Sam Cooke: Father of Soul

I was born a year after Sam Cooke (1931-1964) died, but his music was a major part of my youth nonetheless.

They say the tunes you listen to when you’re in your teens are the ones you listen to all your life, but I kind of gave a back seat to the contemporary music of my own teenage years. I was into exploring old records. But also Cooke’s legacy was very much alive when I was kid in the ’70s. The gateway to Sam Cooke for people my age was surely the Animal House soundtrack (1978), which gave prominent place to his hits “Wonderful World” (1960) and “Twistin’ the Night Away” (1962). This led to exploring greatest hits compilations, where one quickly discovered that one already knew all of the songs, albeit many of them from popular cover versions. During my childhood several artists had hits with Cooke’s tunes: Cat Stevens had a hit with “Another Saturday Night” (1963) in 1974; Dr. Hook had a hit with “Only Sixteen” (1959) in 1975; Tony Orlando and Dawn had a hit with “Cupid” (1961) in 1976, and FM oldies radio was still playing the Animals’ 1964 cover of Cooke’s 1962 “Bring It On Home to Me” and the Rolling Stones’ 1965 version of “Good Times” (1964). Southside Johnny and the Ashbury Jukes were associated with 1962’s “Having a Party” (still are). And naturally Cooke’s original version of these tunes were still being spun on oldies radio, in addition to his other major hits like, “You Send Me” (1957), “Everybody Likes to Cha Cha Cha” (1959), “Chain Gang” (1962), and his posthumous Civil Rights anthem “A Change is Gonna Come” (1965).

Cooke was kind of uniquely positioned to be everything to everybody. He was the son of a Mississippi preacher, but grew up mostly in Chicago, attending the same high school where Nat King Cole had gone. Gospel was his original orientation, and he’d first become popular with a spiritual group called The Soul Stirrers. But secular music beckoned. While keeping one foot in his gospel origins, he also emulated the crooner stylings of Cole, and the worldier sounds of blues and rock. Thus his eclectic catalog. There are Tin Pan Alley tunes like Gershwin’s “Summertime” (1957), Cole’s hit “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons (1957) which had originated with the Ink Spots. His first hit “You Send Me” was straight up teeny bopper doo wop and it went all the way to #1 — very rare for a relative unknown. Within a matter of months in 1963 and 1964 he had hits with covers of songs as diverse as the folk-blues classic “Frankie and Johnny”, Howlin’ Wolf’s raunchy “Little Red Rooster” (also covered by the Stones), the gospel perennial “Good News” (with tweaked lyrics), and the country standard “Tennessee Waltz”, first popularized by Patti Page. His crossover appeal was very similar to that of Ray Charles, and he was one of the few who bridged the original rock and roll era and that of the British Invasion and Motown. Cooke’s popular appeal also assured him a presence on television variety shows. During his years of success he made frequent appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, The Steve Allen Show, American Bandstand, The Arthur Murray Party, et al.

Cooke’s personal proteges included Lou Rawls (one of his backup singers, who later had hits of his own) and singer/songwriter/guitarist Bobby Womack, whose “It’s All Over Now” was the Rolling Stones’s first hit, and who had numerous soul hits of his own, such as the theme song to the 1973 movie Across 110th Street. Later Womack married Cooke’s widow; one of Cooke’s daughters married his brother Cecil Womack and they became the musical duo Womack and Womack. Cooke’s influence on later soul artists like Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Billy Preston and others are a strong indication that if he’d lived longer he’d have continued to have a musical impact for decades into the future.

But Cooke’s life was cut short at the young age of 33. He was shot during a sordid incident at a Los Angeles motel at the end of 1964. Much like his predecessor Little Richard, Cooke bounced back and forth constantly between the saintly and sinning sides of himself. He was a bit of a dog in the lady department; for example, he had several children out of wedlock, by several women. The last night of his life remains a source of controversy and confusion. It involves a drunken liaison with a sketchy woman (who may have stolen a large cache of money he was carrying), and a nearly nude confrontation with the motel’s front desk clerk, who claims to have shot him in self defense. There are some who hold that Cooke was assassinated for political reasons; this thesis is laid out in the 2019 documentary ReMastered: The Two Killings of Sam Cooke. I confess that I’m dubious about that theory; while Cooke was indeed friendly with Civil Rights leaders, and had recorded “A Change Is Gonna Come”, there’s scant evidence that he was destined to be some sort of cross between MLK, Malcolm X, and Bob Dylan. Indeed, he was somewhat on the fence about speaking out. Granted, the timing was unfortunate, not to say suspicious. But anyway you slice it, we wuz robbed.

To learn more about variety enetertainment, including television variety shows like the one’s Sam Cooke appeared on, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,