Samuel Cook or Sam Cooke (as he was professionally known) was one of the greatest American singers. He was also a song writer, recording artist and entrepreneur. He is famously remembered as the ‘King of Soul’ for his contribution to popular music and importance as a singer and composer within the genre. He was even credited as the ‘the inventor of soul music’ by AllMusic biographer Bruce Eder. He created a connection between soul and pop music, and boasted a diverse collection that entertained audiences belonging to varied ethnicities and cultures. He influenced other popular musicians like Aretha Franklin, Art Garfunkel, Rod Stewart, Bobby Womack, Curtis Mayfield, Al Green, Stevie Wonder, Billy Preston, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding and James Brown. He delivered around 30 hits in eight years and even after death, three of his posthumously released songs became immensely popular. Some of his hit songs are ‘Chain Gang’, ‘You Send Me’, ‘Cupid’, ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’, ‘Wonderful World’, and ‘Twistin' the Night Away’. He was one of the pioneers who explored the business prospect of a musical career and launched his own record label and publishing company. He also actively participated in the Civil Rights Movement. He died at a young age of 33 and there was a lot of mystery and speculation surrounding the circumstances of his death.
Childhood & Early Life
Samuel Cook was born on January 22, 1931, in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He was born to a Baptist minister, the Rev. Charles Cook and his wife, Annie Mae; He had seven brothers and sisters.
The family migrated to Chicago in 1933 where he attended Doolittle Elementary and later Wendell Phillips Academy High School. He began his musical career at the age of nine when he joined a group called ‘The Singing Children’ along with his siblings. At the age of 14 he became a lead singer with the ‘Highway QC’s’.
His early works were inspired by a popular gospel group called the ‘Soul Stirrers’. In 1950, he got an opportunity to join the very same group as their lead singer.
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Sam Cooke facilitated a deal between the Soul Stirrers and Specialty Records, recording his first song ‘Jesus Gave Me Water’, in 1951. Other gospel songs like ‘How Far Am I from Canaan?’, ‘Peace in the Valley’, ‘One More River’, ‘Jesus Paid the Debt’ etc. followed. He wrote most of these songs and captured the attention of young audiences.
He remained with Soul Stirrers for the next six years before exploring secular music. His first single, ‘Lovable’ (remake of the gospel song ‘Wonderful’) was released in 1957 under nom de plume ‘Dale Cooke’. Later in the same year, he signed a deal with Keen Records and released his first number one hit, ‘You Send Me’; the song was No. 1 on the Billboard R&B chart for six weeks. Around this time, he also sang ‘Only Sixteen’ and ‘Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha’. Amidst growing popularity, he appeared on ABC's ‘The Guy Mitchell Show’.
Being a business enthusiast, he established a publishing company for his music, in 1959. He also signed a profitable contract with RCA in 1960 and delivered the hit singles ‘Chain Gang’. The song occupied the second position on the Billboard pop chart. He also got the ownership of his master recordings.
In 1961, he established his own record label SAR Records, in collaboration with J.W. Alexander and Roy Crain. In the process of working with other artists, he enhanced the careers of Bobby Womack, Johnnie Taylor and Billy Preston.
Like other R&B artists of that era, he stressed on singles, holding 29 US top 40 hits on the pop charts, and more on the R&B charts. He was a creative writer and his songs were sometimes social commentaries.
Sam Cooke’s single ‘You Send Me’ was released on September 7, 1957 by Keen Records and received huge commercial success. It topped Billboard 's R&B Records chart and Billboard Hot 100 chart. It also ranked No.115 in Rolling Stone magazine's ‘The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time’ in April 2010.
His single ‘Twistin' the Night Away’ was released on January 9, 1962 by RCA Victor. It won the first position in Billboard's R&B chart and ninth position in Billboard Hot 100. It also occupied the sixth position overseas, on the UK Singles Chart.
‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ was released on December 22, 1964 by RCA Victor. The song was inspired by various personal events and highlighted the struggles of African-Americans. It became an anthem for the American Civil Rights Movement and is considered to be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important”.
Awards & Achievements
In 1986, Sam Cooke was posthumously inducted as a charter member of the ‘Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’. The following year, he was initiated into the ‘Songwriters Hall of Fame’.
In 1999, he posthumously received the ‘Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award’ for his valuable contribution to music.
In 2008, Rolling Stone named him the fourth ‘Greatest Singer of All Time’.
Personal Life & Legacy
Sam Cooke was married twice in his lifetime. His first wife was singer-dancer Dolores Elizabeth Milligan Cook, who died in a car accident in 1959. They were already divorced at that time.
His second wife was Barbara with whom he had three children named Linda (born 1953), Tracy (born 1960), and Vincent (1961 - 1963).
He died on December 11, 1964 at the age of 33 leaving behind a marvellous musical legacy. He was fatally shot by Bertha Franklin, the manager of Hacienda Motel, Los Angeles following an altercation. The courts later ruled his death as justifiable homicide. Since then, the circumstances of his death have been questioned by his near and dear ones.
A portion of East 36th Street in Chicago, where he sang as a teenager, has been renamed as the ‘Sam Cooke Way’ in his honour.