Sam Cooke, Biography Of A Soul Singer With A Tragic Ending

Music | January 22, 2021

Sam Cooke circa 1960 (Photo by Jess Rand/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Sam Cooke helped to shape soul music, from the smooth love song "You Send Me" to groovier R&B of "Wonderful World" to good-time dance tunes like "Twistin' The Night Away." Rooted in gospel traditions, Cooke possessed a soaring voice that could go places other singers couldn't -- just listen to his masterpiece, the Civil Rights anthem "A Change Is Gonna Come." Looking back on the singer's life -- which came to a sudden end when he was just 33 years old -- it's hard not to see the stark dichotomy between his religious upbringing, and his dedication to the civil rights movement with the multiple tragedies in which he was embroiled throughout his final years.

Cooke did more than bring gospel music to the mainstream. He was one of the few black performers who continually put singles in the pop charts while performing for mixed audiences. More than just a singer with a beautiful voice, he was someone who people of all colors could get behind. It's frustrating to think about all of the good he could have done had he not met such a tragic end just as his career was entering a new phase of success.

A born performer

source: ABKO

Sam Cook (he added an at the end of his name later in life) was born on January 22, 1931, in Clarksdale Mississippi, to a large family steeped in the Christian tradition. His father was a reverend at the Church of Christ (Holiness) and he insisted that this children live a life tied to the church.

Cook's parents moved the family to Chicago in 1933, which is where the young boy first started singing. As a part of his family's gospel singing group, The Singing Children, the six-year-old Cook became fixated on making it as a performer. L.C. Cooke, Sam's younger brother, said of the young singer's focus on becoming a successful performer:

Sam was always ambitious. He always knew exactly what he wanted to do. When we was very little boys, we were playing, and he had these popsicle sticks -- you know them little wooden sticks? He had about twenty of them, and he lined them sticks up, stuck 'em in the ground, and said, 'This is my audience, see? I'm gonna sing to these sticks.' He said, 'This prepare me for my future.'

Cooke found success whenever he met a microphone

source: library of congress

As the rest of his siblings in The Singing Children grew up and got real jobs, Cooke continued to try tomake a name for himself as a performer. He busked at a train station in Chicago while his brother L.C. passed around a hat, and briefly fronted the long running gospel group The Highway Q.C.'s when he was only 14 years old.

At the time same that Cooke was performing in his Chicago gospel group, the Soul Stirrers were in the same town scoring a record deal with Specialty Records. In 1950, the group's lead singer quit after his growing frustration with the label came to a head. By then, 19-year-old Sam Cooke was ready for the gig.

Cooke took over for Harris and recorded "Jesus Gave Me Water" and a collection of pop inspired gospel songs, essentially bringing the sound of the church to the mainstream. In 1953, Cooke married Dolores Elizabeth Milligan Cooke, a singer and dancer who performed under the name "Dee Dee Mohawk."

Seven years as the frontman of the Soul Stirrers left Cooke wanting more than the success of being the most well known gospel group of the '50s -- he wanted to achieve true pop stardom. So he left the group in 1957, and never looked back.

Putting the E in Cooke

source: getty

The same year that Cooke left the Soul Stirrers, his life changed in two huge ways. First, he added the 'e' to his last name to show that he was a new artist, and he scored a number one hit with "You Send Me," a gorgeous love song that he penned himself. The single successfully established Cooke as a smooth crooner in the style of Nat King Cole. Even his more raucous tracks, such as "Twistin' the Night Away" and "Shake," were performed with a tenderness that was missing from the rock and pop charts at the time. Cooke's innate vocal skill made him a bridge between the highly melodic vocal stylings of the Great American Songbook and the rock 'n roll howling of Elvis and Little Richard. 

As a solo artist Cooke was able to take charge of his career in a way that few artists, especially black artists, were doing at the time. In 1958, one year into his solo career, Cooke's life started to fall apart even as his star continued to rise. He and Dolores were divorced and he was being sued by a woman in Philadelphia who claimed that he fathered her son. Cooke paid the woman an out of court settlement but never admitted paternity.

Following the scandal, Cooke was involved in a car accident where his chauffeur was killed behind the wheel and everyone else in the car was left with injuries. In March of 1959, Dolores died in a car accident after her car smashed into a house and a post. Cooke paid for his ex-wife's funeral.

Life wasn't all tragedy for Cooke in his final years. He married his second wife, Barbara Campbell, in 1958, and continued to score massive hits after signing with RCA Victor.

