Sam Cooke was a great many things; a pioneer, a civil rights activist, a successful businessman, and an unmatched singer of such legendary proportions that even fifty years later, singers of all degrees of fame and listeners of music alike still look upon his songs with absolute reverence. The man known as “Mister Soul” defined a new generation of music, combining the warm, rich history of gospel with the raw emotion of the blues to create a music that still reverberates — perhaps now as much as ever.
Today, December 11th, marks fifty years to the day that Cooke tragically passed away far before his time — under unusual circumstances that are still mired in some degree of controversy. What Cooke managed to accomplish in just 33 years, however, is truly legendary and paints the picture of a man born destined for greatness.
The Clarksdale, Mississippi native got his start singing in the church, and at 19, after singing with several small groups, began his professional career with The Soul Stirrers, one of the most celebrated gospel groups to exist (and one that continues to this day). Sam was quickly a hit, popularizing gospel for a new audience — but the handsome 5’10” singer was too big for the gospel circuit and he knew it. In 1957, he released “You Send Me”, which immediately shot to #1 on both the Pop and R&B charts. But unlike many of the musicians and norms of the time, Sam firmly took control of his own career, forming a record label and publishing company so that his works would remain under his own control. It turned out to be a move filled with foresight: the hits kept rolling in for Cooke, one after the next. Meanwhile, his label signed future stars like Johnnie Taylor and Bobby Womack.
Cooke’s amazingly powerful, silky and stirring vocals were unlike anything else before or since; his charisma captivated the world. He pumped out hit after hit, “Chain Gang”, “Cupid”, “Bring it on Home To Me”, and many more that even half a century after his death continue to remain staples on radio playlists across the world — a firm sign of the rarified timeless nature of his work.
Cooke’s live performances were nothing short of legend; The hit 2001 movie Ali, starring Will Smith, even opened with a complete recreation of Cooke’s live performance of “Bring it on Home To Me,” taken from one of the most powerful posthumous releases in recorded history: Sam Cooke: Live at the Harlem Square Club, released in 1985 by RCA Records. The album gratefully comes complete full crowd noise; screaming, raucious, absolutely captivated fans. For his part, Cooke effortlessly and flawlessly controls the crowd with his very presence. A year and a month before The Beatles famously touched down, the women in Live shrieked at the top of their lungs, almost to the point of fainting when Sam hits the magical opening notes to his most well-known hits. The men hollered and sang along with the lines. The party at the Harlem Square Club on the night of January 12th, 1963 was euphoric and loud, excited and elated. Nobody had experienced a performance (or a performer) like this, and it’s never more obvious than in the grooves of the album that, despite being released two decades after his passing and three decades ago, continues to be placed at the top of any self-respecting “best of live albums” list.
On the evening of December 11th, 1964, Cooke left a bar, famously frequented by the Rat Pack, on the Santa Monica Blvd in L.A. with a woman he’d met earlier in the night. Driving his late-model Ferrari, a heavily drunk Cooke and the young, self-described aspiring model went to the Motel Hacienda in L.A.’s gritty south central neighborhood. Why he chose that motel over the many others that were closer is a fact lost with the death of Sam Cooke. While the many circumstances surrounding Cooke’s death have been called into question in the years afterwards, the simple facts remain: the girl took Cooke’s clothes and wallet and left while he was in the shower. A drunken, furious, and naked Cooke stormed downstairs, wearing nothing but a suit jacket, to the front desk clerk that he’d checked in with earlier in the night, demanding to know where the woman went. The front desk clerk grabbed the pistol she’d kept below the desk and shot the greatest soul singer in history to death. She later attempted to sue the Cooke estate for $200,000. The world mourned his stunning passing, with tens of thousands of visitors coming to pay respects. Ray Charles sang at his funeral.
Eleven days after his killing, Cook bestowed upon the world arguably the most powerful Civil Rights song ever put to music: “A Change is Gonna Come”. Cooke, influenced strongly by Bob Dylan’s recent “Blowin’ In The Wind”, felt that he was in a position to write a song that reflected the frustration and marginalization of black culture in America. Even a major music star, Cooke experienced the ugly forces of racism himself while touring. “Change” was not a pop hit like many of Cooke’s previous releases, nor did it need to be. Released as a B-side single, the song reflected the feeling of an entire nation, captivating the emotions and fears felt by so many. The powerful arrangement, including a string orchestra and french horn, along with Cooke’s pleading, mournful vocals forged a timeless masterpiece — as powerful decades later as it was upon it’s release December 22nd, 1964.
Though fifty years have passed since Cooke’s shocking death, the music he crafted and the legacy he built remains a powerful cultural staple. Cooke’s life was filled with a rare destiny, creating music with an extraordinarily unusual staying power that reflected the true genius of “the man with the voice”. While he was given few years, Cooke accomplished such greatness that he can still capture the imaginations and fascinations of every generation.