Film and music writer Bruce Eder has written a detailed Sam Cooke biography for AllMusic, including his earliest music-making days with his siblings. Eder asserts his opinion of Cooke’s historical importance; I agree with him.
Sam Cooke was the most important soul singer in history, its primary inventor, and its most popular and beloved performer in both the Black and white communities. Equally important, he was among the first Black performers and composers to attend to the business side of the music business, founding both a record label and a publishing company as an extension of his careers as a singer and composer. Still, business interests never prevented him from engaging in topical issues, including the struggle over civil rights. The pitch and intensity of that battle followed an arc which paralleled Cooke's emergence as a star; his career bridged gaps between Black and white audiences that few had tried to surmount, much less succeeded at doing.
During the middle of the decade, the Cook family moved to Chicago's South Side, where the Reverend Charles Cook quickly established himself as a major figure in the religious community. Sam and three of his siblings also formed a group of their own, the Singing Children, in the 1930s. Although his own singing was confined to gospel music, he was aware and appreciative of the popular music of the period, particularly the melodious, harmony-based sounds of the Ink Spots, whose influence was later heard in songs such as "You Send Me" and "For Sentimental Reasons." As a teenager, he was a member of the Teen Highway QCs, a gospel group that performed in churches and at religious gatherings. His membership in that group led to his introduction to the Soul Stirrers, one of the top gospel groups in the country, and in 1950 he joined them.
If Cooke had never recorded a note of music on his own, he would still be remembered today in gospel circles for his work with the Soul Stirrers. Over the next six years, his role within the group and his prominence in the Black community rose to the point where he became a star, possessing his own fiercely admiring and devoted audience, through his performances on "Touch the Hem of His Garment," "Nearer to Thee," and "That's Heaven to Me." The group was one of the top acts on Art Rupe's Specialty Records label, and he might have gone on for years as their most popular singer, but Cooke's goal was to reach audiences beyond the religious community, and beyond the Black population, with his voice. This was a tall order at the time, as the mere act of recording a popular song could alienate the gospel listenership in an instant. Singing for God was regarded in those circles as a gift and a responsibility, while popular music, rock & roll, and R&B were to be abhorred, at least coming from the mouth of a gospel singer.
For those unfamiliar with Cooke’s early gospel chops, give this 1955 performance of “Nearer to Thee” with The Soul Stirrers a listen.
Like other groups and solo artists with gospel roots whose aspirations led them to the lure of the secular, Cooke’s crossover got him booted out of The Soul Stirrers. It also rocketed him on the hit parade—and onto The Ed Sullivan Show with “You Send Me.”
The Ed Sullivan Show’s website tells the story of his first two appearances on the show. Cooke’s first appearance on Nov. 3, 1957 was as the closer for a live show that ran long. He was cut off just one line into “You Send Me.” People watching at home complained so much (long before the days of social media, no less), Cooke was brought back a month later.
So on December 1st 1957, Sam returned. Ed Sullivan introduced him by saying “Sam, here’s the time.” Dressed neatly in suit and tie, Cooke delivered a stripped-down version of “You Send Me.” His performance used little more than backup vocals to complement his singing, and centered on Cooke himself. As he crooned directly into the camera, his effortless charisma and charming smile made him a hit with audiences. Right after the show aired, “You Send Me” reached number one on the Billboard Top 100, displaying just how successful his performance was.
Later in the show, Ed brought Sam onstage and apologized to him and the audience saying, “I did wrong one night here on our stage. And I never received so much mail in my life!” Sam, now dressed in a tuxedo, sang his rendition of “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons,” an R&B classic sung most famously by Sullivan show regular Nat “King” Cole in 1946.
Here’s that version of “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons.”
I hadn’t realized how many cover versions of “You Send Me” exist, and continue to be recorded, by artists ranging from Aretha Franklin to Otis Redding to the Steve Miller Band to Rod Stewart. Second Hand Songs has a (presumably) complete list.
The Sullivan Show wasn’t Cooke’s only early TV invitation; here’s a snippet of his appearance onThe Steve Allen Show in 1958, via his official Twitter account.
