Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Sam Cooke: Legend

We just received news that the EXCELLENT “Sam Cooke: Legend’ DVD is being updated and rereleased.  (We just watched this one again about a month ago after viewing the also-excellent Regina King film “One Night In Miami.)

Bob Merlis … and Harvey Kubernik … have all the details for you below. 



The life and music of Sam Cooke, soul’s first superstar, are examined in the critically lauded Sam Cooke: Legend, the Grammy® Award winning feature documentary from ABKCO Films. The 66-minute film examines the extraordinary career and tells the real story of his life through first-person accounts from family, childhood friends, musical collaborators and business associates along with Sam Cooke himself.   Originally released in 2003, it has long been out of print; it will be reissued on DVD April 30 and can be preordered now:  

Pre-Order on DVD

Sam Cooke: Legend (Official Trailer)

With the success of the film One Night In Miami ..., directed by Regina King, focus on the life of Cooke, portrayed in the film by Leslie Odom Jr., has grown exponentially. Sam Cooke: Legend traces both Cooke’s professional and personal life – from his gospel-singing roots in the early 1950’s through his R&B and pop music career to his untimely death in 1964. It was available for streaming through Amazon Prime earlier this year in celebration of the soul icon’s 90th birthday. The forthcoming DVD re-release includes extra content providing additional insight into the life and legacy of Sam Cooke.

The film recounts his commitment to the struggle for civil rights, underscored by his last and most enduring hit song, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” as well as his transcendent and consummate popular appeal.  Sam Cooke:  Legend was awarded a Grammy in 2004 in the Best Long Form Video (since renamed Best Music Film) category. One of the highlights includes archival newsreel footage of Cassius Clay, the jubilant newly-crowned heavyweight champion, spotting Sam Cooke in the crowd and inviting him into the ring exclaiming, “Let that man up! This is Sam Cooke! This is the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll singer!” That same frantic and scenario is depicted, almost scene for scene, in One Night In Miami … .

Sam Cooke: Legend was written by best-selling author Peter Guralnick whose Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, is widely recognized as the definitive biography of the musical giant.  It is narrated by Tony Award winning actor Jeffrey Wright (“Basquiat,” “Angels In America,” “Ali”) and was directed by Mary Wharton and produced by Robin Klein and Mick Gochanour.

The documentary features rare and never-before-seen performance clips, TV footage and family photos, plus exclusive original interviews. These include conversations with the late Aretha Franklin, TV host Dick Clark, singer Lou Rawls who was a childhood friend of Cooke’s and R&B great Lloyd Price. Also seen is Bobby Womack who, early in his career, enjoyed a rewarding musical association with Cooke, who produced his hit “It’s All Over Now,” later covered by The Rolling Stones as referenced in One Night In Miami … .  Cooke’s gospel roots are discussed by LeRoy Crume of the Soul Stirrers, the seminal group that Cooke joined as a teen, Cooke’s siblings as well as daughter Zeriiya (Linda Cooke Womack). Another participant is recording mogul Lou Adler (Mamas and Papas, Carole King), who co-wrote “Wonderful World” with Cooke and Herb Alpert. 

The DVD re-release includes a 3,000-word biography of Cooke and a comprehensive discography of his recordings, highlighting ABKCO's Sam Cooke Remastered Series.  Beyond that, the DVD’s extra content, running in excess of 4 ½ hours and not seen in the streaming version, is highlighted by additional interview footage with numerous of Cooke’s contemporaries including the aforementioned Aretha Franklin, Lou Rawls, Lloyd Price, Lou Adler, Bobby Womack and music producer Luigi Creatore.  Family members seen in the extra footage include Linda Cooke-Womack (Zeriiya), L. C. Cooke, Charles Cook and Agnes Cook-Hoskins plus “Burn Baby Burn” radio personality Magnificent Montague.

The film chronicles Cooke’s struggle to make it in the world of popular mainstream music culminating in his triumphant engagement at New York’s Copacabana in the summer of 1964.  From his birth in the Mississippi Delta through his family’s move to Chicago and the realization of his gift as expressed in his early gospel work, continuing through his change to secular music, his life can be viewed as a microcosm of the struggle for recognition and opportunity by African Americans in the mid-20th century. 

