Sam Cooke (January 22, 1931 – December 11, 1964) was a popular and influential American gospel, R&B, soul, and pop singer, as well as songwriter and entrepreneur. Indeed, musicians and critics today recognize him as one of the originators of soul music and among the most influential singers in postwar American popular music.
James Brown is known as the “Godfather of Soul,” yet Cooke’s status as the “King of Soul” perhaps best reflects his stature and legacy. He had 29 Top 40 hits in the United States between 1957 and 1965, including major hits like “You Send Me,” “Chain Gang,” “Wonderful World,” and “Bring It On Home To Me.” His elegiac ballad “A Change is Gonna Come,” recorded in 1963 and released just after his death in 1964, has come to be regarded as one of his greatest and most socially conscious compositions, although overshadowed on the charts by the emergence of the Beatles.
Cooke was among the first modern black performers and composers to set the precedent of attending to the business side of his musical career by founding both a record label and a publishing company. He also took an active part in the Civil Rights Movement, refusing to perform to segregated audiences and seeking through his song-writing and singing to bridge gaps between blacks and whites. Sam Cooke died in compromising circumstances at age 33, just as he was approaching his creative zenith. A consummate artist, Cooke was a unifying voice whose broad appeal in an increasingly polarized society was tragically cut short.
Sam Cooke was born Samuel Cook in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He was one of eight children of Annie Mae and Rev. Charles Cook, a Pentecostal minister. The family moved to Chicago in 1933. Cooke began his musical career with his siblings in the Singing Children, followed by a turn in his teenage years as a member of the gospel group, the “Highway QCs”. In 1950, at the age of 19, he joined The Soul Stirrers and achieved significant success and fame within the gospel community. For six years he was the reigning voice of gospel; Cooke would have been famous for his role in the Soul Stirrers, even if he had not crossed over to pop.
There was a considerable taboo against gospel singers performing secular music. Cooke’s first pop single, “Lovable” (1956), was released under the alias “Dale Cooke” to avoid offending his group and alienating his gospel fan base. However, the alias failed to hide Cooke’s unique and distinctive vocals. No one was fooled. Art Rupe, the head of Specialty Records, gave his blessing for Cooke to record secular music under his real name, but was unhappy about the type of music Cooke and his producer, Bumps Blackwell, were making. Rupe expected Cooke’s secular music to be similar to that of another Specialty Records artist, Little Richard. When Rupe walked in on a recording session and heard Cooke covering Gershwin, he was quite upset.
After an argument between Rupe and Blackwell, Cooke and Blackwell left the label, and Cooke signed with Keen Records in 1957, after which Cooke burst onto the pop scene with the 1957 release of his million-selling single, “You Send Me.” The song’s innovative blend of Gospel, Pop, and R&B earned him the title of “The Man Who Invented Soul” and stayed on the charts an amazing 26 weeks, rising to #1 in both the Pop and R&B markets, spending six weeks on the Billboard R&B chart and three weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 pop chart at #1. After the success of his second single, “I’ll Come Running Back to You,” Cooke created a publishing imprint and management firm. He then left Keen to sign with RCA Victor, where his first single was the famous, “Chain Gang,” which was followed by the singles “Sad Mood,” “Bring it on Home to Me” (with Lou Rawls on backing vocals), “Another Saturday Night” and “Twistin’ the Night Away.” Cooke released a critically acclaimed blues-inflected LP in 1963, “Night Beat.”
In all he had 29 top 40 hits on the pop charts, and an amazing 34 Top 40 R&B hits over his eight-year pop career, with most like “You Send Me” and “I’ll Come Running Back to You” written by Cooke himself. Cooke also wrote and recorded such classics as “Chain Gang,” “Only Sixteen,” “Cupid,” “Wonderful World,” “Having a Party,” and “A Change is Gonna Come,” and was among the original inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 1986. Cooke was known for having written many of the most popular songs of all time in the genre, yet, in spite of this, is often unaccredited for many of them by the general public.
Social and political stands
Sam Cooke is remembered as a pioneer both socially and musically. Blessed with a keen sense of vision and foresight, Sam Cooke was one of the first artists to capitalize on the crossover appeal of popular music by intentionally recording songs that targeted both the black and white markets. In addition to being an accomplished singer, songwriter, and producer, he was remembered as the first artist to take a political stand and refuse to sing to segregated audiences.