Life for Cooke and his band wasn’t simply about popular successes. The harsh reality of racism in America could not be avoided, which Brian Leli detailed for Chicago’s Gapers Block in 2010.
Like all black artists at the time, Cooke and his band came face-to-face with the nightmarish prejudice and segregation of the South. Choices were limited. Restaurants wouldn't serve them. They made and ate sandwiches in their cars. They washed in rest-stop washrooms. They traveled hundreds of miles between shows to find boarding houses that would take them. All the while there were more and more whites in the audience. Cooke endured and observed, and he always took a stand.
In Memphis, police ordered him to push his car after it had run out of gas, but he refused. In Atlanta, he was scheduled to headline a concert broadcast on The Dick Clark Saturday Night Beech-Nut Show. When the KKK heard a black man would be performing with white men they tried to stop it, but Cooke played anyway. In Little Rock, he was told he'd be performing two shows for two audiences: one white, one black. He refused and played to a room split literally down the middle. He was one of the first performers to do so.
At segregated shows of this sort, police and police dogs walked the aisles on the black side of the audience. If the people enjoyed the show too much, the dogs would bite. The opposite ends of the leash must have twisted and blurred together, in such a dark and hellish scene.
January marks another key date in Cooke’s history, one that got lost for over 20 years.
Cultural writer Colin Fleming has done extensive documentation and discussion of Cooke’s “lost album” for his 2021 book, Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club. As the book’s blurb notes:
Shelved for over 20 years, Sam Cooke's Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963, stands alongside Otis Redding's Live in Europe and James Brown's Live at the Apollo as one of the finest live soul albums ever made. It also reveals a musical, spiritual, emotional, and social journey played out over one night on the stage of a sweaty Miami club, as Cooke made music that encapsulated everything he had ever cut, channeling forces that would soon birth “A Change is Gonna Come,” the most important soul song ever written.
This book covers Cooke's days with the Soul Stirrers, the gospel unit that was inventing a strand of soul in the 1950s, and continues on to his string of hit singles as a solo artist that reveal far more about this complex man and the complex music he was always fashioning. A writer and an agent of social change, he absorbed the teachings of Billie Holiday and Bob Dylan while reconciling his own identity and what fans expected of him. Fleming explores how this towering soul artist came to reconcile so many disparate elements on a Florida stage on a winter night in 1963-a stage that extended well into the future, beyond Cooke's own life, beyond the 1960s, and into a perpetual here-and-now. Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 will resonate so long as we all have a need to look into ourselves and square our differences and become more human, and more connected with others in our humanity.
And as Fleming writes on his website:
I don’t believe there is a record with more energy than this one. It makes you wish to leap forward into a person you’ve never been, whom you need to be.
There are only a few musical documents in a comparable energy category.
These are rocket launchers. They are not just sonic and cerebral experiences—they are physical experiences, as much as playing in a football game, dancing a ballet, having sex, pushing yourself through a workout, or trying to walk your way out of the lowest circles of an existential crisis of the soul when you are not sure on one Sunday if you will live to see the next.
In Miami, Cooke entreats the crowd to stay with him, to come with him, pledging that he will never leave them. He doesn’t mean that he won’t blow this town to play somewhere else in a week. Certain works of art walk beside you in this life, which is what they are built to do; the figurative side of walking side-by-side. They’re potentially always there. The American diplomat and historian George F. Kennan remarked, “Heroism is endurance for one moment more.” In Overtown, in an era of the dehumanization of the Black people attending this gig, Cooke is helping his brothers and sisters to endure. He provides a secular form of faith. We need not pray to God, but we do need to look within for forbearance, for that heroism. He’s by the side of these concert-goers, and always will be in the consequential sense. More importantly, he can help you stand by your own side, so to speak. Art props us up until we can ourselves get better at the job. You self-prop, you self-send, and eventually you arrive where you should and deserve to. Had I been in that crowd on that night—just as you can be in that crowd now, after a fashion, every time you cue up the album—I would have felt richly propped. Not only propped—I would have felt loved. Which might be the miracle of art like this—because even theoretically I could barely imagine what love was.
The tactility of Live at the Harlem Square Club is unlike that with any other record. To listen to it is to feel as if you’re physically being touched.