Born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and raised on Chicago’s South Side, Sam Cooke was the son of a Baptist minister. He started singing in the church choir as a child and, encouraged by his father, joined with his siblings to form a gospel group, the Singing Children. By the time he was a teenager, he had achieved significant success within the gospel community on the strength of his distinctive vocal style. In 1950 he was asked to replace legendary singer R.H. Harris as lead vocalist of The Soul Stirrers. 

Cooke crossed over into the world of popular music in 1957 and shot to the top of the R&B and Pop charts with his self-penned “You Send Me.” From that time on, he was never out of the Top 40, with smash hits like “Wonderful World,” “Chain Gang,” “Cupid,” “Twistin’ the Night Away,” “Another Saturday Night” and “Shake.” His success didn’t surprise Aretha Franklin, who had earlier seen him perform at her father’s church. She commented, “Sam was a prince of a man. He just had everything going for him. Sam had the looks, he had the voice, he had the manner, he had the charm, he had the savoir faire.”  A triumphant early-‘60s tour of the U.K. left a generation of young musicians like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Van Morrison and Rod Stewart enthralled as well.

A champion of creative rights who wrote much of his own material, Cooke was among the first artists to recognize the importance of owning the publishing rights to his own compositions. He later established his own record label and business empire to better realize his far-reaching musical ambitions.  

Refusing to perform for segregated audiences in the South, Cooke utilized his stature as a performer to help break down the color lines separating blacks from whites and, in the process became, along with his friend Muhammad Ali, a symbol of the new Black American. Further inspired by Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Cooke wrote “A Change Is Gonna Come,” a song that would become an anthem of the civil rights movement after Cooke’s senseless shooting death in December of 1964. Sam Cooke was 33 years old at the time and more than 56 years have passed since then, but interest in his life and work is stronger today than ever before. 

Sam Cooke: Legend is a comprehensive look at a figure who is, arguably, one of the most influential musical forces of the twentieth century and whose legacy resonates to the present day.  

-- Bob Merlis


The life and music of Sam Cooke, soul’s first superstar, are examined in the critically lauded Sam Cooke: Legend, the Grammy® Award winning feature documentary from ABKCO Films on April 30th.  


The 66-minute film examines the extraordinary career and tells the real story of his life through first-person accounts from family, childhood friends, musical collaborators and business associates along with Sam Cooke himself.  Originally released in 2003, it has long been out of print; it will be reissued on DVD April 30th.

When Sam Cooke was gunned down at age 33 in downtown Los Angeles, on December 11, 1964, at the Hacienda Motel, it was front page news all over Southern California and the US. His first funeral service was in Chicago at the A.R. Leak Funeral Home on December 18, 1964. 

The next day, a second service was held at the Mount Sinai Baptist Church in Los Angeles. Cooke was then interred in Glendale, California, at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery and his grave is in the Garden of Honor on the grounds. 

Over the last few decades, I’ve asked several of Cooke’s close friends, musical associates, record producers and engineers who worked with him in the studio or who encountered him in person witnessing his dynamic stage performances, about the magic of Sam Cooke.

“I met Herbie [Herb Alpert] just after he got out of the army,” songwriter and record producer Lou Adler told me in a 2008 interview for my book Canyon of Dreams: The Magic and the Music of Laurel Canyon

“We started talking about what he did and what I did, and we started writing songs. We cut four demos we wrote that Herbie sang on. We started going around to companies on Sunset and Vine, because the three major labels were RCA, Columbia, and Capitol, and you couldn’t get into those ... they didn’t let us in. A&R men at the time were dealing with established songwriters. There was a music publisher, Sherman Music — before we met Bumps Blackwell — that published the four songs. We actually got covers off those demos. One was ‘Circle Rock’ for the Salmas Brothers on Keen Records, and Louie Prima’s band with Sam Butera recorded “Bim Bam.' 

