Home Story, Biography of Sam Cooke, 1931-1957
Sam Cooke was born Samuel Cook on January 22, 1931 in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He is not the only music-great to be born there since it was also the birth- and/or hometown of Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Ike Turner. Legend has it that it was here that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads, therefore it is seen as the home of the (delta)-blues.
Sam’s father was Charles Cook Sr., a Baptist minister and his mother Annie May Cook. Besides Sam 7 other brothers and sisters were born. Charles was a travelling minister in the Church of God, a section of the Baptist faith started around 1900 that was less traditional. Instead of just delivering a sermon he delivered in an emotional way, with the help of gospel music and singing. Elements that came back in the 1950’s in soul music were the fainting by the singer, the swinging and the call-and-response technique.
The family moved to Chicago in 1933 in search for better economic opportunities. They lived in a section of South-Chicago called Bronzeville. There Charles kept preaching all over the city, sometimes with the help of his offspring.
During high school Sam and his siblings Charles, L.C., Mary and Hattie formed the gospel-singing group “The Singing Children”, who often opened up for their father. But besides singing gospel he, with his friend Lou Rawls, also sang secular songs. His biggest influence on his singing was RH Harris of the Soul Stirrers. Sam often copied his ‘whoa’ yodel.
When Sam was 15 years he became the front man of a bigger teenage gospel group called the “Highway QC’s” where R.B. Robinson, bariton-singer of the Soul Stirrers, trained him. With the QC’s he travelled on the gospel circuit and performed on some radio shows.
When the Soul Stirrers’ R.H. Harris left the group because he was sick of the business, a very young Sam Cook was asked to replace him. He did one audition and was a member of the Soul Stirrers right away. This all happened in 1950 when he was only 19 years old.
The group was formed in Houston when SR Crain joined a gospel group under the condition that their name was changed into the Soul Stirrers. R.H. Harris was already a member of that group.
Even though they were called a quartet the Soul Stirrers had five member. They introduced the revolutionary two-lead singing, giving the quartet more emotional impact. They also left more room for individuality by the singers and not the old style, rigid spiritual singing. In the 1930 they were recorded by Alan Lomax for the Smithsonian. The Soul Stirrers moved to Chicago where they had their own weekly show. R.H. Harris left the group but soon formed other quartets, with his Gospel Paraders he later recorded for Sam’s own SAR Records
From their first record ‘Jesus Gave Me Water’ Sam Cook became an icon in the gospel field, almost a teen-idol. But besides his good looks he was a very good singer and also a prolific songwriter.
In 1957 his, as he himself called it, financial situation, caused him to explore the possibility of crossing over and sing popular music. He released one single on Specialty under the name Dale Cook. It was a rewrite of the Soul Stirrers ‘Wonderful’ called ‘Lovable’. The song was exactly the same, only the words were different. For a while he tried to make people believe Dale was his brother but his voice was too recognizable.
Sam's Pop Music Days and Death.
There was no way he could combine singing in both the gospel- and secular music scene so he decided to quit singing with the Soul Stirrers. Main reason was that he could make more money for himself in the popular field. Although crossing over was seen as a sin by some he did not have any major problems because of it. A few years later he signed them to his own SAR label.
Sam only recorded a few singles for Specialty and in June 1957 he signed for Keen. He also took producer Bumps Blackwell with them. The duo started recording and they struck gold with “You Send Me” which sold more than a million and a half copies. Other hits were “Everybody Loves To Cha Cha Cha”, “Only Sixteen” and “Wonderful World”.
He also tried to break through in the nightclub world with a performance at the Copa club in New York City. This failed, or as he said it he “bombed”. It's rumored he may have also thought of performing at Las Vegas hotels on the strip, but that never happened.
On a more personal front, during his years at Keen he also married his long time sweetheart from Chicago, Barbara Campbell. With her he had three children, Tracey and Linda. Their son Vincent died tragically in their swimming pool at the age of three.
In 1960 Sam was signed by RCA. They wanted him to become the black counterpart of Elvis Presley. Saleswise he did just that. His first single on RCA was ‘Teenage Sonata’, which didn’t show his greatness. When he recorded his own ‘Chain Gang’ things started rolling. After that every single he released on RCA was a hit, even after his death. Hits like ‘Cupid’, ‘Another Saturday Night’ and ‘Twistin’ the Night Away’ are known to many up to this day.
He toured extensively around the United States but also in England and on army bases in Germany. On these tours he had to battle either Jackie Wilson or Little Richard every night. Richard’s gospel driven shows made Sam realize that he could bring even more gospel into his music. In January of 1963 he recorded a show in the Harlem Square Club in Miami. It was to be a gospel show with secular songs. Sam talked to the audience, made him answer his calls and got them so much into a groove that they almost exploded. Unfortunately RCA thought it was too risky to release the album, afraid the white audience would turn away. It would take more than 22 years before we could hear this show, showing a new face of this great singer. He also returned to the Copa, this time it was a great success, in part because of the gospel elements he brought into his show. He also sang ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’.
1964 was the last year of his life, but it was a year in which a lot happened. Inspired by Bob Dylan and events in the South surrounding segregation Sam wrote his greatest composition ever: “A Change Is Gonna Come” which he sang on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. The song only ended up on an album side but became a civil rights classic. He performed it only a few times.
After having dinner with friends one night he and a girl went to a motel. The girl, Lisa Boyer, went off with his money and clothes. When Sam rushed to the manager he was angry because he was robbed. The manager, Bertha Franklin, felt intimidated and shot him three times. His last words were: “Lady, you shot me!”
His funeral was attended by thousands of people and almost got out of hand. Lou Rawls, Bobby Blue Band and Ray Charles all performed at the funeral. Many in the black community felt that he was killed on purpose because he was a black and independent man.
The real reasons and backgrounds for his death remain a mystery up to this day. It has never been fully investigated.
The Legacy of Sam Cooke
“All I ever wanted to be was Sam Cooke” is a quote from Otis Redding. In his even shorter life Otis recorded many songs written by Sam like ‘Cupid’, ‘Chain Gang’, ‘Shake’ and ‘A Change is Gonna Come’.
Pretty much every (soul) singer in the 60’s and 70’s was influenced by him in some way. Rod Stewart has recorded many of Cooke’s songs.
Great groups like the Rolling Stones (‘Good Times’) and the Animals (‘Bring It On Home To Me’) recorded his songs which made the charts. The list of all the covers is too long to mention so please look at the individual songpages for more info on that.
When the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was founded in 1986 he was first of only ten inductees. A year later he also made the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame.
The 21st century brought some new releases like a 4 CD box, new compilations (the first really good ones since 1986’s ‘The Man And His Music’) and a 3 CD box containing all his Soul Stirrers work.
On screen, his Harlem Square Club act was included in the opening scene of ‘Ali’ and VH1 showed a one hour documentary called ‘Legend’ which was later released on DVD. The British BBC devoted one episode of their six-part ‘Soul Deep’ series on soul music on him.
His music seems to be in a little revival when we look at the new CD’s, the remastering of older albums and with the release of a new biography called ‘Dream Boogie’ by Peter Guralnick, who then went on radio and tv to talk about Sam and his music.
Let’s hope this will continue for a long time.
Links to other biographies