Give it a listen:
The live performance features Sam Cooke’s vocals, Clifton White and Cornell Dupree on guitar, Jimmy Lewis on bass guitar, Albert "June" Gardner on drums, George Stubbs on piano, and King Curtis and Tate Houston on saxophone.
Thanks to the untold riches one can stumble across on YouTube, I came across this April 2022 interview with Fleming, conducted by Neal Parker, Programs & Exhibits Specialist at Arlington Heights Memorial Library in Illinois. Fleming expounds upon not only Live at the Harlem Square Club, but other aspects of Cooke’s music and historical importance as a songwriter.
Just seven years—almost to the day—after Cooke’s second appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, Cooke was dead. On Dec. 11, 1964, at just 33 years old, the singer was shot to death at a Los Angeles hotel.
For those who want to take an even deeper dive into Cooke’s life, legacy, and the intrigue still surrounding his 1964 death, these two documentaries—Netflix’s ReMastered: The Two Killings of Sam Cooke and the PBS’ American Masters episode “Sam Cooke Crossing Over”—are a great place to start.
First, the 99-second trailer for ReMastered:
And here’s the entire 51-minute episode of American Masters, narrated by Danny Glover and featuring interviews from a bevy of musical legends.
I’ll close with Cooke’s composition known the world over, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” included on the album Ain’t That Good News, which was released in February 1964. Cooke performed it live just once, in a Tonight Show with Johnny Carson appearance that’s been forever lost.
An edited, less “controversial” version for the masses wasn’t completed until just before Cooke’s death; that single was released 11 days after he died.
At the time Cooke, a gospel music veteran whose creamy voice and good looks had carried him to pop crossover fame, was longing to explore something more serious in his music. This new sense of urgency, the desire to make a political statement, was manifested in one of “Change’s” most striking lines: “I go to the movies and I go downtown/But somebody keeps telling me, don’t hang around.” But according to Cooke’s business partner, gospel vocalist J.W. Alexander (speaking in Peter Guralnick’s 1986 book, Sweet Soul Music), the potentially controversial line was cut when “Change” was issued posthumously as a single in late 1964. Only long-playing album buyers heard the full version, with politicized lyrics intact. Ironically, those in charge of promoting “Change” subjected it to the same inequitable standards Cooke had meant to criticize.
The iconic tune is seated in the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame.
This evocative composition was adopted as an anthem by the Civil Rights Movement virtually upon its release and is widely considered to be Cooke’s most significant and enduring composition.
“A Change Is Gonna Come” has garnered over 500 recorded versions, including covers by Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Solomon Burke, Bobby Womack, the Fugees, Jon Bon Jovi, Seal, R. Kelly, Gavin DeGraw, Terrence Trent D’Arby, the Righteous Brothers, Al Green and many others. Over the years, “A Change Is Gonna Come” has garnered great accolades and in 2005, was voted #12 by representatives of the music industry and media in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and voted #3 in Pitchfork Media’s The 200 Greatest Songs of the 1960s. The song is also among those deemed as “the most important ever recorded” by National Public Radio (NPR) and was selected by the Library of Congress for inclusion in the National Recording Registry.
After the results of the 2008 U.S. presidential election, President-elect Barack Obama specifically referred to “A Change Is Gonna Come,” stating “It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, change has come to America” to the supporters gathered in Chicago’s Grant Park. In the days leading up to the president’s inauguration, “A Change Is Gonna Come” could be heard repeatedly at different events throughout the Capital in Washington DC including a duet version by Bettye LaVette and Jon Bon Jovi at the Lincoln Memorial. Cooke’s hopeful tone and vision for a multi-cultural society had come to fruition many years after he prophetically recorded the song, which is a cipher for righteous causes seeking change, equality and justice.
When I’m discouraged by the state of affairs here in the U.S.—which is far too often—I play this song. No matter how down I am, or how angry I am, or how frustrated I am, I always get my hopes lifted … because I know that one day, some day, though I may not be here to see it, a change is gonna come.
Join me in the comments for even more Sam Cooke—and please post your favorites, including your favorite Cooke covers.
Happy birthday, Sam!
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