Sam Cooke was one of soul music’s greatest talents. The “King of Soul” is largely credited with bridging the gap between pop and soul music using his roots in gospel to influence his formidable vocal talents.
Cooke was born January 22, 1931 in Clarksdale, Miss. but was primarily raised in Chicago. As a young man, Cooke sang with his family in churches, as his father was a minister. He grew up admiring the gospel group, the Soul Stirrers, and got the chance of a lifetime when he was asked to join them after he left high school in 1948. He sang with the group for six years. Even in that arena, Cooke emerged as something of a sex symbol, with his dashing good looks attracting female fans in droves to Soul Stirrers shows.
Cooke’s secular career began in 1956 under the alias Dale Cook as he didn’t want to alienate his gospel music fans. In 1957, Cooke signed with Keen Records and released the first of a string of number one hits in “You Send Me” which topped the Billboard R&B and Pop charts for weeks. Other hits included “Chain Gang,” “Wonderful World,” and “Twistin’ The Night Away.”
An accomplished songwriter, Cooke wisely created his own publishing company and negotiated a then unheard of deal with RCA to own his own masters. Many artists of his time, regardless of race, didn’t have his business savvy. In 1961, Cooke founded SAR Records with J.W. Alexander and his manager, Roy Crain. SAR was instrumental in the early careers of Bobby Womack, Johnnie Taylor, Billy Preston and several others.
Cooke scored 29 Top 40 hits on the pop charts and several more on the R&B side. His 1964 album, That Good News, was said to be his most critically acclaimed release and featured five singles that charted. The year prior, Cooke signed a five-year deal with RCA Records that would have made him one of the highest paid record artists of his era.
But on December 11, 1964, Cooke was shot and killed in the Hacienda Motel by the manager of the business under mysterious circumstances. Cooke, who was married at the time, was said to have met a woman name Elisa Boyer at a bar and brought her to the motel.
Boyer alleged that she was kidnapped and the manager who shot Cooke said she was coming to the aid of the allegedly abducted woman. To this day, the true story of Cooke’s tragic death remains a mystery, though many believe it was foul play. Despite that, his killer, Bertha Franklin, sued his estate for her physical injuries and “mental anguish” and won the case.
Cooke was just 33. Bobby Womack married Sam Cooke’s widow, Barbara, and some years later, his brother, Cecil married Cooke’s daughter, Linda. The two formed the popular R&B duo, Womack and Womack.
Cooke’s classic “A Change Is Gonna Come” became one of the singer’s few posthumous hits and became a signature song of the civil rights movement.