Cooke the businessman

source: getty

It's clear that Cooke not only had the gift of a beautiful voice, but the gift of business acumen as well. After a lifetime as a performer he was well versed in the business side of the entertainment industry, leading him to go to what was then considered extraordinary lengths to make sure that he controlled his music.

Cooke moved to Los Angeles and along with his manager Allen Klein set up SAR Records, his own label, as well as a publishing imprint which he could use to license his LPs and singles to RCA Victor for exclusive distribution rights, while maintaining ownership of the material. The music industry isn't necessarily set up to reward the artists, and it's not unusual for even the biggest acts -- like the Rolling Stones and The Beatles -- to thrive as artists and high-profile stars while not actually making any money. Cooke knew he needed a strategy to be sure that no one could take advantage of him as he chased pop stardom.

Bob Dylan changed Sam Cooke's life

source: AP

With "Blowin' In The Wind," Bob Dylan did something unheard of: He turned a protest song into a pop anthem. In the song Dylan speaks about the darkness closing in on America during the civil rights movement and the violence awaiting those who dared to speak up against the old guard. When Cooke heard the song he realized that transitioning to pop music wasn't enough, he needed to make pop music that meant something.

Cooke began performing "Blowin' In The Wind" during performances, but he wanted to write something of his own that could match the power of Dylan's work. Inspired both by Dylan's straight to the heart lyrics and a series of racial incidents in the south where he wasn't allowed to perform, he sat down and penned "A Change is Gonna Come" in 1963. Cooke's biographer Peter Gulnarick says that Cooke was astounded by his own work, and that he recognized that this was a marked shift in his career:

It almost scared him that the song — it was almost as if the song were intended for somebody else. He grabbed it out of the air and it came to him whole, despite the fact that in many ways it’s probably the most complex song that he wrote. It was both singular — in the sense that you started out, ‘I was born by the river’ — but it also told the story both of a generation and of a people.

Lady, you shot me

source: reddit

Released in February 1964, Sam Cooke's final album Ain't That Good News reached Number 34 on the Billboard Pop charts, and contained the top-20  hits "Another Saturday Night," "Good Times," and the title track. While "A Change Is Gonna Come" proved to be only a modest success for Cooke, it told the story of the civil rights movement from the inside, from the point of view of someone who had to live with prejudice every day of their life. Cooke was never able to see his signature song transcend pop music, he didn't even make it out of 1964 alive.

On December 10, 1964, Cooke hit up the Hollywood hot spot Martoni's, where he hung with a group of regulars while allegedly flashing a large money clip full of cash. Accounts of the evening state Cooke met Elisa Boyer and struck up a relationship for the evening before disappearing together. This is where details get murky.

In the early hours of December 11, the LAPD responded to calls about a shooting at the Hacienda Motel, a cheap spot known as a hub for prostitutes and relationships that began and ended by the hour. Cooke was dead on the floor of the motel manager's office, wearing only a sports coat and one shoe, he had a bullet wound in his chest and the night manager had what sounded like a plausible story.

The manager, Bertha Franklin, claimed that Cooke shoved his way into the office after attempting to rape a young woman who checked into the room with him as "Husband and Wife." Franklin told the police that Cooke threatened her life so she shot him in the chest. She claimed that when the bullet hit him he said, "Lady, you shot me." Cooke's death was ruled to be justifiable homicide, and the police closed the case.

No one knows what happened on Cooke's final night

source: Netflix

There have been conspiracy theories about how Cooke really died from the moment that his death was announced. Not only are there inaccuracies between the motel manager's account of the evening in question, the police report, and the coroner's report, but attendees of Cooke's funeral claimed that he looked like he was beaten to death before he was shot. Fellow singer Etta James wrote in her biography:

[Cooke's head was] practically disconnected from his shoulders. That's how badly he'd been beaten. His hands were broken and crushed…They tried to cover it up with makeup, but I could see massive bruises on his head. No woman with a broomstick could have inflicted that kind of beating against a strong, full-grown man.

Theories on Cooke's death range from a hit set in motion by his manager, hungry for his partner's millions, a set up by Franklin and Boyer (Franklin was allegedly a madam prior to 1964), or that he was possibly murdered by the FBI. At the time, Cooke was becoming more embedded in the civil rights movement, and many of his friends believe that he was silenced for taking the movement to the pop charts with "A Change Is Gonna Come."

With the case closed on Cooke we'll never know if his death was the cause of a misunderstanding, if he snapped, or if he was the subject of a brutal and gruesome set up. Cooke was taken from the world at far too young an age, but his music will always be there to bring people solace in the face of fear.

Tags: Sam Cooke | Soul Music

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.