The 20th century music world is, unfortunately, sated with performers who died way before their time. I count among my favorite musicians who were not allowed to grow old Glenn Miller, Bobby Darin, and John Lennon. Now I have a fourth one to add to the list: Sam Cooke. I was introduced to Cooke earlier this year on the Fourth of July via my brother’s CD collection and realized that I already knew a lot of his songs. As oldies radio stations increasingly veer away from late 50s and early 60s music, it’s a rare treat today to hear a Cooke song on the radio, even though he scored 29 Top 40 hits in the U.S. including You Send Me, Wonderful World, Chain Gang, and Twisting the Night Away – mostly irresistible, feel good compositions written by Cooke himself. Good looking with strong vocals and a magnetic stage presence, he was a favorite of many fellow musicians including the Beatles (who wanted to tour with him), Aretha Franklin (who knew him from his early beginnings) and just about anyone who belongs in the Who's Who Motown and soul categories. Cooke was also among one of the first African-American singers and composers to take an active hand in the music business, launching his own record label and publishing company. All of which makes his tragic and mysterious death at the age of only 33 all the more haunting.
Cooke’s musical beginnings were founded in gospel. He was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, one of seven children of Annie Mae and the Reverend Charles Cook, a Baptist minister (Sam later added the “e” to his last name because he felt it gave it a touch of class.) The family moved to Chicago in 1933, and Cooke began his musical career as a member of a quartet with his siblings, The Singing Children, and as a teenager was a member of the Highway QCs, a gospel group.
But Cooke was to find his repertoire in mainstream music. In 1957, he signed with Keen Records. His first release was "You Send Me", which spent six weeks at #1 on the Billboard R&B chart and three weeks at #1 on the mainstream Billboard pop chart. In the early 60s, Cooke founded his own label, SAR Records. He then created a publishing imprint and management firm, and left Keen to sign with RCA Victor. One of his first RCA singles was the hit "Chain Gang” which reached number 2 on the Billboard charts. He followed it up with more hits, including "Sad Mood", "Bring it on Home to Me", "We're Having a Party", "Another Saturday Night" and "Twistin' the Night Away". Cooke scored popularity not only in the States but in the UK as well, where he wowed the British youth with his live performances. Aretha Franklin has said that he took women’s breaths away with his handsome looks and charismatic charm.
Cooke was a great admirer of Bob Dylan’s Blowing in the Wind, and felt that it spoke to the African American community in the midst of troubled racial times. Inspired, he penned the “A Change is Gonna Come” which became one of the anthems of the civil rights movement.
Despite being married at the time, in late 1964 Cooke made the mistake (depending on who you believe) of getting mixed up with the wrong woman in the wrong place at the wrong time. The official police record states that Cooke was shot to death by Bertha Franklin, the manager of the Hacienda Motel, where Cooke had checked in. Cooke had gone to the motel with a woman named Elisa Boyer whom he met earlier in the evening. It seems that Boyer tried to rob Cooke and he believed that Franklin was involved in the scam. Franklin claimed that Cooke had broken into the manager's office/apartment in a rage, wearing nothing but a shoe and an overcoat, demanding to know the whereabouts of the woman who had accompanied him to the motel. Franklin said that the woman was not in the office, but claims Cooke became enraged and violently grabbed her demanding again to know the Boyer's whereabouts. According to Franklin, she grappled with Cooke, the two of them fell to the floor, and she then got up and ran to retrieve her gun. She said that she then fired at Cooke in self-defense because she feared for her life. According to Franklin, Cooke’s last words were, "Lady, you shot me."
It's a suspicious tale to be sure, and Cooke’s family has never believed Boyer’s and Franklin’s accounts of the story. His sister, Agnes Cooke-Hoskins, has insisted: "My brother was first class all the way. He would not check into a $3 a night motel; that wasn't his style." The singer Etta James suggests that something far more sinister was involved in Cooke's demise. In her autobiography, Rage To Survive, she claimed to have viewed Cooke's body in the funeral home and saw injuries that were well beyond what was explained by Franklin's official account. James described Cooke as having been so badly beaten that his head was nearly decapitated from his shoulders, his hands were broken and crushed and his nose was mangled. No one has ever been charged for his death, and it's perplexing as to why some modern day cold case gumshoe hasn't explored the facts of Cooke's death further.
Fortunately, fifty years after You Send Me soared up the charts, it seems that Cooke’s accomplishments are getting some overdue attention again. One of his love songs is being used in a car commercial, and some PBS stations have been running a documentary of his life called Sam Cooke: Legend. Cooke was honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999, and in 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine ranked him #16 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. Young musicians who die young can never truly be gone - as long as there are still people who love and play their music. Thanks, Mr. Cooke, for making a "wonderful world" with your songs.
Note: Check out the totally groovy offical site for Sam Cooke for more about his life and music, or do a search for him on YouTube to see some vintage performances and interviews.