Who was Sam Cooke? Sam Cooke was myriads upon myriads. Sam Cooke was the King of Soul. Sam Cooke was the inventor of soul music. Sam Cooke was the Black Elvis. Sam Cooke was a founding inductee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The world would say to Sam Cooke, “Honey, you can’t be beat!” Who was Sam Cooke? He was everything.
Sam Cooke was a devout man, a top-notch gospel singer. The fifth of eight children of a Baptist minister and his wife, he was a lead singer in a gospel group by the age of 14, and was the lead singer of the Soul Stirrers – one of the biggest gospel groups in America – by 1950. Yet popular music at the time was often considered a sin – abhorrent to the Lord, to be avoided by any devout Christians, especially by gospel singers.
Sam Cooke was a rule-breaker. Sam didn’t want to be bound to solely perform gospel music for all his life. In 1956 he released the pop song ‘Lovable’ under the pseudonym “Dale Cook” to “test the waters.” But his voice was so recognizable that a pseudonym wasn’t enough to satisfy the Soul Stirrers. He found himself without a label.
Sam Cooke was a tenacious man. He found a new label, the independent “black music” label Keen Records, and released a new song under his own name – ‘You Send Me’ – a number one hit on both the ‘black music’ R&B chart and the ‘mainstream’ pop chart, generally reserved for white musicians! Sam Cooke went on to chart with more hits like ‘You Were Made for Me’, ‘Only Sixteen,’ ‘Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha,’ and ‘Wonderful World’ (NOT the Louis Armstrong record, you racists. And comparing their vocal stylings is like comparing this with this). But there were limitations in working for a small label like Keen, and the mega-label RCA Records was knocking on his door. All of a sudden…
Sam Cooke was a star. He had resources he couldn’t have dreamed of at a smaller label. And like many great artists who gain access, he expanded his musical styles, from straight dance tunes like ‘Twistin’ the Night Away’, to bluesy laments like ‘Sad Mood’ or ‘Bring It on Home to Me’, to bouncy proto-Motown odes to girlfriends like ‘Sugar Dumpling’, to socially-conscious pop anthems like ‘Chain Gang’. But Cooke wanted to do more.
Sam Cooke was woke. As the civil rights movement was picking up steam in the early 60s, he amassed an unprecedented amount of control over his work and his finances, more than any black performer had ever had before. And as he “was particularly entranced by” Peter, Paul and Mary’s performance of Bob Dylan’s glorious protest song ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’ he decided to work on his masterpiece, a work called an “anthem of the civil rights era,” a fully orchestrated piece of genius on the level of Gershwin himself – ‘A Change is Gonna Come’. He was never to see it released.
Sam Cooke was murdered in a hotel in Los Angeles at age 33. The story behind it is confusing and full of holes. Some claim Cooke was abusing a woman named Elisa Boyer in his room, others claim Boyer was robbing him. Eyewitness accounts disagree about just about everything in the story, other than one thing – he ran out of his room in no pants and Bertha Franklin shot him in the heart. The case was closed far sooner than it should have been, and probably what actually happened in that hotel room will be a mystery forever.
But one thing we know is that Sam Cooke was a devout, rule-breaking, tenacious, talented, woke, musician, the likes of whom we will never see again. And considering the news, we should remember that no matter howlong the time has been coming, a change is gonna come, yes it will!