drowned in the family’s pool. The grief placed even further stress on Sam and Barbara’s marriage, which had grown increasingly strained as Sam’s womanizing ways continued unabated. Unable to put his mind on new material, Cooke took a brief hiatus from the studio.
Out on the road, there was a deepening divide between the two different kinds of Sam Cooke shows. On one hand, there were the polished, pretty performances in which he sang his hit songs and his interpretations of pop standards; on the other, there was an increasingly raw show that he traditionally performed in front of black audiences. A fascinating comparison of the two styles - and Cooke’s mastery of both - was captured on Sam Cooke at the Copa (1964 RCA) and the much-delayed Live at the Harlem Square Club (1985 RCA). Cooke’s Copa show largely presented his most innocuous material, while his frenzied set at the Harlem Square Club would be a revelation to anyone who knew him only through the album versions of his hits.
Cooke had been deeply affected by Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and decided it was his mission to write a song of his own that conveyed the struggle and turbulence of the times. The astonishing result was “A Change Is Gonna Come,” which became one of the defining songs of the civil rights movement. When Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968, Rosa Parks and her mother comforted themselves by playing “A Change Is Gonna Come”; Parks said that Cooke’s wounded but hopeful paean made it seem “as if Dr. King was speaking directly to me.”
Unfortunately, Sam Cooke didn’t live long enough to see the change come. On December 11, 1964, Cooke discussed business and downed martinis with producer Al Schmitt at a Hollywood hotspot. As the night wore on and the empty glasses stacked up, he laid eyes on 22-year-old Elisa Boyer. From there, the details become murky and much-debated - but at the end of the night, Cooke would be dead, shot by the hotel manager at a seedy hotel in South Central Los Angeles.
Boyer would tell police - and later testify - that Cooke had taken her to the hotel against her will and had attempted to sexually assault her. She made her escape, leaving an enraged Cooke to confront the hotel manager, Bertha Franklin. Franklin would testify that Cooke kicked in her door, demanding to know the whereabouts of “the girl.” A physical altercation ensued, and Franklin shot Cooke three times. The singer’s last words were, simply, “Lady, you shot me.”
The police were satisfied with these accounts, and a court hearing about the death lasted only two hours. A coroner’s jury ruled that the shooting had been a “justifiable homicide.” But when Boyer was arrested shortly thereafter on prostitution charges, suspicion was again cast on her story; many suspected that Cooke was enraged because he had been robbed by a prostitute, not because of a foiled attempted rape.
Furthermore, members of Cooke family went public with their belief that the murder was a setup, possibly arranged by someone who stood to benefit financially from Cooke’s death. They cited the unlikelihood of an A-list star with a penchant for the high life choosing to drive out of his way to stay in a rundown dive of a hotel, and also pointed out that a large amount of money that witnesses had seen Cooke brandishing earlier in the evening had never been recovered.
Regardless of which version is accurate, Sam Cooke’s final hour was a sordid and tragic end for one of the richest and most inspiring voices in American music. In the years immediately following his death, his songs continued to enjoy chart success, but when the labels had milked all of his material from their vaults, his reputation suffered somewhat as they settled for cashing in on low-quality compilations.
In later years, Cooke’s legacy would be cemented by the long-overdue release of Live at the Harlem Square Club and the success of Cooke-inspired singers like Otis Redding, Al Green and Rod Stewart. In 1986, he was among the inaugural inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, alongside Elvis Presley, Ray Charles and James Brown. Called “Mr. Soul” during his lifetime, Cooke has since had a grander name bestowed upon him: “The Man Who Invented Soul.” The name fits.