Samuel Cook aka Sam Cooke
January 22, 1931 – December 11, 1964
Notable: Singer, Songwriter, and Entrepreneur
Samuel Cook was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi one of his homemaker mother’s and Baptist preacher father’s eight children. Showing an interest in and talent for singing, he began performing in the choir of his father’s church at a young age. When Cook was still a small child, his family relocated to Chicago, Illinois.
Cook’s first singing ensemble was the Singing Children, a gospel group that was formed with three of his siblings. As a teen, he joined and became the lead singer of the Highway Q.C.’s, a teen gospel group with which he would perform from the age of 15 to 19. This was while also attending Wendell Phillips High School where he was a diligent student earning good grades and was ultimately voted most likely to succeed by his peers.
Shortly after graduating from high school, Cook was offered the opportunity to replace the lead singer of the Soul Stirrers. The gospel group was immensely popular on the church circuit and enabled Cook to travel the country performing at various churches. Joining the group allowed him to further develop his voice and performing chops which deviated from the day’s norm of raw power.
This period was also notable as it was during this time that he began to pen songs for the group. They would score several gospel hits in the mid-1950s on Specialty Records. Their success within the genre made the group and Sam incredibly popular within the Black community, especially among churchgoers.
Up to this point, Cook had only been involved with gospel music and the church community. But going back to his younger days, Cook had been exposed to and influenced by the harmonies and melodies of secular musicians. At the time there was a hard divide between Black gospel and secular music. Secular musicians who decided to move to gospel could do so by adapting their old songs or leaving them completely behind for their new gospel endeavors. But it was more complicated for gospel singers to transition to secular as they were viewed in a sense as backsliding, leaving the righteous path for worldly music and all that implied.
Cook aspired to expand beyond his gospel roots and audience but fearing a backlash he made his first foray into secular music, “Lovable”, under the name Dale Cooke. The ruse didn’t work and Cook found himself kicked out of the Soul Stirrers and also dropped from the group’s record label. But what likely began as a period of uncertainty would give way to tremendous success.
Being dropped from his label and let go from the group meant that Cook was now free to do as he pleased. He signed a deal with Keen, a small record label with which he would remain for about two years. It was around this time that Cook added the “e” to his last name symbolizing the major change in his life. Now relatively unrestricted, Cooke released “You Send Me”, a smash hit that would go on to sell over two million copies. That song was the beginning of a string of hit romantic ballads and albums.
Following in the footsteps of Ray Charles, Cooke blended gospel with Black secular music which helped to create the foundation of soul music. He opened the floodgates for Black singers moving from gospel to R&B/Soul. After signing with the William Morris Agency, he scored appearances on mainstream outlets such as the popular Ed Sullivan Show and The Copacabana (though the Copa appearance was a flop).
Despite or maybe due to the commercial success of his records, Cooke began to sour on his arrangement with Keen right as big labels began courting him. The most serious contenders to emerge in negotiations were Atlantic and RCA. Signing to Atlantic would have meant being an artist on America’s then-largest R&B label but would have required Cooke to give up his publishing. Instead, Cooke signed a lucrative deal with RCA which included a large advance and the opportunity to own his masters after 30 years.
He partnered with J.W. Alexander to establish a publishing company, Kags Music. An astute businessman, Cooke went a step further and became the first Black artist to own a record label, SAR Records. Through these companies, he would own the copyrights and produce recordings for himself and other artists on his record label which included Bobby Womack and his brothers.
1963 and 1964 would be years of highs and lows.
Cooke had married Barbara Campbell in 1959 and the couple had three children. In 1963, their only son Vincent drowned in the family’s swimming pool when he was about one and a half years old. Cooke hired Allen Klein as the new manager for himself and all of his companies. Later that year, he negotiated a new deal with RCA where the company would provide a large advance and primarily function as the distributor for his label for 30 years. All business and money would be handled through Tracey Records, a holding company owned by Klein and managed by J. W. Alexander, allowing Cooke to retain creative control and ownership of his work while considering taxes.
Cooke had taken a break from recording after the death of his son. Up to that point, Sam Cooke had mostly been known for singles consisting of love songs, party songs, and gospel. As the Civil Rights Movement was gathering speed various musicians released conscious songs in support. Inspired by the era and these songs, especially “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan, Cooke crafted “A Change Is Gonna Come”.
On the night of December 10, 1964, Cooke was out on the town in Los Angeles and while drinking at a bar he met a woman named Elisa Boyer. Early on the morning of December 11, Cooke and Boyer arrived at the Hacienda Motel where they booked and entered a room. Almost nothing that occurred after that point is agreed upon.
According to Boyer, she had accepted a ride home from Cooke but he instead took her to the motel against her will. Once in the room, Cooke became aggressive and attempted to rape her. This prompted Boyer to grab most of Cooke’s clothes and run out of the room while he was in the bathroom. After realizing that Boyer had left the room with his clothes, Cooke then ran out of the room wearing only an overcoat. Bertha Lee Franklin, the motel manager, stated that Cook began banging and/or kicking in the door to her office after assuming that was where Boyer had escaped to. Franklin then fired a gun multiple times hitting Cooke in the chest. Authorities accepted this sequence of events and Franklin’s use of force was legally ruled self-defense.
Sources which included some members of Cooke’s family state that Cooke had been carrying and displayed a large roll of bills at the bar earlier in the evening. They alleged that Boyer was a sex worker who willingly accompanied Cooke to the motel. In an attempt to rob Cooke, Boyer grabbed his clothes while Cooke was in the bathroom and either took them with her or threw them out the window leaving him mostly naked in the room. Cooke then ran out of the room attempting to get back his money and clothing. He ran to the motel manager’s office looking for Boyer and/or help when he was shot and killed by Franklin.
Cooke’s funeral was attended by several thousand people including many celebrities of the time some of whom sang during the service. Cooke’s record label officially released “A Change Is Gonna Come” as a single 10 days after his death. It went on to become his signature song and one of the most significant songs of the Movement.
Conspiracy theorists alleged that Cooke’s death was a planned hit either as a result of Cooke’s involvement with the Civil Rights Movement or his efforts to maintain control over and ownership of his music. To this day some still regard the circumstances of Cooke’s death as being suspicious. The more unsavory details of Cooke’s life and the aftermath of his death regarding his finances, businesses, and family are a complicated story that I won’t get into here. But I recommend checking out Dream Boogie by Peter Guralnick and ReMastered: The Two Killings of Sam Cooke.
- Biography.com Editors, ed. 2021. “Sam Cooke.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. October 28, 2021. https://www.biography.com/musician/sam-cooke.
- Eder, Bruce. n.d. “Sam Cooke Biography, Songs, & Albums.” AllMusic. Accessed June 6, 2022. https://www.allmusic.com/artist/sam-cooke-mn0000238115/biography.
- History.com Editors, ed. 2019. “Sam Cooke Dies under Suspicious Circumstances in LA.” History.com. A&E Television Networks. December 9, 2019. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/sam-cooke-dies-under-suspicious-circumstances-in-la.
- “Sam Cooke Slain in Coast Motel; Singing Star Shot to Death in Los Angeles Incident.” 1964. The New York Times. The New York Times. December 12, 1964. https://www.nytimes.com/1964/12/12/archives/sam-cooke-slain-in-coast-motel-singing-star-shot-to-death-in-los.html.
- “Sam Cooke.” n.d. Songwriters Hall of Fame. Accessed June 6, 2022. https://www.songhall.org/profile/Sam_Cooke.
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