He recognized the politics of the music industry early in his career. At a time when record labels often left even the most talented and successful artist broke and penniless, Sam Cooke was one of the first artists, black or white, to buck the system and demand ownership of his career. He signed an unprecedented deal with RCA, in 1960, after coming to the agreement that they let him retain control of the copyrights to his music. He was the first African-American artist to own a record label, and he established his own management company and music publishing company as well.
In addition to his success in writing his own songs and achieving mainstream fame — a truly remarkable accomplishment for an R&B singer at that time—Cooke continued to astonish the music business in the 1960s with the founding of his own label, SAR Records, which soon included The Simms Twins, The Valentinos, Bobby Womack, and Johnnie Taylor. Yet, his legacy as a record company owner and record producer has been relatively ignored.
Cooke and fellow musician and friend, J. W. Alexander, started the SAR and Derby labels in 1957. Along with the record company, they had their own music publishing companies: Kags Music Co. (BMI) and Malloy Music Co.(ASCAP)The SAR label was geared for the rhythm ‘n’ blues market, while its companion label, Derby, was pop-oriented. The two record labels showcased the skills of Cooke and Alexander as songwriters and producers; they did most of the production and a great deal of the songwriting on everything they recorded.
The label can’t be properly understood without understanding how strong the gospel connection was with almost every artist on the label. In a much smaller and more intimate fashion, SAR was a kind of family-affair record company: Close friends and long-term associates from their years on the gospel circuit were called in by Cooke and Alexander to record for the label.
It was dissolved shortly after Cooke’s death in 1964. The rights to the recordings and the publishing were bought up shortly thereafter by Allen Klein, who was Cooke’s last manager. Fifty-seven singles and Four LPs were issued on the Sar label, and 11 45s and two LPs on Derby Records.
Cooke died under precarious circumstances at the young age of 33 on December 11, 1964 in Los Angeles. He was shot to death; the court verdict was justifiable homicide, though many believe that crucial details did not come out in court or were buried afterward. The details of the case involving Sam Cooke’s death are still in dispute.
Posthumous releases followed, many of which became hits, including “A Change Is Gonna Come,” an early protest song which is generally regarded as his greatest composition. After Cooke’s death, his widow, Barbara, married Bobby Womack. Cooke’s daughter, Linda, later married Bobby’s brother, Cecil Womack.
How it happened
The official police record states that Cooke was shot to death by Bertha Franklin, the manager of the Hacienda Motel, where Cooke had checked in earlier that evening. Franklin claimed that Cooke had broken into the manager’s office/apartment in a rage, wearing nothing but a shoe and an overcoat (and nothing beneath it) demanding to know the whereabouts of a woman who had accompanied him to the motel. Franklin said that the woman was not in the office and that she told Cooke this, but the enraged Cooke did not believe her and violently grabbed her, demanding again to know the woman’s whereabouts. According to Franklin, she grappled with Cooke, the two of them fell to the floor, and she then got up and ran to retrieve her gun. She said that she then fired at Cooke in self-defense because she feared for her life. According to Franklin, Cooke exclaimed, “Lady, you shot me,” before finally falling, mortally wounded.
According to Franklin and to the motel’s owner, Evelyn Carr, they had been on the phone together at the time of the incident. Thus, Carr claimed to have overheard Cooke’s intrusion and the ensuing confrontation and gunshots. Carr called the police to request that they go to the motel, informing them that she believed a shooting had occurred.
Court investigation and verdict
A coroner’s inquest was convened to investigate the incident. The woman who had accompanied Cooke to the motel was identified as Elisa Boyer, age 22, who had called the police that night shortly before Carr did. Boyer had called the police from a phone booth near the motel, telling them she had just escaped from being kidnapped.
Boyer told the police that she had first met Cooke earlier that night and had spent the evening in his company. She claimed that after they left a local nightclub together, she had repeatedly requested that he take her home, but that he instead took her against her will to the Hacienda Motel. She claimed that once in one of the motel’s rooms, Cooke physically forced her onto the bed and she was certain he was going to rape her. According to Boyer, when Cooke stepped into the bathroom for a moment, she quickly grabbed her clothes and ran from the room. She claimed that in her haste, she had also scooped up most of Cooke’s clothing by mistake. Boyer said that she ran first to the manager’s office and knocked on the door seeking help. However, she said that the manager took too long in responding, so, fearing Cooke would soon be coming after her, she fled the motel altogether before the manager ever opened the door. She claimed she then put her own clothing back on, stashed Cooke’s clothing away and went to the phone booth from which she called police.
