5 Minute BiographiesBorn in JanuaryBorn in the 20th CenturyDied in DecemberDied in the 20th CenturyEntertainmentPodcastSingers

Sam Cooke

“I’m gonna sing, and I’m going to make me a lot of money.” – Sam Cooke

Samuel Cook was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, USA on 22 January 1931 and was the fifth of eight children born to a minister, the Reverend Charles Cook and his wife Annie Mae.

When Samuel was only two years old, the family moved to Chicago where he attended the Doolittle Elementary School before going on to Wendell Phillips Academy High School where Nat King Cole had been educated only a few years before.

He enjoyed singing from a very early age and joined some of his siblings in a group imaginatively called the Singing Children when he was only six. By the time he became a teenager his vocal talents had allowed him to become the lead singer with a group called the Highway Q.C. which he joined when he was 14 and at around the same time, he became friends with the gospel singer Lou Rawls.

As he was about to enter his twenties, he replaced R.H. Harris as the lead singer of the Soul Stirrers which already had a recording contract with Specialty Records. Their first recording with Cook at the helm was Jesus Gave Me Water in 1951.

Sam wrote several of the tracks that the Soul Stirrers recorded, and he was also the main reason why gospel music started to become popular among the younger generation, especially young girls who would flock to Soul Stirrers performances in the hope of getting close to Cook.

In 1953, Sam married Dolores Elizabeth Milligan, but the couple divorced only five years later. The year after the divorce Dolores was killed in a car accident and Sam paid all of the funeral expenses.

Gospel music was not the only interest that Sam had, and he started to experiment with more secular, commercial music. Although Specialty Records was initially supportive of the idea of Sam recording secular music as a solo artist, the relationship broke down and Sam and Specialty Records parted company. At this point in his life, Sam was at a bit of a crossroads as although he had enjoyed bringing gospel music to the impoverished masses via the Soul Stirrers, he also knew he could achieve so much more.

The final push to go it alone came from his father who told him that it wasn’t important what the subject of the song was. What was important was that God had given him a talent and that he should use that talent to make people happy. The year was 1957 and as Sam ventured into the world of pop music, he added the ‘e’ to the end of his surname to signify a new beginning.

Signing a contract with Keen Records and appearing on the Guy Mitchell Show, he released a recording of George Gershwin’s Summertime, but it was the B-Side of that single that would become the hit with You Send Me spending six weeks at the top of the Billboard R&B chart, not to mention three weeks at number one in the pop chart after toppling Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock from the top spot.

In 1958 Sam married for the second time after meeting Barbara Campbell in Chicago several years earlier. The couple had three children together, Linda who was born in 1953, Tracy who was born in 1960 and Vincent who was born in 1961.

In January 1960, Sam Cooke signed a contract with RCA Victor worth a guaranteed $100,000. One of the first tracks recorded under this new deal was Chain Gang which reached the number two spot on the Billboard pop chart. More hits followed including the still-popular songs Cupid and Twistin’ the Night Away.

Most R&B artists at the time concentrated on writing, performing, and selling singles, and Sam Cooke was no exception. In all he would have 29 top 40 hits, writing most of the songs himself, but that’s not to say he didn’t also produce albums. His 1963 blues LP called Night Beat was well received but his most critically acclaimed studio album, which contained five top 40 singles was Ain’t That Good News which was released in 1964.

Unfortunately, we will never know how big a star Sam Cooke could have become or how many hits he may have had.

On the evening of 10 December 1964, Sam spent time in a local nightclub with a woman who was later identified as Elisa Boyer and the pair ended up back at Cooke’s room at the Hacienda Motel in Los Angeles, California. There are several versions of the events that followed in the early hours of the following morning, but what is known is that Cooke ended up forcing his way into the motel manager’s office, naked except for one shoe and a sports jacket shouting “where’s the girl?”. Some kind of struggle then took place and apparently in fear for her life, the motel’s manager, Bertha Franklin shot Cooke in the chest.

Responding to several reports of a shooting and kidnapping, the police arrived to find Sam Cooke, the King of Soul, dead at the age of only 33.

Of the several versions of events that transpired that night, one includes the idea that Elisa Boyer was forced back to the motel by Cooke but that she managed to escape. Another is that she went with Cooke willingly but then proceeded to rob him before calling the police, claiming to have been kidnapped. Yet another theory is that there was a grand conspiracy to murder Cooke, although no evidence in support of this has ever been put forward.

A verdict of justifiable homicide was reached by the inquest. The legacy left by Sam Cooke is that he is considered by some to be the inventor of soul music. His smooth singing voice and effortless style helped him to pioneer this new form thus contributing to the careers of Aretha Franklin, Bobby Womack, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and all other great soul artists ever since.

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