Sam Cooke

Sam Cooke Headshot

Singer • Songwriter

Birth Name: Sam Cook

Birth Date: January 22, 1931

Death Date: December 11, 1964

Birth Place: Clarksdale, Mississippi

Sam Cooke was an early giant of soul music, writing and performing a string of classic songs before his life and career were abruptly cut short. Born to a minister in Clarksdale MS., he moved with his family to Chicago and attended the high school that Nat King Cole had recently graduated from. At 14 he became lead singer with the gospel group the Highway QC's, where his friendly rival was Pilgrim Travelers lead singer Lou Rawls.

From there Cooke joined a bigger gospel group, the Soul Stirrers, with whom he made his first records for Specialty. From the start, Cooke was aiming to make records that would appeal to a wide pop audience; this got him bounced from Specialty where his cover of Gershwin's "Summertime" didn't fit their mix. This became the A-side of his second pop single for another label, but it was the flipside-the sweet teen-oriented ballad "You Send Me"-that became the hit and the classic.

This began a hitmaking streak that ran from 1957-64,and showed Cook to be a prolific songwriter and a versatile artist. He did elegant ballads ("Cupid"), more teen-oriented material ("Another Saturday Night," "(What a) Wonderful World"), and songs that drew from his blues/gospel roots ("Chain Gang," "Bring It On Home to Me"). He also evinced undeniable sex appeal, and sounded sophisticated even on a rock 'n' roll tune, "Twisting the Night Away". All of the above were hits and became classic oft-covered tunes.

Cooke's career was still at a peak in 1963-64, when he took on Allen Klein (later the notorious Beatles manager) to run his career. By now he was regularly performing for upscale white audiences; one such show at New York's Copacabana, including folk songs and show tunes alongside his soul hits, became his first live album.

At the same time he was embracing the civil rights movement, writing "A Change is Gonna Come" after his band was turned away from a white hotel in Louisiana. Cooke had mixed feelings about the song and resisted Klein's efforts to make it a single; it was released posthumously and considered one of his more important records.

Cooke was shot and killed on December 11, 1964 at the Hacienda Motel in Los Angeles. The circumstances remain somewhat mysterious: The official story was that Cooke was holding a woman against her will, threatened hotel management when she escaped, and was shot in self-defense. Is family has since alleged foul play and a conspiracy to murder Cooke, possibly involving Klein, while others suggested that the hotel manager shot Cooke when he appeared in her office upset because a woman had stolen his wallet after a liaison.


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