Soul singer Sam Cooke was ahead of his time, not just musically but in the business of music.
He was born Samuel Cook on Jan. 22, 1931, in Clarksdale, Mississippi, to Rev. Charles Cook, Sr., a Baptist minister, and Annie May Cook. In 1931, his father added the “e” to their surname. Raised in Chicago Heights, IL, Sam Cooke went on to become a singer, songwriter, producer, entrepreneur and one of this country’s most influential artists.
His singing career started in gospel and he joined the groundbreaking gospel group The Soul Stirrers when he was just 15 years old. They released such hit songs as “Nearer to Thee” (1955), “Touch the Hem of His Garment” (1956), and “Jesus, Wash Away My Troubles” (1956), according to Britannica. Cooke acted as the group’s lead vocalist until 1957. That year he recorded his first solo record, “Lovable,” under the pseudonym Dale Cook. After this, he made the difficult decision to transition to popular music. Gospel music circles frowned upon artists that did secular music.
One of his earliest singles under his own name, “You Send Me,” shot to the top of the pop and R&B charts. It was the first of 29 Top Forty hits for Cooke, who was soon to be in major demand.
By 1958, he signed with the William Morris Agency and appeared on numerous television programs, including “The Ed Sullivan Show.” That same year, he performed for the first time at New York City’s world-famous venue Copacabana.
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Two years later, in 1960, he signed with RCA, where he wrote hit after hit, including “Chain Gang,” “Bring it On Home To Me,” “Cupid,” “Another Saturday Night” and “Twistin’ the Night Away.”
The deal was groundbreaking as under his agreement with RCA he retained control of the copyrights to his music, AllAboutJazz.com reported.
Cooke was not content with just singing, he wanted to be in control of his musical creations. And his actions to do so forever changed the mainstream music industry. He founded his own his publishing company (Kags Music), and launched his own record label (SAR Records) in 1961, according to Cooke’s official website.
Cooke also began producing records and writing music for other artists.
By 1964, Cooke was one of the few Black artists whose music crossed over to large white audiences. Even so, Cooke remained committed to civil rights and refused to perform for segregated audiences.
But, at the height of his career, Cooke, 33, was killed in Los Angeles on December 11th, 1964. He was shot to death a motel manager in an incident that still today is shrouded in mystery.
The release of his first posthumous single, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” is regarded as the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement–which is what he intended, according to his website. In 2007, the harrowing song was selected by the Library of Congress.
Photograph of Sam Cooke used in an advertisement in Billboard magazine for “Let’s Go Steady Again,” April 9, 1966, Billboard. Vol. 78, No. 15. page 21. Author: RCA Victor Records. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sam_Cooke_2.jpg