Sam Cooke, the King of Soul


Introduction to Sam Cooke

Sam Cooke (1931-1964) was an American R&B/soul singer-songwriter and businessman. During the 60s music era, Cooke rose to the top of the charts with “You Send Me,” which even dislodged Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock” from the #1 spot. His crossover appeal continued with such pop and R&B hit such as “Twistin’ The Night Away,” “Chain Gang,” “Another Saturday Night,” “Wonderful World,” “Cupid,” “Shake” and “A Change Is Gonna Come,” all of them which are undisputable classics. He was also a smart entrepreneur, having established his own label and publishing company, a rare feat for an artist those days. He died at age 33 in Los Angeles, California, under circumstances that have been still widely questioned. His body was found in a hotel room; the manager had said that she shot Cooke as a self-defense. But in whatever circumstances that brought Cooke to his end, he left behind an indelible legacy. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 1986.

Early life

Sam Cooke was an American R&B/soul singer-songwriter and businessman, who was considered a trailblazing artist for his pioneering soul music as well as for his entrepreneurial independence in the the industry. Samuel Cook (without the “e,” although it is still disputed) was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi on January 22, 1931 but grew up in Chicago, Illinois. Even as a child Cooke displayed an extraordinary singing talent.

Gospel singing career with the Soul Stirrers

He started out as a gospel singer, being a member of the Soul Stirrers, where he honed his musical and vocal talents. The Soul Stirrers were signed to Specialty Records label, where they scored fine gospel tracks such as “Jesus Gave Me Water,” “Peace in the Valley,” “How Far Am I From Canaan?” and many others. Eventually he became the group’s star and a sort of a matinee idol. But Cooke’s real intention was to reach beyond the gospel and religious circles, as well as the black audience. This was a great challenge for Cooke, as gospel singers during his time were enduring some kind of a stigma when they crossed over to singing secular material.

Foray into secular singing and solo career

Cooke went solo in the mid-1950s. In 1956 he released his first single “Lovable,” produced by Bumps Blackwell. In order not to alienate his gospel fanbase, he released that single under the pseudonym “Dale Cook.” However, his voice and singing style was unmistakably recognizable. Specialty Records boss Art Rupe wasn’t also the one to be fooled by Cooke’s ruse. Despite this, Rupe was lenient and moreover allowed Cooke to record non-gospel songs although he was upset about the style of music Cooke performed. An argument ensued between Rupe, and Cooke together with Blackwell. Eventually Cooke left Specialty, or it was said that he was dropped from the label (as well as by the Soul Stirrers).

Cooke’s peak years

At least that gave Cooke freedom to record secular songs under his real name. His first single as Sam Cooke was 1957’s “You Send Me,” which he also wrote. Released on Keen label, “You Send Me” became one of the biggest-selling singles not only in that very year but also the whole of the 1950s. It reached #1 on both R&B and pop charts in 1957, even dislogding Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock. It is now seen as one of the pioneering songs during that era. Cooke continued to churn out both R&B and pop hits such as “I’ll Come Running Back to You,” “Lonely Island,” “You Were Made for Me,” “Everybody Likes to Cha-Cha,” and another classic “Wonderful World.”

Cooke as a successful producer and businessman

Unhappy with the way Keen was managing his business, he encountered major labels such as RCA and Atlantic that came knocking on his door. In the end, he chose to sign with RCA, while he established his own music publishing business as well as his own record label, SAR Records (along with fellow artist and producer J.W. Alexander and his manager Roy Crain). Aside from his innate musical talents, Cooke was also found to have an acumen for business. Among the acts on his SAR label included his own former group the Soul Stirrers, as well as Bobby Womack, Johnnie Taylor, The Simms Twins and The Valentinos, among many others.

More successful recordings

During Cooke’s tenure at RCA, he achieved one of his biggest hits with “Chain Gang.” It reached #2 on both pop and R&B singles chart in 1960. The romantic “Cupid” (#17 pop, #20 R&B, #7 UK) became also one of his notable songs. The danceable “Twistin’ the Night Away” found itself at the top of the R&B charts again as well on the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100, where it reached #9 in 1962.

Like many R&B and soul artists of his time, Cooke mostly concentrated on singles, which constituted many of his best work. He never really hit his stride when it comes to making full-length recordings until he released his twelfth album Night Beat in 1963. The album features self-contained, moody gathering of blues-influenced songs and is also considered as Cooke’s most intimate work. Night Beat has become a consistent figure in many critics’ best album lists.

Hoping for a change

By the early 1960s Cooke had become one of the most successful black artists, as well as one of the very few black acts to achieve financial independence during his time. Cooke was also one of the few artists to enjoy creative control and ownership of all his songs. A successful singer, songwriter and producer — Cooke had attained all these when he was still in his early 30s, and he achieved all of them against every odds. With his success ensured, Cooke felt that it was time for him to write and record songs that would mean much more to him and to his fellow African-Americans in particular. And so he came up with “A Change Is Gonna Come,” which he based on his own experiences with racial discrimination and segregation. Although it became a modest hit when it was released in late 1964, as years passed it has become one of the greatest anthems to come out of the civil rights struggle. It contains the refrain, “It’s been a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come.”

Cooke’s death and legacy

But Cooke would never live to see such change, sadly. On December 11, 1964, Cooke was found dead inside a seedy Los Angeles motel. According to the popular account surrounding Cooke’s death, he had an altercation with a woman guest and a female manager. The manager then fatally shot Cooke who allegedly attempted to attack her (the manager later claimed the shooting as her act of self-defense). However, circumstances surrounding his death remains in dispute.

Although Cooke died, his reputation and legacy otherwise survived. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 1986, and there have been several releases since, that feature the legendary soul artist’s work.

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