I have always loved Sam Cooke’s voice, which had a clarity and purity that is so very soothing. He was an amazing singer and songwriter, but unfortunately, his sordid early death usually gets more attention than his life.
So I’ll get that part out of the way. In 1964 Sam Cooke was shot and killed in a cheap motel in Los Angeles at the age of 33. It’s likely that the intoxicated Cooke brought a prostitute to this motel and while he was in the bathroom she grabbed his clothes and money and ran from the room, hoping he would be too embarrassed to follow her while naked. But he pulled on his coat and his shoes and while looking for her, he confronted the motel manager, who felt threatened and shot him in the chest. Of course, there are lots more details, as well as some unknowns. There are also plenty of conspiracy theories about how he really died, which you can find all over the internet stated with varying levels of coherence and vehemence.
Sam Cooke was born in Mississippi in 1931, one of eight children of a Baptist minister and his wife. In 1933 the family moved to Chicago in order to provide better educational opportunities for the children. This NPR article is long, but gives detailed information about Cooke’s childhood and family. Although a minister, Cooke’s father also had other jobs. He taught his children that they could do and be anything they wanted, but they should be the best at whatever they chose.
What I took away away from this and other articles was that Cooke loved to sing. From a young age, he knew that he wanted to make his living singing. He sang with his siblings in his father’s church and at revival meetings. He sang on the street. He sang in buildings. He sang to anyone who would listen. He sang with various gospel groups. He was ambitious and although he loved gospel, he eventually wanted to reach a larger secular audience. His first pop hit was “You Send Me” in 1953, which hit #1 on the charts and made him a star. Over the next ten years he sold over 10 million records.
In 1963 Cooke was turned away from a hotel in Louisiana because he was black. He voiced his displeasure and was jailed for disturbing the peace. A couple of months later he wrote “A Change is Gonna Come”, an important song in the civil rights era that was completely different than the pop songs he usually wrote.
Apart from anything else, Sam Cooke always sang and he left a lasting legacy. So I’ll share a few of my personal favorites. Let’s celebrate Sam Cooke’s life and voice.
Twistin’ the Night Away – it’s almost impossible not to dance to this.