Boyer’s story is the only account of what happened between the two that night. However, her story has long been called into question. Due to inconsistencies between her version of events and details reported by other witnesses, as well as other circumstantial evidence (for example, cash Cooke was reportedly carrying that was never recovered, and the fact that Boyer was soon after arrested for prostitution), many people feel it is more likely that Boyer went willingly to the motel with Cooke, and then slipped out of the room with Cooke’s clothing in order to rob him, rather than in order to escape an attempted rape.
Ultimately though, such questions were beyond the scope of the investigation. Its purpose was simply to establish the circumstances of Franklin’s role in the shooting, not to determine what had explicitly happened between Cooke and Boyer before the shooting.
Two points combined to make Franklin’s explanation valid. 1) Boyer’s leaving the motel room with almost all of Cooke’s clothing in tow (regardless of exactly why she did so) combined with the fact that 2) tests showed Cooke was inebriated at the time, provided a plausible explanation for Cooke’s bizarre behavior and state of dress, as reported by Franklin. This explanation, together with the fact that Carr’s account of what she said to have overheard corroborated Franklin’s version of events, was enough to convince the coroner’s jury to accept Franklin’s explanation that it was a case of justifiable homicide. And with that verdict, authorities officially closed the case on Cooke’s death.
However, some of Cooke’s family and supporters have rejected not only Boyer’s version of events, but also Franklin’s and Carr’s. They believe that there was a conspiracy from the start to murder Cooke, that this murder did in fact take place in some manner entirely different from the official account of Cooke’s intrusion into Franklin’s office/apartment, and that Franklin, Boyer and Carr were all lying to provide a cover story for this murder.
My brother was first class all the way. He would not check into a $3 a night motel; that wasn’t his style (Agnes Cooke-Hoskins, sister of Sam Cooke, attending the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 2005 tribute to Cooke).
In her autobiography, Rage To Survive, singer Etta James claimed that she viewed Cooke’s body in the funeral home and that the injuries she observed were well beyond what could be explained by the official account of Franklin alone having fought with Cooke. James described Cooke as having been so badly beaten that his head was nearly decapitated from his shoulders, his hands were broken and crushed and his nose was mangled.
Nevertheless, no solid, reviewable evidence supporting a conspiracy theory has been presented to date. Cooke was interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery, Glendale, California.
Cooke’s influence has been immense: Even people who have never heard one of his records have still heard his voice and phrasing if they have listened to any Rod Stewart or Southside Johnny. Other rock artists with a notable Cooke heritage include The Animals, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, Van Morrison, James Taylor, the Beatles (particularly John Lennon), John Mayer, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Marriot, Terry Reid, Steve Perry, and numerous others, while R&B and soul artists indebted to Cooke include Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Lou Rawls, Al Green, and many more. Shortly following his passing, Motown Records released We Remember Sam Cooke, a collection of Cooke covers recorded by The Supremes.
In 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine ranked him #16 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
“Wonderful World” was a featured song in the film National Lampoon’s Animal House, the one song in that film that was not a “party” song. The song was also featured in the film Hitch starring Will Smith, Eva Mendes, and Kevin James. After being featured prominently in the 1985 film Witness (starring Kelly McGillis and Harrison Ford), the song gained further exposure and became a hit in the United Kingdom, reaching Number 2 in re-release.
“Wonderful World” was also covered for many years by the Jerry Garcia Band.
The well-known verse of “Wonderful World”—”Don’t know much about [history, geography, and so on]”—provided the inspiration for titles of several books authored by writer Kenneth C. Davis. Davis’ books explored both basic and lesser-known facts about those subjects.
Tupac Shakur mentions Cooke in his song “Thugz Mansion” “Drinkin’ peppermint schnapps with Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke, then a girl named Billie Holliday sang, sitting there kickin’ it with Malcom [X.], ’til the day came.”