January 22, 1931 Samuel Cooke was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi to Rev. Charles Cooke and Annie Mae Cooke. Music was something that dwelled in the soul of the Cooke family. Sam’s older brother L.C. was a member of the band Johnny Keys and the Magnificent’s. Sam joined a singing group at the age of 9 called The Singing Children. In 1933 the Cooke family moved from Mississippi to Chicago, Illinois. While in Chicago, Sam would attend Wendell Phillips Academy High School, which was the same high school that the legendary Nat “King” Cole attended. At the age of 14 Cooke begin to make a name for himself as a singer while performing with the Highway QC’s. This was also around the time when Sam Cooke and Lou Rawls started their friendship. By 1950 Cooke had gained more acclaim and was now the new lead singer for The Soul Stirrers. This was the group that helped Cooke gain his first record deal.
The Soul Stirrers signed with Specialty Records and produced their first recorded song “Jesus Gave Me Water” in 1951. The Soul Stirrers also recorded “Peace in the Valley”, “How far am I from Canaan”, “Jesus Paid the Debt”, and “One More River”. It is widely stated that Cooke was the writer of most of the song the group recorded. Sam Cooke gave gospel music flair and he made it appeal to the teens and young adults of the day. Cooke would continue to pursue his music career which eventually led to his solo career. He recorded a song as a solo artist called “Loveable” under the alias Dale Cooke. He used an alias so he would not estrange his loyal gospel fans. The heads of Specialty Records found out that Cooke was recording secular music under an alias but did not have a problem with it initially. Cooke and his producer Bumps Blackwell would eventually leave specialty records because they wanted him to sound like Little Richard.
Cooke kept moving forward and ultimately landed a spot on The Guy Mitchell Show in 1957. This appearance would help him land a record deal with Keen Records. Under Keen Records he would release his single “You Send Me”, which spent six weeks at number one on the Billboard R&B charts. The song also spent three weeks at number one on the Billboard pop charts. In 1961 Sam Cooke along with J.W. Alexander and Roy Crain created SAR Records. It was very uncommon for a black artist to start their own record label at this time in history. Cooke also created his own publishing imprint and management firm. He was also smart enough to negotiate a deal giving him ownership of his master recordings. He used his label to help start the careers of The Simms Twins, The Valentinos, Bobby Womack and Johnnie Taylor.
As a business man Cooke’s SAR Records was tied into RCA Victor. Under RCA Victor he released hits such as “Chain Gang”, “Sad Mood”, “Cupid”, “Bring it on Home to me”, “Another Saturday Night”, and “Twistin the Night Away”. Cooke was known for producing singles rather than albums. In total he had 29 top 40 hits on the pop charts. Cooke became well known for displaying his song writing skills and his genius in song arrangement. Despite his knack for making chart topping singles he released two critically acclaimed albums Night Beat in 1963 and Ain’t that Good News in 1964.
On December 11th, 1964 Sam Cooke was found dead from a gunshot wound to the chest. He was shot by Bertha Franklin the attendant working at the hotel Cooke was residing in. Franklin states that she shot in him in self-defense. Cooke’s family and many others question the validity of the self-defense claim made by Franklin. We do know that Cooke was very valuable as a singer and composer. The same year Cooke was laid to rest two singles and an album of his were released. Both songs Shake and A Change Is Gonna Come reached the top ten of the Billboard pop charts helping cement Cooke’s legacy as a titan within the music industry. In 1968 Cooke was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 1987 he was inducted into the Writers Hall of Fame. In 2008 Cooke was ranked as the fourth greatest singer of all time by Rolling Stone. Mr. Cooke was an innovator, he thought outside of the box and gave the black musician reason to become more than just a singer. Sam Cooke’s music and legacy inspired black people to become the change they wanted to see. Mr. Samuel Cooke, we stand on your shoulders.
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