Black Music Month: Sam Cooke

June is Black Music Month and WERS at Night will recognize black musicians, composers, singers, and songwriters who have made enormous contributions to the music industry. Today, June 9th, Secret Spot is highlighting Sam Cooke.

Samuel Cook was born January 22nd, 1931 in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He was born into a family of seven siblings and was the son of a traveling Baptist minister. Cooke would often watch his father deliver sermons with lively emotion and quickly became influenced by gospel music and culture. His religious background streamlined his passion for expressive music, which made him the King of Soul.

In high school Cooke started a gospel-singing group with his siblings called “The Singing Children.” By the age of fifteen, he was the lead singer of a different teenage gospel group called the Highway QCs. Cooke adopted the animated movements, fainting acts, and swinging practiced by gospel choirs as his own techniques.

In 1950, Cooke auditioned to be a member of the Soul Stirrers and was immediately accepted. The Soul Stirrers were known for pioneering two-lead singing, which enhanced the emotional impact for audience members. Cooke became a teen-gospel sensation for his good looks, incredible voice, and talented songwriting.

Already an idol in the gospel community, he decided to make the crossover from gospel to mainstream pop music. In 1956, he released his first pop single “Lovable” under the alias Dale Cook, because he feared losing his gospel fans. However, his plan failed when his listeners could easily distinguish Cooke’s unique voice and charming rhythm.

In June 1957, Cooke was signed onto Keen Records. He recorded with producer Bumps Blackwell and released “You Send Me”, a hit song that sold over a million copies.

One year later, RCA Records, the mother of Sony Music Entertainment, signed him. Their vision was to market Cooke as the African-American Elvis Presley. His second single, “Chain Gang”, became the turning point of his music career. Every single released after that became an instant hit even after his death. His singles “Another Saturday Night”, “Twisting the Night Away”, and “Cupid” made billions in record sales. In 1961, Cooke decided to set-up his own venture and founded SAR Records. That same year he started up his own publishing and management firm.

Cooke toured all around the United States, England, and army bases in Germany. During the tours, he would find himself battling Jackie Wilson or Little Richard on stage every night. Little Richard, who incorporated gospel music into his concerts, inspired Cooke to do the same. In 1963, he performed at the Harlem Square Club in Miami. At the show Cooke talked to audience members, sang praises, and even got the crowd to cry out rejoices along with him. RCA records never released the album he recorded that night, for fear that it would alienate his Caucasian fan base. It took twenty-two years for the show and album to be released to the public.

Cooke got married to long-time girlfriend Barbara Campbell, whom he met while he was in Chicago. They had three children together; Tracey, Linda, and Vincent. Vincent was just eighteen months old when he wandered out of his mother’s supervision and drowned in their front yard pool. Cooke was performing on the road when the loss occurred and he fell into a deep depression. He blamed his wife for their son’s death and the marriage began deteriorating. Cooke would find any excuse to perform out-of-town to avoid the pain.

In 1964, influenced by segregation in the south and Bob Dylan lyrics, Cooke wrote what is now known as one of his greatest songs, “A Change Is Gonna Come”. He debuted the song on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and it instantly became a civil rights movement classic. Between 1957 and 1964, Cooke had twenty-nine top-40 hits in the U.S. Like most other R&B artists he focused on singles and discovered that he had more R&B chart-toppers than any other genre.

Cooke died on December 11, 1964, at the age of thirty-three. After a night out with friends, he took a woman named Lisa Boyer back to the Hacienda Motel in Los Angeles, California. Boyer stole his wallet and clothes, causing Cooke to get angry and rush down to see the manager in the lobby. The manager felt intimidated by his presence and shot Cooke three times.

Cooke’s career and invention of soul music inspired other artists such as Aretha Franklin, Bobby Womack, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. Groups like the Supremes, the Rolling Stones, Otis Redding, and Rod Stewart have all done covers of Cooke’s songs. In 1999, Cooke received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

By Stefanie Guarino

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