Born: January 22, 1931 | Died: December 11, 1964 Primary Instrument: Vocal
After years as the reigning voice in gospel music, Sam Cooke burst onto the pop scene with the 1957 release of his million-selling single, “You Send Me.” The song's innovative blend of Gospel, Pop, and R&B earned him the title of The Man Who Invented Soul.”
In addition to being an accomplished singer, songwriter and producer, Sam Cooke is remembered as the first artist to take a political stand and refuse to sing to segregated audiences. He also recognized the politics of the music industry early in life. At a time when record labels often left even the most talented and successful artist broke and penniless, Sam Cooke was one of the first artists, black or white, to buck the system and demand ownership of his career. He signed an unprecedented deal with RCA in 1960 after coming to the agreement they let him retain control of the copyrights to his music. Sam Cooke was one of the first artists to capitalize on the crossover appeal of popular music by intentionally recording songs that targeted both the black and white markets. He was the first African-American artist to own a record label, and he established his own management company and music publishing company as well. Even more remarkable, he did all of these things before his 34th birthday.
Overshadowing his photogenic smile and business acumen, however, were Cooke's distinctive tenor and his unique, shivery way of hitting the high notes; this style would later become a trademark of soul singers like Otis Redding and Al Green, but it was something he had perfected ages ago when singing lead in a gospel quartet that sometimes pitched their harmonies too high by habit. It was this borrowing from one African American musical genre to help create another that added to Cooke's achievement, and made his untimely death all the more tragic.
Cooke was born January 22, 1931, in Clarksdale, the heart of Mississippi's Delta country. His father, Charles Cook Sr. (the e was added later by his son) was a Pentecostal minister who also worked as a domestic servant. When economic repercussions from the Great Depression worsened the already-hardscrabble life in the Delta region, Charles Cook moved to Chicago and found work there as an assistant pastor, and soon sent for his family.
Cooke began singing in the church choir at age six. By the time he was in his teens, he and his siblings had formed a singing group that was actually earning them pocket money. In high school Cooke began singing with the Highway QCs, a gospel quartet and one of many in his hometown at the time. It was an extremely popular format: the quartets--with their tight vocal harmonies sung a cappella style-- were a near-secular version of gospel music that played to packed church audiences. Cooke's angelic lead voice, combined with his winning smile and onstage charm, made him a star from the start.
The Highway QCs, however, were but a copy of another gospel quartet, the Soul Stirrers, and when the Stirrers' lead singer quit in 1951, Cooke was invited to replace him. The Soul Stirrers became extremely popular with Cooke as frontman; they had just signed a recording contract, and in short time they traveled to Los Angeles to record for the Specialty label. Cooke's recording career with the Soul Stirrers faded along with the popularity of gospel during the 1950s. The singles became fewer and far between, and each sold less and less. But it was during this era that Cooke perfected a signature vocal trick that would later make him famous. One night in 1953, when he was singing How Far Am I from Canaan?, Cooke could not hit the high notes, so he just floated under, this would become his signature style.
As the decade progressed, Cooke saw that religious music was losing ground as rock and roll--in many ways, a less threatening hybrid version of several black musical traditions--gained in popularity. In 1956, Cooke wrote his first pop song, Lovable, and recorded it on the sly with under the name Dale Cook. It was not a success, and many of Cooke's gospel fans saw through the ruse immediately since his tenor was so distinctive.
Cooke signed with a fledgling pop label, Keen Records, and released a single in September of 1957. You Send Me hit No. 1 on both the R&B and pop charts and sold 1.7 million copies.
After legal and royalty disputes with Specialty, Cooke was determined to retain legal and financial control over his artistic career from then on. He soon became partners with J. W. Alexander in the already-formed KAGS Music, his friend and advisor's song publishing company. This meant Cooke would receive his own royalties. It was groundbreaking at the time for artist to have financial control over his songbook.
Cooke went in pursuit of a more solid foundation for his artistic abilities than the small Keen label. He desired a major-label contract, and with it the powerful manager and solid marketing people who would push his records. Cooke's decision to leave Keen ignited a bidding war among the big labels, and it was the team of Hugo & Luigi, two cousins who were A&R men at RCA, who managed to lure Cooke there. After Harry Belafonte, a calypso singer, Cooke was RCA's first significant African American signee. His first single for the label, Teenage Sonata, was released in early 1960 to dismal results, but its follow-up, Wonderful World, released in April, fared much better; his third that year, August's Chain Gang, gave him another gold record.
Cooke had formed his own label, SAR, in 1959, and the first act he signed was the Soul Stirrers, whose career had declined considerably after Cooke's departure. SAR headquarters, at 6425 Hollywood Boulevard, was also home to several other gospel and R&B acts, including Lou Rawls, Billy Preston, and a young Cleveland family of gospel singers known as the Womacks. Cooke's excellent ear for pop hits gave him the confidence to experiment with different musical styles in his solo career on RCA.
Most of Cooke's singles for RCA charted in the Top Forty. In the summer of 1962 he released Bring It on Home to Me, cited by McEwen as perhaps the first record to define the soul experience for its audacious borrowing directly from the gospel call-and-response style and the seen-it-all mood of Cooke's vocals. Its B-side, Having a Party, also fared well, and remained an unusual statement on the cross-racial appeal of Cooke's music. In his hotel room one night, Cooke penned Another Saturday Night there, which yielded him another No. 1 hit and his biggest success of 1963.
Cooke's life came to a mysterious, scandal-obscured end one night in December of 1964, when he checked into a motel on South Figueroa in the rough Watts section of Los Angeles with a woman who had a criminal record for prostitution. He and Lisa Boyer had met earlier at a restaurant, where Cooke's companions there remembered him pulling out a large wad of cash--as he usually carried on him--when it came time to pay for drinks. All the cash, his license, and credit cards and a ring were missing when police arrived and found him dead in the motel manager's office later that night. The manager, claimed that Cooke--looking for Boyer who had fled with his clothes and money--had kicked down the door and lunged at her, so she shot him in self-defense. His last words were, Lady, you shot me.
RCA released Shake eleven days after Cooke's death, but the song's B-side, A Change Is Gonna Come, may have been more indicative of Cooke's legacy to black music. The song was reportedly inspired by the Bob Dylan protest song Blowin' in the Wind, and he had performed it on the Tonight Show shortly before his death. Curtained with shimmering strings, wrote McEwen in the Rolling Stone homage, and anchored by a dirgelike drumbeat, `Change,' like Martin Luther King's final speech, in which he told his followers he had been to the mountaintop, was appropriately ominous, as if to anticipate the turbulent years facing black America, he continued. Cooke was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one its first honorees in 1986, and honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievment Award.
Sam Cooke, the man who invented soul!
Source: James Nadal