“Bumps was then head of A&R at Keen Records, and Herb and I apprenticed under him at the label. I first met Sam Cooke at the Orpheum Theater in downtown Los Angeles, where LaVern Baker was performing. Sam said, ‘So, you’re the new kid in town … ’  

“Going back to my early days with Sam Cooke and Bumps Blackwell ... The first thing that Bumps, Sam’s producer, a man from Seattle who had worked with Quincy Jones when Quincy was 16 or 17, Bumps took us to school. He made us go through stacks of demos, made us break them down. ‘What was good about the first verse?’ ‘The second verse?’ ‘The bridge, and how do you come out of the bridge?’ So, from the beginning part of my career in the music business, I was a song man. That was very important to me.”

“Bumps Blackwell hired Lou and Herb to listen to demos as apprentice A&R men and tell him what young people would want to buy,” recalled engineer and record producer Bones Howe to me in my book Turn Up The Radio Rock, Pop and Roll in Los Angeles 1956-1972.

“That was the beginning of that whole Sam Cooke thing. Herb Alpert and Lou Adler would arrive, sitting in the hallway at Radio Recorders. Herbie had his horn in a brown paper bag.”

Record label owner Bob Keane initially heard Sam Cooke singing in the Soul Stirrers in 1957. Cooke then earned a hit pop single, “You Send Me,” under the name Dale Cook on the Keen label. The nom de disque was an attempt to keep Sam’s voice and identity from the sanctified music community. No one was fooled. By the end of December, ’57, the record had sold close to two million copies. 

In 1960, Cooke moved to RCA Records, and Adler and Alpert wrote their first song for him, “All Of My Life.” After that, they collaborated with Sam to compose “(What A) Wonderful World.”

Herbie and I started writing ‘Wonderful World,’ and then I finished it with Sam at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood. Sam taught me how to communicate with musicians when you’re not a musician. He gave me a body language for working in the studio. I went out with him as kind of a road manager with the Soul Stirrers — that included Lou Rawls. Herbie and I produced Rawls’s first pop record.

“Sam also introduced me to a black world in Los Angeles, because I roomed with him for about eight months, including the Knickerbocker,” underscored Adler. “I learned more about the music and the people than I’d ever known, and I never experienced one bit of racial intolerance. People took me in because I was with Sam. We would go to the 5/4 Ballroom. Sam sang at my wedding [to Shelley Fabares in 1964]. 

“No one really looks at Sam as a singer-songwriter,” lamented Lou. “His songs were not always personal experiences, like ‘Twistin’ the Night Away.’

“First of all — Sam’s instrument. As a vocalist, he influenced Jackie Wilson and Otis Redding. He was the voice of that era, a tremendous vocalist. Also, he had a tremendous charisma that just spewed out of him in the recording studio, the stage, wherever he was.

“One time we went to the California Club to see Ed Townsend, who had a hit with ‘For Your Love,” recollected Adler. “He was up there singing that song, and, of course, getting a response. [He] tried to get Sam to come up onstage. We were just going for a night out. Finally, Sam came up and went into some gospel spiritual number. It was the first time that I saw the entire female audience get out of their seats and on top of their chairs. That was amazing. Charisma, I think, explains Sam in the right way. He had it walking into a recording studio, and he had it onstage. There was just something about him that was so beautiful.   

“Sam Cooke is never talked about as a human being,” reiterated Adler in 2008. “He’s mentioned as the great soul singer that he was and the instrument that he had, and the fact that everybody from Otis Redding to Jackie Wilson emulated him, followed him. He was just a great human being. A great guy. A great buddy with a wonderful sense of humor.

“I lived with him for a while in Hollywood at the Knickerbocker Hotel. I lived with Sam also on Saint Andrews Place - George McCurn, Bumps Blackwell, and Lou Rawls hung out there. It was an apartment house. Later, I went to Sam’s home in the Los Feliz area.”

“When Sam went to RCA, Radio Recorders was the de facto studio in Hollywood,” added Bones Howe. “I worked with Sam and ran the tape machines on one of his RCA albums. He was a sweetheart of a guy. He was a singer and a songwriter. He brought in a lot of his stuff. In the beginning, RCA was throwing stuff at him. Sam did so many of the things he wrote, and they started to be hits. At that point, you don’t mess with success.”   

Bobby Womack first came to prominence in the 1950s as part of the Womack Brothers, a gospel group that was comprised of his siblings Cecil, Harry, Curtis and Friendly. Impressed with the group, Sam Cooke encouraged them to come to Los Angeles, where he signed them to his SAR label.

They made the transition from gospel to R&B, when they recorded as the Valentinos,  scoring with “Lookin’ For A Love” and “It’s All Over Now,” written by Bobby and his sister in law, Shirley Womack. The song was covered by the Rolling Stones and produced by their manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, becoming their first #1 hit.

Womack’s career included stints as the guitarist in Ray Charles’ touring band, studio work in Los Angeles and Memphis and writing for other artists.  He played on sessions supporting Elvis Presley, Joe Tex, King Curtis, Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett, for whom he wrote two hits, “I’m A Midnight Mover” and “I’m In Love.” Womack was also involved in creating the landmark soul album by Sly & the Family Stone, There’s a Riot Goin’ On. Yes, that’s Bobby’s wah-wah pedal on “Family Affair.”

Bobby wrote “Breezin’” for jazz great Gabor Szabo, which would be George Benson’s breakthrough recording a few years later.  Womack penned tunes for Janis Joplin, “Trust Me,” the J. Geils Band, “Lookin’ for a Love,” Millie Jackson, “Put Something Down On It,” and Ronnie Wood, “I Got A Feeling.”    

As Bobby’s solo career evolved, he became the standard bearer for contemporary soul music, with such hits as "That's The Way I Feel About 'Cha" and "Woman's Gotta Have It."

In May of 2013, I was an on screen interview subject, along with Womack,  Damon Albarn of Blur and the Gorillaz,  Chuck D. of Public Enemy, Barney Hoskyns, Bill Withers, Regina Womack, actor Antonio Fargas, and the Rolling Stones’ Ronnie Wood in the BBC-TV documentary movie Bobby Womack: Across 110th Street, directed by James Maycock.   

Bobby Womack was an acquaintance and neighbor of mine for many years. Any discussion with Bobby would always turn to Sam Cooke.

“I came out to Hollywood in 1960 with Sam Cooke,” he volunteered in a 2008 interview.  “Bobby, you need to take off them boots and galoshes and ear muffs and all that stuff. You don’t need to wear that. It’s 80 and 90 degrees. It’s like this all the time. You can walk where you got to go if you don’t have no car.’

“It’s just inspirational. To me it was more normal to see movie stars and TV stars. Every now and then I would say, ‘I can’t believe it. I just watched Bonanza on TV and saw the big guy who I loved, Dan Blocker.

“I’ll tell you one story, the father on the show, the white dude, Lorne Greene. I’ll tell you how you can be a kid and that’s why this stuff has stuck with me a long time and I never could forget it.

“I was riding one day on Melrose Ave. in Hollywood, and I wished they had a black kid on Bonanza. I thought, ‘There has to be a black kid in the family. They just don’t show him. He’s probably on the back porch.’ I was making all these excuses in my head as a kid. So I just wrote myself into the script. (laughs). I was there. See, I was the kid they never saw. This is no joke. This is serious. I always listened to a lot of country music growing up. I even did an album later called BW Goes C&W.   

“So one day as I was riding, just came to Hollywood with Sam Cooke, going to the Hollywood Hills, and Sam said, ‘Look to your right.’ There was Lorne Green in a sports car. Do you know, and it’s the most embarrassing thing … I started saying ‘Dad! Dad! This is Bobby!’ I’m hollering at this guy, and he says, ‘Leave me the fuck alone!’ And he drove off. Man that broke my heart. He just didn’t recognize me.

“Sam was the first guy who introduced me to Nat King Cole at RCA studios on Sunset when   Nat was coming down the stairway. Sam was a very likeable guy and he knew everybody. ‘Hey Nat, I want you to meet Bobby Womack. He’s gonna be big one day. This is my new artist, Bobby Womack, who sang with a group called the Valentinos.’ They were talking like they knew each other for a hundred years. ‘Pleasure meeting you, man.’ Then I walked away thinking about it. ‘Man, I just met Nat King Cole … ’

“Earl Palmer was always on the Sam Cooke sessions. He was a hell of a drummer. I knew Rene Hall. He was a hell of a soulful arranger. We worked with Sam together.

