by Erika Cox
Sam Cooke was a true pioneer of Black music. He sang Gospel and
Soul music but his popularity grew when he started singing Rhythm and
Blues. He was also a prolific songwriter and, without doubt, had one the
smoothest, soulful voices around even today; there are few voices that
can compare. Like many artists from the 1950’s, he influenced not only
Black artists but White artists as well that followed. Sam Cooke was
born Samuel Cook on January 22, 1931 in Clarksdale, Mississippi but he
grew up in Chicago. He later added the “e” to his name because he
thought it looked more stylish.
His father was a minister and by the time Sam was nine years old
he along with his sisters and brothers were singing in churches as a
gospel group called “the Singing Children”. As a teenager, Sam became a
member of the Highway Q.C.s, a popular gospel group at the time. In
1950, the manager of the Soul Stirrers, J.W. Alexander, was looking for
a replacement for the lead singer of the group when R.H. Harris left the
group. He was introduced to Sam Cooke by a member of the Highway Q.C.s
and liked what he heard. Alexander immediately signed Sam with the group
making him the lead singer. Sam was 19 years old when he joined the
group and when Alexander moved the Soul Stirrers to Specialty Records in
The Soul Stirrers were a very popular gospel group and Sam toured
and recorded with the group for the next seven years. With his pristine
soul stirring voice, Sam won over gospel music fans everywhere and
became a huge gospel superstar. Sam was so big that his manager,
Alexander, saw a goldmine and felt that Sam could make it just as big in
the mainstream music arena.
It was obvious that Sam could receive much more fame and fortune
in the pop music industry than he ever would in the Gospel industry,
plus Sam had something else, he had a certain sex appeal about him that
would help him become a success. However, Specialty’s owner, Art Rupe,
was not happy with Sam and Alexander’s desire to switch over but went
ahead and allowed Cooke to record a Pop song under the name Dale Cook.
Cooke’s voice was to recognizable and even though the record did
fairly well the plan backfired. The Gospel world was in an uproar and
never forgave Sam for what they considered backsliding. Nevertheless,
Cooke wanted to move into secular music and even got the approval of his
minister father, who said “It isn't what you sing that is so important
but rather the fact that God gave you a good voice to use. He must want
you to make people happy by singing, so go ahead and do so.” And with
that, Sam left Specialty Records in 1957 with a new manager Bumps
Three months later he signed with Keen Records and his first song
“You send me” became a number one hit and sold over 1 million copies.
Sam sang with the same intensity and soulfulness as he did with
Gospel music and he became an instant superstar. Cooke would go on to
have several more hits but in 1959 he left Keen Records over royalty
disputes and in a few months signed with RCA Records his first record
was a bluesy, gospel song called “Wonderful World”, a million-dollar
He made a few more songs but his first Top Ten hit with RCA
“Chain Gang” was a number two hit on the Pop and R&B charts and his
fourth gold record. Cooke wrote a number of songs that didn’t become
huge hits but he toured constantly to sellout places and was still
considered a superstar. He also founded his own record label, SAR
Records, which produced acts such as Bobby Womack and Johnny Taylor.
Sam focused on recording mostly singles in the 1960’s; he had 29
songs that made it in the Top 40 and many more on the R&B charts.
Unfortunately, even with an album in the Top 30 his success and life
would come to a tragic end. On December 11, 1964, while attending a
party in Los Angeles he met a 22-year-old woman named Elisa Boyer, and
even though Sam was married, he and Boyer registered at a hotel under
Mr. & Mrs. Sam Cooke.
For some reason Boyer left the motel room with most of Sam’s
clothes, after she claimed that Sam got upset when she wanted to go
home. Sam started tearing off her clothes, and according to Boyer, when
Sam went in the bathroom she escaped with his clothes. Sam soon chased
after her with only a coat and shoes on. Thinking Boyer was hiding, Sam
went to the front desk demanding to know where she was. Cooke supposedly
pounded on the door of hotel manager, Bertha Franklin. According to
Franklin, Cooke allegedly broke the door down and assaulted Franklin,
she (Franklin), in turn, pulled out a loaded .22 caliber pistol and
fatally shot Cooke three times.
Although the shooting was considered justifiable homicide many
believe all the details have not been told and unanswered questions
remain. Some of his songs were released after his death and went to the
top of the charts including one of the most popular protest songs, “A
Change is Gonna Come.”
Sam Cooke was a true superstar and heavily influenced many
artists from Rock to Pop to R&B. He was one of the first artists to take
a stand against singing only to segregated audiences and in a time when
record companies and producers often left artists broke with no
royalties, he was one of the first artists, Black or White, who owned
his own record company and publishing company, Kags Music.
He was one of the first artists to capitalize on crossover
success and was the first Black artist to own his own record and
publishing company, all before the age of 34. His legacy is enduring. In
1986, he was one of the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of
Fame. In 1987, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and in
1993; he received the Chairman’s Award from the Apollo Theatre.
In 1999, he received the first pioneer award from the Rhythm and
Blues foundation and also received a Grammy Lifetime achievement Award.
In 2001, in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Mississippi, December 17 was
proclaimed Sam Cooke day.
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