Sam Cooke

Touch The Hem Of His GarmentThe Soul Stirrers Featuring Sam Cooke
You Send MeSam Cooke
Wonderful WorldThe Wonderful World of Sam Cooke
Chain GangRCA Victor 47-7783
CupidRCA Victor 47-7883
Twistin' The Night AwayTwistin' The Night Away
Bring It On Home To MeRCA Victor 47-8036
Cry Me A RiverMr. Soul
Fool's ParadiseNight Beat
A Change Is Gonna ComeAin't That Good News



Sam Cooke playlist



Contributor: Bert Wright

Sam Cooke was born on January 22nd 1931 in Clarksdale Mississippi, the fifth child of The Rev Charles Cook and his wife Annie Mae. As a child he moved with his family to Chicago where his father became pastor at Christ Temple Church. Sam and his siblings attended five services a day on Sundays and this is the first thing we need to remember about Sam Cooke; his soul, his roots and his spectacular voice arose out of this intense gospel upbringing. James Baldwin captured the essence of gospel in The Fire Next Time:

There is no music like that music, no drama like the drama of the saints rejoicing, the sinners moaning, the tambourines racing and all those voices coming together and crying holy unto the lord.

At an early age, Sam began singing with his siblings in a gospel group with the distinctly uninspiring name, The Singing Children. They sang in their father’s church and although Sam was the middle child, his older brothers noted the part Sam’s “pretty little tenor” played in their rising popularity. Others had noticed it too and Sam was soon co-opted into a group called The Highway QC’s where, as always, he was the main attraction. Great voice, good looks, charisma to burn, Sam Cooke was already learning how to enchant audiences and the ladies in particular. In the thriving Chicago musical scene, Sam would participate in the “singing battles” in the tenements, winning listeners over with his brilliant relaxed mimicry of Ink Spots hits.

His big break came in 1950 when he was invited to replace R.H. Harris, the lead singer of the hugely popular Soul Stirrers. Under Cooke’s leadership the group signed up with Specialty Records and recorded a string of gospel hits like Peace In The Valley and Touch The Hem Of His Garment. But the commercial possibilities of such a magnificent vocal instrument could not be constrained for long and in 1956 he recorded his first pop single, Lovable, under the pseudonym Dale Cook (the gospel community frowned upon such secular follies so Sam had to record incognito). Specialty boss Art Rupe wanted to mould Sam in the image of another Specialty artist, Little Richard, but Cooke wasn’t buying it and finally he left the label and joined Keen Records.

The same year he had his first big hit with You Send Me which, though more popular, was actually the B-side to Gershwin’s Summertime; in any event, the single spent six weeks at No.1 in the Billboard pop charts. In 1961, Sam Cooke started his own label SAR Records with his manager Roy Crain. This was the first of many moves which marked out Cooke as an independent artist and a savvy black-music capitalist in the snakepit of the recording industry. He owned his own record label (Sar/Derby), music publishing concern (Kags Music), and management firm. Where he led, many other black artists and entrepreneurs, like Berry Gordy and Russell Simmons, would later follow, proving that to be a success you needn’t be beholden to The Man.

Soon after, he quit to join RCA where he embarked on a spectacular run of 29 top 40 hits in the pop charts and more in the R&B charts including Chain Gang, Cupid, Wonderful World and Bring It On Home To Me (with Lou Rawls on backing vocals). With its superb phrasing and suave enunciation, Sam Cooke’s voice was a more rounded instrument than that of his white RCA counterpart, Elvis Presley, with whom he shared many affinities (dirt-poor upbringing, spiritual and gospel roots, pop idol, sex symbol). Interestingly, Rolling Stone’s Top 100 Greatest Singers rated Sam Cooke at No.4, ahead of James Brown, Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye but behind Elvis and No.1 Aretha Franklin, another scion of a preacher man.

While he concentrated mostly on singles, Sam also made a slew of albums, some in which he plays the syrupy crooner to no great effect. Cry Me A River, listed here, is among the honourable exceptions. Night Beat, a blues-inflected LP recorded in 1963 received warm critical acclaim with Fool’s Paradise, one of the standout tracks, delivering a sadly ironic portent of early death: “I often think of the life I’ve led and it’s a wonder I ain’t dead.”

A Change Is Gonna Come is, by common consent, Sam Cooke’s shining hour. Reputedly, Cooke wrote the song after hearing Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ In The Wind which he grudgingly admired. “Since when do white boys make music like that?” was his reported reaction on first hearing Dylan’s song. His response was to write and record one of the greatest pop songs ever, a song which represented a return to the spiritual roots from which he’d first emerged. Here, in the space of a three-minute pop song, we have a meditation on mortality, on life as pure suffering, on the flowering of hope and fortitude in spite of all. From the slow-build orchestral intro to the soaring first phrase – “I was BOARRNN by the river” – there begins to stir a deep spiritual undertow that sucks in the listener. All of the anguish of his race is compressed into the space of four short verses and a middle eight.

Adding a special poignancy to the vocal performance, the record was released posthumously a year after Cooke’s mysterious death in a seedy motel in 1964. Sam Cooke was 33 years-old with an illustrious career stretching before him and among all of popular music’s early check-outs, his is among the most tragic and deeply-felt because he was a genuine great. His music continues to inspire however and his legend half a century on continues to grow. The RCA hits still get airplay and A Change Is Gonna Come has become an African-American anthem, featuring in Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic Malcolm X and quoted by President Barack Obama in his 2008 victory speech.

Sam was one of the most influential singers in the history of popular music. He was among the first to blend gospel music and secular themes – the early foundation of soul music. His King of Soul persona inspired innumerable artists who followed in his wake including Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Michael Jackson, Al Green, Rod Stewart and, especially, Otis Redding. Rappers including The Roots, Nas and the late Tupac Shakur have also invoked Cooke’s name in their songs.

Sam Cooke’s legacy lives on in his back catalogue and in a host of indebted artists.



See the 2010 PBS “American Masters” documentary, Sam Cooke: Crossing Over, in full here.

In Dream Boogie, bestselling author Peter Guralnick captures Sam Cooke’s remarkable accomplishment and chronicles his moving and important story, from Cooke’s childhood as a choirboy to an adulthood when he was anything but that. Biographies of popular singers rarely do them justice but Guralnick has done it for both Sam Cooke and Elvis Presley. Well worth a read.

And, as a postscript, enjoy this great footage of Sam Cooke and Muhammad Ali doing an “impromptu” rendition of Hey, Hey, The Gang’s All Here.


Sam Cooke discography

Sam Cooke Fan Club facebook

Sam Cooke biography (Apple Music)

Bert Wright is administrator of the Irish Book Awards and curator of the Mountains to Sea dlr Book Festival.

TopperPost #190

1 Comment

  1. Peter Viney
    Feb 7, 2014

    I’d be delighted to take Bert’s list. I’d need to squeeze in Another Saturday Night and Shake, but maybe I can live with just the Otis Redding cover of Shake. As noted on the Otis Redding Toppermost comments, you can virtually get an album of Otis Covers Sam Cooke.
    I was pleased the list avoids the “other side” of Sam Cooke, in that he also recorded a lot of Easy Listening / Standard stuff like I’m A Country Boy. Marvin Gaye had the same penchant, though it never sold. I think it was the Nat “King” Cole syndrome that extended their admiration to a desire to emulate. Funny that their lives ended in similar ways.

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