“Allen Klein at ABKCO was on his case about his repertoire and he would fight Sam but Sam knew Allen was the kind of guy that was always gonna speak his mind. A lot of guys were yes men. ‘Sam you can do anything. Sam you don’t worry ‘bout that. He’s not a musician.’ But Allen would come to the show and then Sam would say, ‘Oh Lord … Let me hear what he’s gonna say.’ And then when Allen would come in and mention ‘You sang 'The Girl From Ipanema’ for an hour and people go to sleep. It ain’t you, man. People want to hear you.’ Sam seemed to wait on him to come.

“Sam had a big influence on anybody,” underlined Womack. “I mean to me, cancer would be good if Sam gave it out. I’m serious. Damn, I’ve seen artists who have their own styles, but if they hung around Sam a minute they are gonna make some of his runs. Just rubs off on you. Sam was a natural.

“He would always say, ‘Bobby, you could listen to a person talk and know what they sound like. They sound the same way they talk. Listen to Louie Armstrong. Listen to Jackie Wilson. Listen to Ray Charles. All these guys have different styles and don’t try and sound like each other. When you are born a certain way you can’t even think about tryin’ to sound like somebody else. It would be hard to do.’

I interviewed Andrew Loog Oldham in 2000 before Cooke’s media renaissance in 2003 when Sam Cooke: Legend was issued to retailers and consumers.   

“I'd always regarded Sam Cooke and Elvis Presley, and later Bob Dylan, as the real self -producing artists of the era,” suggested Andrew.

“Sinatra and Bing Crosby had to be the guv'ners - Keith Richards and I got to watch Mr. Sinatra record in Hollywood at United Western studios on Sunset Blvd. That was an education in form and producing thyself. It's an art that Julio Iglesias and Lionel Ritchie mastered in the 80's - to know thyself and how to dress yourself in sound, song and polish every word so that it belongs. It places you above anything that can be deemed the A&R domain. You have that uncanny period of time where you are at one with the audience.

“You only have to listen to the Sam Cooke studio chatter and Sam's instructions to know this was the reality of Sam Cooke. He wore the band like a glove. He knew what fit his hand and his command of who he was spot on.

“Being able to work on remastering Sam Cooke was a joy,” he stressed. “The Live At The Copa recording remains an uncanny experience ... I spent a lot of time getting the knives and forks balanced in character. The original 3-track recordings were perfect - you just had to allow for the new medium of how and where the work would be listened to and on what. I did the work with Steve Rosenthal and Jody Klein at the old RCA studios on 6th Avenue in New York.  There were still a lot of the old guys around, original engineers from the day, and they were so graceful and wanting to be of help. Now, RCA Studio A was the same dimensions as the RCA Studio A in Hollywood; so the nature of my beast at the time being so, I invited some Colombian visionaries I knew at the time and we seanced and got in touch with Sam Cooke in RCA Hollywood in 1963 during a recording and got his approval as to what I was about on his behalf.”  

-- Harvey Kubernik

I love the music of Sam Cooke ... and the whole vibe that surrounded everything he did.  Looking VERY much forward to seeing this newly expanded disc.  (kk)

I’ve watched this film countless times since it first came out in 2003.  After the first time, I’ve really been unable to watch it through the end because it’s so terribly sad.  You get to know him, experience his dynamism, magnetic personality and then ... he’s gone.  In fact, I watched it the other night on Amazon Prime with my wife, with whom I had watched One Night In Miami.  When Sam Cooke: Legend got close to the end, I just slinked out of the room.  

Bob Merlis

Yes, a horrible and senseless loss ...
And it has just always felt like everyone looked the other way at the time with no charges ever being filed.
One can only imagine what else Sam Cooke might have accomplished and given us had he been allowed to stick around ...

Yet, even in that short period of time, what he gave us is priceless ... and timeless.

A very sad ending to a very brilliant story.  (kk) 

A '60's FLASHBACK to a piece we first ran in 2004 ...



And how about THIS oldie but goodie from Chuck Buell ...