“Nobody has put more people on stretchers than Sam Cooke, nobody. He’s got to be the best singer that ever lived, bar none. I mean nobody can touch Sam Cooke. When I listen to Sam everything goes away. Modulation, shading, dynamics, progression, emotion, every essential quality — he had it all.”
-Jerry Wexler (One of The First Producers)
“What made brother Sam Cooke so special is he would stand flat-footed and kill you with one song. If I had half the voice that Sam had, I would quit dancing.”
“Sam was the King of Soul. Whether they were affected or not, everybody out here was influenced by Sam in some kind of way. Sam got that longevity. Once you hear his voice, you can’t help but just love it.”
-L.C. Cooke (Sam’s brother)
One Important Life in America
The release and popularity of the movie One Night in Miami have thrust Sam Cooke into the limelight once again. One must not forget how immensely popular the silky-smooth singer was. Preternaturally handsome, with a singing voice that was truly generational, he was a magnet for a multitude of fans, Black and White, from every walk of life.
Today, Mr Cooke’s influence is everywhere.
When You Wish Upon a Star
A brief look at Cooke’s artistic career tells the story. Born the fifth of eight children to a Mississippi Baptist minister, the Reverend Charles Cook, and his wife Annie Mae, Cooke’s voice shone in his father’s church choir. When the family moved to Chicago in the 1930s Sam quickly formed The Singing Children, a gospel group with his family members. After a stint with another minor gospel group, Cooke joined The Soul Stirrers, one of the top gospel groups of the 1950s.
Cooke quickly became the leading light of the group, but he had an ear and taste for popular music. In 1956 he decided to record a pop single “Lovable” under the name of Dale Cooke, as not to attract the attention of the gospel fans.
Sam literally changed the perception of so-called secular music forever for the entire world of Gospel music. As Cooke biographer Peter Guralnick writes; “Cooke’s decision shook the world of gospel to its very roots: “To appreciate the magnitude of the event, it is necessary to imagine Elvis Presley abdicating his throne, or The Beatles finding Jesus at the height of their popularity. For if the world of gospel was considerably smaller than that of either pop or rhythm and blues, its loyalties were all the fiercer, and the spectacle of the idolized singer of one of gospel’s most popular groups converting, however tentatively and innocuously, to ‘the devil’s music’ was enough to send shockwaves through the worlds of both gospel and pop.”
Cooke was able to bring the spirit of the church to popular music, marking an era of a new sound. His brother L.C. Cooke wrote on SoulTrain.com. “His (music) was timeless. Sam read something every day. He would read and Sam would say as long as you read, you can stay current and you can always write. He would write about what’s going on today because yesterday was already gone. What made him such a good writer is the fact that he read a lot.”
The True Trailblazer
There are many musical legends that are perhaps worthy of being called the King of Soul music; Ray Charles, James Brown etc. However, most musicologists would agree that the most important Soul singer of all time was none other than Samuel Cook. He would later change the spelling of his last name to Cooke to signal that he was reinventing himself.
Like Little Richard, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, and other Black singers, Sam had fans of all races flocking to buy his records and attend his incredible concerts.
Pioneer In Business
Sam Cooke was more than a performer and songwriter. He was a successful businessman operating within the confines of the mainstream music industry. He wrote and produced records for other singers, founded his own publishing company, Kags Music, as well as a management firm, and later launched the SAR record label, putting him in a class all of his own. He also helped to launch the careers of artists like his own brother L.C. Cooke, Billy Preston, Bobby Womack, Johnnie Taylor, and Lou Rawls by helping them cross over from gospel to secular music.
Sam was also an activist. Sam’s refusal to sing at segregated concerts led to what many have described as one of the first real efforts in civil disobedience and helped usher in the new Civil Rights Movement according to ABKCO.com.
His Best Songs
According to Rocksoff.com, here is a list of Sam’s best tracks.
Having a Party/Shake (Otis Redding, Eric Burdon and the Animals, Small Faces and The Supremes have all recorded their own versions of this classic)/(What A) Wonderful World/Cupid/Another Saturday Night/Good Times (This tune was one of the last Sam Cooke songs he wrote and recorded before his death on December 11, 1964. The track was also recorded by the Rolling Stones on their 1965 album Out Of Our Heads. Summertime/You Send Me/A Change Is Gonna Come/Bring it On Home to Me (the perfect love ballad and rightly has a place in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll).
In 1971, Dave Marsh (American music critic) wrote for Creem magazine, “At his very best, Cooke utilized a perfect lyrical sentimentality… listen to ‘Good Times’ – It might be one o’clock and it might be three/Time don’t mean that much to me/Ain’t felt this good since I don’t know when/And I might not feel this good again/So come on baby, let the good times roll/We gonna stay here till we soothe our soul. That summed up perfectly what rock and roll was about, and still is, in so many ways.”
A Celebration of Sam
Two hundred thousand fans came to pay their respects to Sam Cooke at a memorial service in Chicago after his death, shot at the age of 33 by a frightened night manager in a cheap motel after an argument over a girl got out of hand. Think about that turnout for a moment. Two hundred thousand souls. That’s a lot of people who were moved by Sam’s artistry.
Lou Rawls and Bobby “Blue” Bland sang at his funeral in Los Angeles. Yes, that’s right, they also had a ceremony for him in LA! Ray Charles sang “Angels Keep Watching Over Me.” And so on, the list of entertainers and talent who turned out for Sam is truly mind-boggling. If any single person could be credited with defining soul music, then it would be Sam Cooke.
Well, every once in a while someone comes along who changes the game completely. That was Sam Cooke.
He was a true superstar in his lifetime. His influence can be heard in the precise phrasing of Smokey Robinson. In the heartfelt ”message” songwriting of Marvin Gaye. His sound is heard in the raw emotion of Lou Rawls. No question you can hear Sam in Aretha Franklin’s controlled passion.
Yes, no Sam, well, hard to imagine our world being so wonderful without him.
Sam Cooke was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.
The Soul Stirrers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989 as an early influence.
For a complete and detailed biography of Sam Cooke, check out Peter Guralnick’s book; Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke.