By Nora Onanian, Web Services Coordinator
In celebration of Black History Month, we are excited to bring back our Vault of Soul series. Step inside the vault to discover the life and legacy of some of the world's greatest soul artists, both past and present. Starting today, every Thursday of February there will be a new artist spotlighted. This week, we're unpacking the incredible life and career of Sam Cooke.
Sam Cooke, “The King of Soul” himself, was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi on January 22nd, 1931. He was one of eight children and the son of a Baptist minister. Cooke became involved with music when he was just six years old, forming a group with his siblings and singing in the choir of his dad’s church. His vocal talent was recognized from a young age, and at 16 he was leading Highway QC’s gospel group.
GOING BEYOND HIS GOSPEL ROOTS
In 1950, Cooke joined the popular group the Soul Stirrers after his family had relocated to Chicago. Touring and recording with the Soul Stirrers, he became a star in the gospel genre. But after six years, Cooke attempted something few had done before — he decided to traverse from gospel to a more commercially popular style as an individual artist.
The move paid off; in just eight years, Cooke had an impressive repertoire of 29 singles that reached Billboard’s Top 40. His unique musical style made waves, drawing in elements of his gospel roots and also reaching out into genres like rhythm and blues and pop. His vocals, seemingly, were up for any range or tonality, and his music connected with people in unexpected ways, whether love songs like “(What a) Wonderful World” or anthems that were incorporated into the heart of the Civil Rights Movement like “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
A LASTING LEGACY
On December 11th, 1964, Sam Cooke’s life was cut short when he was shot at a hotel in Los Angeles under mysterious circumstances. He was just 33 and left behind his wife, Barbara Campbell, their three children, and at least three other children he had outside of that marriage.
While cut short, Sam Cooke’s music career was one of the most influential of all time. Today, Cooke is regarded as a pioneer of soul and is credited for shaping elements in genres ranging from rock and roll to pop.
Cooke’s influence also expanded beyond music. He made history as the first major Black artist to sign to RCA Records, and not so happy with the label’s conditions, jumped on the opportunity to start his own label (SRA) and music publishing company (Sags). These powerful business moves gave him the copyright ownership of his works and were markers of his tenacity. Cooke was also an activist in the Civil Rights Movement. His refusal to sing at a segregated concert in 1959 was an important moment of civil disobedience and through some of his music, he found an outlet for voicing against struggles and supporting social change.
WHO INFLUENCED SAM COOKE
Sam Cooke has called his fellow Soul Stirrers groupmate R.H. Harris his “major stylistic influence.” Another artist Cooke openly cited as an influence was Bob Dylan. He heard Dylan’s song “Blowin’ In the Wind,” released in 1963, and was impressed at Dylan’s lyricism and ability to sing poignantly about social change as someone who wasn’t a person of color. It was only a few months later that Cooke was inspired to write the powerful hit “A Change Is Gonna Come,” which went on to become an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement.
WHO SAM COOKE INFLUENCED
It is not an overstatement to say that Sam Cooke influenced just about everyone making music during his time and after. When he left the Soul Stirrers, Cooke was notably one of the first to cross the bridge from gospel into a more commercially popular, secular style of music. He inspired countless artists to make a similar move.
The unique music style that he then entered the scene with took the world by storm. Cooke is credited for bringing gospel influences to rock and roll and became known as a pioneer of soul music.
Cooke’s music career is cited for paving the way for artists like Otis Redding; Michael Jackson; Marvin Gaye; Aretha Franklin, who toured with him when she was just 19; John Legend, who references his name in the song “I Can Change,” and countless more.
HONORS & AWARDS
- Nominated for Best Rhythm & Blues Recording (Grammys; 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966)
- Nominated for Best Rock & Roll Recording (Grammys; 1963, 1964)
- Inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1986 individually; 1989 as part of the Soul Stirrers)
- Inducted into Songwriters Hall of Fame (1987)
- Honored with a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (1994)
- Lifetime Achievement Award (Grammys, 1999)
- Inducted into Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame (2013)
“(WHAT A) WONDERFUL WORLD” (1960)
Not to be confused with the Louis Armstrong hit “What A Wonderful World,” this Sam Cooke song is a forever-favorite. A funk groove underlies the instrumentation, and everything from the guitar to Cooke’s vocals radiate warmth. These components make the love song timeless, bouncy and feel-good.
