Sam Cooke was a trailblazing recording artist who helped shape the soul and pop scene with hits like “You Send Me,” “Chain Gang” and “Sad Mood.”
Sometimes called the father of soul music, singer Sam Cooke first reached the top of the charts in 1957 with “You Send Me.” A string of pop and R&B hits soon followed, but he actually started out as a gospel performer. Born Samuel Cook in Clarksdale, Mississippi, he grew up in Chicago as the son of a minister.
Cooke began performing with his family as a child. In his teens, he formed a quintet called the Highway QCs. Cooke modeled his early work after one of his greatest inspirations, the Soul Stirrers, a popular gospel group. Not long after graduating from high school in 1948, he got the chance of a lifetime: being asked to join the Soul Stirrers, which provided him with an opportunity to hone his craft.
After six years with the Soul Stirrers, Cooke began to branch out into secular music. He recorded his first single, 1957's “Lovable,” under the pseudonym “Dale Cooke.” Later that year, Cooke released his first number one hit, “You Send Me.” Music fans loved this ballad so much that it toppled Elvis’ “Jailhouse Rock” from the top of the charts. Before long he put his crystal-clear, velvet-smooth voice to work on such up-tempo tunes as “Only Sixteen” and “Everybody Loves To Cha Cha Cha.”
In addition to being a talented singer and songwriter, Cooke had business smarts. He established his own publishing company for his music in 1959 and negotiated an impressive contract with RCA in 1960. Not only did he get a substantial advance, but Cooke would also get ownership of his master recordings after 30 years.
Getting this was a remarkable feat for any recording artist at the time. He continued to be a pioneer behind the scenes, founding his own record label in the early 1960s. Working with other artists on his label, Cooke helped develop the careers of Bobby Womack and Billy Preston, among others.
More hits followed Cooke's move to RCA, including 1960's “Chain Gang.” Behind the song's catchy rhythm mimicking the sound of prisoners breaking rocks, the song also served as a social commentary by Cooke. He continued to win over fans with a variety of musical styles, from the 1960 ballad “Wonderful World” to the 1962 dance track “Twistin’ the Night Away.” In 1963, Cooke once again charted with his ode to loneliness, “Another Saturday Night.”
Tragic Death and Legacy
No one knows for certain what exactly happened in the early hours of December 11, 1964. Cooke had been out the night before, reportedly drinking at a Los Angeles bar where he met a woman named Elisa Boyer. The pair hit it off and eventually ended up at the Hacienda Motel.
There the couple had some type of altercation in their room, and Cooke then ended up in the motel's office. He reportedly clashed with the motel's manager, and the manager shot Cooke. Cooke died from his injury, which the manager claimed was inflicted in self-defense. It was later ruled justifiable homicide.
Thousands turned out to mourn the legendary singer. Ray Charles and Lou Rawls sang at his funeral in Los Angeles, and another service was held in his former hometown, Chicago. The year after his death, Cooke's record company released his song “A Change Is Gonna Come.” He wrote this civil rights anthem in response to Bob Dylan's “Blowin’ in the Wind.” It was perhaps his most pointedly political song.
No matter the circumstances of his passing, Cooke left behind a tremendous musical legacy. It only takes a listen to recordings of his live shows, such as his 1963 performance at Miami's Harlem Square Club, to recognize his contributions to soul music. And as a pop icon, Cooke has endured through his songs. Otis Redding and Al Green are among the artists who have covered his work. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.
January 22, 1931
December 11, 1964
- Cooke released his first pop single, “Lovable,” in 1956. “Lovable” was released under the name “Dale Cooke,” as Cooke feared a backlash from Gospel fans who did not look fondly upon Gospel singers recording secular songs. However, Cooke's unique vocal style gave him away, and he was soon dropped by both the Soul Stirrers and their record label, Specialty.
- Cooke was one of many R&B acts to tour extensively on the “chitlin’ circuit,” the name given to segregated clubs and venues that were friendly to African-American musicians during the segregated years of the 1950s-1960s. Cooke participated in a number of package tours of the chitlin’ circuit, touring with artists such as Jackie Wilson, LaVern Baker, Clyde McPhatter, and Garnet Mimms.
- Cooke was one of the first African-American artists to truly cross over onto the Pop charts and resonate with white audiences. Cooke cultivated his crossover success, opening up venues to African-American artists that had largely been denied them. His performance at New York's Copa club in 1964 was a triumph: he won over the mostly white audience, and the resulting live album, Sam Cooke at the Copa, was a huge success.
- Despite his desire to appeal to white audiences, Cooke embraced the civil rights movement, recording Bob Dylan's “Blowin’ In The Wind” soon after it was released. According to his biographer Daniel Wolff, Cooke composed and recorded “A Change Is Gonna Come” as a response to “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and in doing wrote what is often referred to as the definitive song of the civil rights movement.
- Cooke's funeral was held in Chicago at A.R Leak Funeral Home. Thousands of fans lined up over four city blocks for his viewing. Cooke was buried at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.