Born Sam Cook in Clarksdale, MS, on January 22, 1931, one of eight children of a Baptist minister and his wife. Sam Cooke was the most important soul singer in history — he was also the inventor of soul music, and its most popular and beloved performer in both the black and white communities. Equally important, he was among the first modern black performers and composers to attend to the business side of the music business, and founded both a record label and a publishing company as an extension of his careers as a singer and composer.
Even as a young boy, he showed an extraordinary voice and frequently sang in the choir in his father’s church. During the middle of the decade, the Cook family moved to Chicago’s South Side, where the Reverend Charles Cook quickly established himself as a major figure in the religious community. Sam and three of his siblings also formed a group of their own, the Singing Children, in the 1930’s. Although his own singing was confined to gospel music, he was aware and appreciative of the popular music of the period, particularly the melodious, harmony-based sounds of the Ink Spots, whose influence could later be heard in songs such as “You Send Me” and “For Sentimental Reasons.” As a teenager, he was a member of the Teen Highway QCs, a gospel group that performed in churches and at religious gatherings. His membership in that group led to his introduction to the Soul Stirrers, one of the top gospel groups in the country, and in 1950 he joined them.
Cooke replaced gospel tenor R. H. Harris as lead singer of the gospel group the Soul Stirrers, founded by Harris, who had signed with Specialty Records on behalf of the group. Their first recording under Cooke’s leadership was the song “Jesus Gave Me Water” in 1951. They also recorded the gospel songs “Peace in the Valley”, “How Far Am I from Canaan?”, “Jesus Paid the Debt” and “One More River”, among many others, some of which he wrote. Cooke was often credited for bringing gospel music to the attention of a younger crowd of listeners, mainly girls who would rush to the stage when the Soul Stirrers hit the stage just to get a glimpse of Cooke.
Sam Cooke tested the waters of popular music in 1956 with the single “Lovable,” produced by Bumps Blackwell and credited under the name Dale Cooke so as not to attract too much attention from his existing audience. It was enough, however, to get Cooke dropped by the Soul Stirrers and their record label, but that freed him to record under his real name. The result was one of the biggest selling singles of the 1950’s, a Cooke original entitled “You Send Me,” which sold over two million copies on the tiny Keen Records label and hit number one on both the pop and R&B charts. Although it seems like a tame record today, “You Send Me” was a pioneering soul record in its time, melding elements of R&B, gospel, and pop into a sound that was new and still coalescing at the time.
Sam Cooke recorded with Keen for the next two years, a period in which he delivered up some of the prettiest romantic ballads and teen pop singles of the era, including “For Sentimental Reasons,” “Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha,” “Only Sixteen,” and “(What A) Wonderful World.” These were extraordinarily beautiful records, and in between the singles came some early album efforts, most notably Tribute to the Lady, his album of songs associated with Billie Holiday. He was unhappy, however, with both the business arrangement that he had with Keen and the limitations inherent with recording for a small label — equally to the point, major labels were knocking on Cooke’s door, including Atlantic and RCA Records; Atlantic, which was not yet the international conglomerate that it later became, was the top R&B-oriented label in the country and Cooke almost certainly would have signed there and found a happy home with the company, except that they wanted his publishing, and Cooke had seen the sales figures on his songs, as well as their popularity in cover versions by other artists, and was well aware of the importance of owning his copyrights.
In 1961, Cooke started his own record label, SAR Records, with J. W. Alexander and his manager, Roy Crain. The label soon included the Simms Twins, the Valentinos (who were Bobby Womack and his brothers), Bobby Womack and Johnnie Taylor. Cooke then created a publishing imprint and management firm named Kags before leaving Keen to sign with RCA Victor. One of his first RCA Victor singles was “Chain Gang”, which reached No. 2 on the Billboard pop chart. It was followed by more hits, including “Sad Mood”, “Cupid”, “Bring It On Home to Me” (with Lou Rawls on backing vocals), “Another Saturday Night”, and “Twistin’ the Night Away”.
Like most R&B artists of his time, Cooke focused on singles; in all, he had 29 top 40 hits on the pop charts and more on the R&B charts. He was a prolific songwriter and wrote most of the songs he recorded. He also had a hand in overseeing some of the song arrangements. In spite of releasing mostly singles, he released a well-received blues-inflected LP in 1963, Night Beat, and his most critically acclaimed studio album, Ain’t That Good News, which featured five singles, in 1964
Early in the day on December 11, 1964, while in Los Angeles, Cooke became involved in an altercation at a seedy motel, with a woman guest and the night manager, and was shot to death while allegedly trying to attack the manager. The case is still shrouded in doubt and mystery, and was never investigated the way the murder of a star of his stature would be today. Cooke’s death shocked the black community and reverberated far beyond — his single “Shake” was a posthumous Top Ten hit, as were “A Change Is Gonna Come” and the At the Copa album, released in 1965.
The mystery surrounding Cooke’s death has done nothing to damage the strength of his legacy. “A Change Is Gonna Come” (1965) remains his signature song, an anthem of hope and boundless optimism that expresses the genius of his poetry and sweetness of his soul. Cooke was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 and was a 1999 recipient of the Grammy Award for lifetime achievement.