“(What a) Wonderful World” was attributed to the pen name “Barbara Campbell,” who was Cooke’s wife, the two high school sweethearts. In reality, it was a three-person team that worked to create the song. Record producers Lou Adler and Herb Alpert composed its earliest version, and it was Cooke who directed the lyrics to incorporate more references to school.
Throughout the single, Cooke expresses his deep affection. “Don’t know much about history” the lyrics start, listing out areas of knowledge he claims to lack. And then by contrast, through each chorus, he affirms the feelings he has for his love. “But I do know that I love you,” he declares. And later, “if this one could be with you, what a wonderful world this would be.”
With its incredibly sweet message and catchy sound, it’s no surprise that “(What a) Wonderful World” was a huge success for Cooke. The single neared the top of Billboard music charts, made its way into commercials and movies like Animal House, inspired many covers, and continues to be treasured by millions.
“BRING IT ON HOME TO ME” (1962)
It’s hard to believe this Cooke song was originally a B-side. “Bring It On Home To Me” was released alongside “Having a Party,” with both songs breaking onto charts. The track has a beautiful blues-inspired piano introduction and backing throughout. Cooke’s vocals slip in effortlessly, backed by singing from collaborator Lou Rawl. The two lament about losing a girl and wanting to win her back by whatever means necessary. “I'll give you jewelry and money, too. That ain't all, that ain't all I'll do for you” he sings, begging that she bring her “sweet loving” home.
Some call “Bring It On Home To Me” Cooke’s first serious nod to his gospel roots during his individual career. Cooke and Rawl sing in a manner reminiscent of call-and-response and there is a detectable resemblance to the sound of the Soul Stirrers, the gospel band Cooke was a part of for six years. Additionally, the track was made as a reworking of Charles Brown’s single “I Want to Go Home,” which had more overtly religious lyrics.
“Bring It On Home To Me” made a list of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. It’s just one of many recognitions Cooke has received for his extremely influential career.
“A CHANGE IS GONNA COME” (1964)
Listening to “A Change Is Gonna Come,” it is clear that Sam Cooke poured his heart and soul into every step, from the gripping lyrics to his emotional delivery. On every level, the composition is brilliant. It was arranged by René Hall and in total involved 30 artists' contributions to come to life. At different moments in the song, the strings, horns, and drums each get a unique chance to shine. And working together throughout, they form a beautiful instrumental backing and progression. The french horn, in particular, was used to set a more somber tone.
As much power as is held by the sound is also held by the lyrics. Cooke channeled his life and dreams into the song, in the end creating something that spoke to the Black experience so much that it was incorporated into the heart of the Civil Rights Movement.
“It's been a long, a long time coming,” he sings in the song, speaking to the struggles he and so many were tired of facing. “But I know a change gonna come. Oh, yes it will,” he finishes each time, a sense of hope prevailing. Unfortunately, Cooke did not get to see the impact of “A Change Is Gonna Come” as it was not released until December 22nd, 1964; two weeks after his untimely death.
In 2007, the song was selected to be preserved in the Library of Congress, an honor given to songs that are “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important.” It is clear that Cooke’s song checks all three of those boxes. While not his biggest hit numbers-wise, “A Change Is Gonna Come” is widely regarded as Sam Cooke’s best. Ultimately, it serves as a beautiful encapsulation of his spirit and legacy.
You can revisit past Vault of Soul articles here, featuring artists such as James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, and more.
Interested in exploring the Soul genre beyond the vault? Be sure to tune into 88.9 every night between 10 pm and 2 am for The Secret Spot. Let host D Danubian wind you up and simmer you down with a blend of R&B, Soul, and Slow Jams.
Also, be sure to check out ERS+, our new HD radio experience. Take a deep dive into R&B and Hip Hop with the legendary voices of Soul alongside new and pioneering MCs. Find ERS+: Boston’s Black Experience online at WERSPlus.Org