Many artists have contributed to the American soundtrack, but there is one artist that stands out when examining who helped to bridge the gap between soul and gospel music; that is none other than Sam Cooke.
A blend of spirituality and sensuality, sophistication, soulfulness with crossover appeal. Those are just some of the words used to describe singer Sam Cooke. He was a pretty boy with a voice that grabbed your attention no matter what he was singing. He first burst into the music scene at 15 years old as the lead singer for the gospel group the Highway QC’s.
Becoming Legendary Singer Sam Cooke
At 19, he joined the Soul Stirrers, but the need to be heard in the secular world started to eat at him. The group hit big with singles like “Jesus Gave me Water, “Nearer to Thee,” and “Touch the Hem of his Garment.”
Cooke recorded his first pop song “Lovable” under the alias Dale Cook so he wouldn’t ruffle feathers within the gospel community. At the height of The Soul Stirrer’s success, Sam walked away from gospel music.
One of his earliest secular recordings, “You Send Me” shot straight up to the top of the charts in 1957.
He went on to record songs like “Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha,” “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons”, and “Wonderful World” for Keen Records. In 1960, Cooke signed with RCA where he cranked out hits like “Chain Gang” “Cupid” “Another Saturday Night” and “Twistin’ the Night Away.”
Bringing a New Sound to the American Soundtrack
Cooke was able to bring the spirit of the church to popular music, marking an era of a new sound. Sam had a voice that could tackle every kind of song from ballads to light-hearted, finger popping dance grooves, to raspy rhythm & blues. From 1960 through 1965 Cooke remained a mainstay on the Top 40 charts.
Another thing that made Cooke stand out from his peers was his songwriting. Sam was one that honed in on the key to writing music that would transcend decades and eventually be dubbed as timeless. When I interviewed his brother brother L.C. Cooke for SoulTrain.com, he spoke about Sam’s uncanny ability to write timeless music. “It (music) was timeless. Sam read something every day. He would read and Sam would say as long as you read, you can stay current and you can always write. He would write about what’s going on today because yesterday was already gone. What made him such a good writer is the fact that he read a lot,” explained L.C.
African American Musician and Businessman
Sam Cooke was more than a performer and songwriter. He was a successful African American businessman operating within the confines of the mainstream music industry. He wrote and produced records for other singers, founded his own publishing company, Kags Music, as well as a management firm, and later launched the SAR record label, putting him in a class all of his own. He also helped to launch the careers of artists like his own brother L.C. Cooke, Billy Preston, Bobby Womack, Johnnie Taylor, and Lou Rawls by helping them cross over from gospel to secular music. Other artists such as James Brown sang his praises while chatting with American Bandstand’s Dick Clark, “What made brother Sam Cooke so special is he would stand flat footed and kill you with one song. If I had half the voice that Sam had, I would quit dancing.”
Sam was also an activist. Sam’s refusal to sing at segregated concerts led to what many have described as one of the first real efforts in civil disobedience and helped usher in the new Civil Rights Movement according to ABKCO.com.
As Sam’s star seemed to be shining brighter, in an instant, it was dimmed on December 11, 1964. Under mysterious circumstances, Cooke was shot to death at a Los Angeles motel, silencing him forever. Many questions still remain unanswered in Cooke’s death even today.
Remembering Sam Cooke
Sam Cooke may be gone, but his music lives on. RCA posthumously issued “A Change is Gonna Come” on the B side of the single “Shake.” It’s a song that is looked upon as one of the greatest singles of all time, and a song that takes Cooke back full circle to his gospel roots. It was Cooke’s answer to Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” It’s a song about faith and reckoning and became an anthem for those struggling and the injustices in the world. According to L.C. Cooke, “It’s a song of encouragement. Do you know over 160 people have recorded that song? It’s the most recorded song in history. Sam still has the best version.”
Sam Cooke’s career has been the blueprint for many artists that have come after him to follow, from artists like Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Al Green, Rod Stewart, R.Kelly, and many more.
Cooke’s reach goes beyond musical boundaries, his music has been featured in movies like Spike Lee’s film Malcolm X, and influenced President Obama’s 2008 victory speech. Sam Cooke was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. In 1999 he was honored with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
More than 50 years after his death, Sam Cooke remains a force to be reckoned with. The best way to sum up the career of a man that paved the way for so many is very simple, and L.C. Cooke said it best, “Sam was the King of Soul. Whether they were affected or not, everybody out here was influenced by Sam in some kind of way. Sam got that longevity. Once you hear his voice, you can’t help but just love it.”
African American History
By integrating history with technology, NMAAM is sharing the story of musical legends such as Sam Cooke. We want to educate the community and preserve into history the profound impact African Americans have had on the musical genres across the globe.