Sam Cooke Biography

Sam Cook, 22 January 1931, Clarksdale, Mississippi, USA, d. 11 December 1964, Los Angeles, California, USA. Reverend Charles Cook and his wife Annie May relocated his family to Chicago during the 30s. The devout young Sam Cook first performed publicly with his brother and two sisters in their Baptist quartet, the Soul Children. As a teenager he joined the Highway QCs, before replacing Rebert ‘R.H.’ Harris in the Soul Stirrers. Between 1951 and 1956 Cook (now with an ‘e’) sang lead with this innovative gospel group after being coached by another member, R.B. Robinson. Cooke’s distinctive florid vocal style was soon obvious on ‘Touch The Hem Of His Garment’ and ‘Nearer To Thee’. The Soul Stirrers recorded for the Specialty Records label, where the singer’s popularity encouraged producer Robert ‘Bumps’ Blackwell to provide Cooke with pop material. ‘Loveable’/‘Forever’ was issued as a single in 1957, disguised under the pseudonym ‘Dale Cook’ to avoid offending the gospel audience. Initially content, the label’s owner, Art Rupe, then objected to the sweetening choir on a follow-up recording, ‘You Send Me’, and offered Cooke a release from his contract in return for outstanding royalties. The song was then passed to the Keen label, where it became a smash hit and sold in excess of two million copies and topped the US singles chart for three weeks.

Further hits, including ‘Only Sixteen’ and ‘Wonderful World’, followed, and Cooke also had the foresight to set up his own publishing company, Kags Music, with J.W. Alexander in 1958. Cooke left Keen for RCA Records where original compositions such as ‘Chain Gang’ (1960), ‘Cupid’ (1961) and ‘Twistin’ The Night Away’ (1962), displayed a pop craft later offset by such grittier offerings as ‘Bring It On Home To Me’ and Willie Dixon’s ‘Little Red Rooster’. Other magnificent offerings were to follow as Cooke just seemed to get better and better. ‘Nothing Can Change This Love’, ‘Having A Party’, ‘Mean Old World’ and ‘Somebody Have Mercy’ were all first class songs. Although RCA attempted to market him as a supper-club performer in the tradition of Sammy Davis Jnr. and Nat ‘King’ Cole, Cooke was effectively creating a new style of music, soul, by reworking the gospel anthems that remained at the heart of his music. To promote this new music, Cooke and Alexander founded the SAR and Derby labels (the former with S.R. Crain), on which the Simms Twins’ ‘Soothe Me’ and the Valentinos’ ‘It’s All Over Now’ were issued. Cooke also enlisted Allen Klein to become his business manager in 1963 and handle his other interests.

Cooke’s singing career was in the ascendant at the time of his tragic death. He had just released the superb Ain’t That Good News, but the purity of the music on the album made his tawdry fate all the more perplexing. He had already experienced the death of his first wife and the tragic drowning of his son Vincent in a swimming pool in June 1963. On 11 December 1964, according to the Los Angles police department, Cooke was involved in an altercation at a downmarket Los Angeles motel with Lisa Boyer, a woman he had allegedly picked up that night. The singer was fatally shot by the manager of the motel, Bertha Franklin, and although subsequent investigations have disputed this outcome no definitive version has been forthcoming.

Sadly, the ebullient ‘Shake’ became a posthumous hit, but its serene coupling, ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’, was a more melancholic and powerful epitaph. As probably his finest composition, its title suggested a metaphor for the concurrent Civil Rights movement. Cooke’s legacy continued through his various disciples - Johnnie Taylor, who had replaced Cooke in the Soul Stirrers, bore an obvious debt, as did Bobby Womack of the Valentinos. Cooke’s songs were interpreted by acts as diverse as Rod Stewart, the Animals and Cat Stevens, while the Rolling Stones’ cover version of ‘Little Red Rooster’ echoed Cooke’s reading rather than that of Howlin’ Wolf. Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson - the list of those acknowledging Cooke’s skill is a testimony in itself. The 1986 compilation The Man And His Music provides an excellent and concise overview of the singer’s career, while Peter Guralnick’s monumental 2005 biography Dream Boogie is the most thorough written examination of Cooke’s music and troubled life.

Cooke was a seminal influence on all soul music and R&B. His effortless and smooth delivery demonstrated an incredible natural singing voice that has rarely been surpassed.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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