On December 11, the 50th anniversary of his senseless death, let’s remember Sam Cooke as the greatest soul musician who ever lived.
When Sam Cooke heard “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan in the summer of 1963, it was as if a whole new world of expression opened up. Cooke not only heard sweet poetry in the call for deliverance from struggle, he foresaw a shuffling of the status quo. The era of the individual was on the way. There was only one drawback: A proud man in a segregated society, who had recently been arrested for trying to check into a “whites only” motel in Shreveport, La., Cooke thought he should’ve written “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
So he sat down to pen his own anthem of the times. “I was born by the river, in a little tent/And just like the river I’ve been running ever since,” Cooke wrote, hearing a symphony in his mind. “It’s been a long time comin’ but I know a change is gonna come.” He knew that when he sang those words, he’d stretch and emphasize “lo-o-o-ng” with his velvety vibrato. “A Change Is Gonna Come” went on to become a civil rights standard and the theme song for the 2008 Barack Obama campaign. The song traced a growth in artistic vision for a singer who brought gospel spirit to the mainstream with such hits as “You Send Me,” “Wonderful World,” “Chain Gang,” “Cupid” and “Twistin’ the Night Away.”
In the summer of ’63, Cooke, already the first R&B singer to write and publish his own hits, ached to make music that reflected the new day. The preacher’s son, who was born in Mississippi and grew up in Chicago, was going to the mountaintop with his songs. But then unspeakable tragedy came, first when his only son, 18-month-old Vincent, drowned in the family swimming pool in July ’63. Cooke told friends that he didn’t want to go on living, and he buried himself in his work. At the end of the next year, 33-year-old Cooke would also be dead, half-naked and bleeding on the floor of the lobby of the seedy Hacienda Motel in Los Angeles. “Lady, you shot me,” were his last words.
Sam Cooke wanted to be the perfect person, according to his former manager Allen Klein. “He wanted to reach any group. He wanted to sing it any way. He wanted to be everything,” Klein said in the “VH1 Legends” episode devoted to the first gospel superstar to switch to the R&B/pop field. For one who epitomized grace, from his smooth phrasing to his flawless looks, Cooke died an especially hideous death. Although details remain murky because there had only been a cursory investigation, biographers generally concur that Cooke had checked into the #6 a night motel the night of Dec. 11, 1964, with a 22-year-old woman he’d just met. While he was taking a shower, she reportedly split with his pants and money. Enraged and thinking night manager Bertha Franklin might’ve been in on the fleece, Cooke charged her office with his eyes aflame. Franklin claimed self-defense after Cooke lunged at the gun she was pointing, and she was never charged.
The black community, some whom refused to accept the official police report, solidified in grief. A memorial service in Chicago brought more than 15,000 mourners out on a below-zero day. At the burial in Los Angeles two days later Ray Charles sang “May the Angels Watch Over You” to a hysterical audience. The realization that Sam Cooke would never sing or write another song was devastating.
Before a 19-year-old Sam Cooke replaced his idol R.H. Harris in the Soul Stirrers in 1950, the older people sat in the front of the church and the teen-agers sat in the back. Cooke’s extraordinary appeal reversed that. He was the biggest star in gospel when he moved on to secular music, which caused an uproar akin to a Chicago alderman going Republican. But at his funeral, the young and old sat together, the devout churchgoers recalling his sweet songs of Jesus and the younger fans thinking back on simple, soulful numbers that sprung out of the radio speakers like hope eternal. “He never lost the black audience, even after he’d crossed over to pop,” says rock historian Peter Guralnick, who wrote the exhaustive Cooke bio Dream Boogie. “His records always did as well, if not better, on the R&B charts.”
A man with a unquenchable desire to build, create and control, Cooke wanted white fans as well as black. Like Nat King Cole, a major influence, Cooke clearly enunciated his lyrics, perfected a smooth delivery and courted classy gigs. He hated failure, and the one time that happened in his career, when Cooke’s unrehearsed attempt at supper club soul bombed with the Myron Cohen crowd at the Copacabana, Cooke became obsessed with having a triumphant return. He went into training like his friend Muhammad Ali, who, as Cassius Clay, had Cooke in the ring with him after he “shook up the world” by beating Sonny Liston in ’64. When Cooke headlined the Copa a few months later, his show was a knockout.
As a boy he stuck popsicle sticks in the ground and sang to them, telling his brother he was learning how to perform in front of an audience. He vowed way back then to never have a job, but to be a singer instead. This drive spilled over, no, drenched, the business side. “No artist back in the ’50s had any idea what publishing mechanicals meant,” singer Lloyd Price (“Lawdy Miss Clawdy”) told VH1. “Whether or not you had a Cadillac and a silk suit — to us that was royalties and payment.” Calling Cooke a pioneer, Dick Clark said, “He knew the business long before he was supposed to.”
With former Pilgrim Travelers manager J.W. Alexander and S.R. Crain of the Soul Stirrers, Cooke established SAR Records in 1959. Though he was an RCA recording artist, Cooke produced albums for SAR, including releases by Johnnie Taylor and R.H. Harris and the Gospel Paraders. “There’s just no telling how far Sam Cooke would’ve gone,” Guralnick told me in 2002.,“He was a genius at transforming individual experiences into universal themes.”
Had he lived, Cooke looked on track to forge an urban concept album before Marvin Gaye wondered What’s Goin’ On or Stevie Wonder gave us Music of My Mind or Sly Stone declared There’s Riot Goin’ On. “Sam had a very exploratory mind,” Guralnick said. “He was always reading — everything from Aristotle to James Baldwin. He was always grasping for more knowledge because he wanted to expand the bounds of what he could be as a writer.” His elastic voice, which translated the sound of the men working on a chain gang into a soul masterpiece, was similarly ambitious.
There was a mini-Cooke revival in the ’70s when Rod Stewart and Southside Johnny both adopted Cooke numbers “Twistin’ the Night Away” and “Havin’ a Party,” respectively, as their signature encore numbers. Then in the late-’80s critics rediscovered “the man who invented soul” with the reissue of 1963’s scintillating Live at the Harlem Square Club.
The story of Sam Cooke is not just one of the man who had it all and lost it all on one miserably stupid night. It’s an ode to the power of the individual, a sonnet to an extraordinarily talented artist who was called back (as in a morality play from an old gospel song) before his work was done. The change came, but it’s still coming.