Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Sam Cooke Tribute Continues Today In Forgotten Hits

Back in 2003 / 2004, Forgotten Hits Reader Bob Benham (RockaBob66) approached me about doing a piece on Sam Cooke for our newsletter.

As I explained yesterday, I had already devoted about one hundred hours to what I had planned to be a month-long series on Sam's music, similiar in vein to the piece we had recently done on Bobby Darin.

Due to a serious computer crash, I lost EVERYTHING ... and I graciously accepted Bob's offer to run his piece in our newsletter.

The readers LOVED it ... as well they should. It's a VERY well done portrait of one of pop music's greatest artists.

With Bob's permission, we're re-running his piece in its entirety today as part of our very special Sam Cooke Weekend.



SAM COOKE. A man with a singing voice and vocal delivery smooth as silk, oozing with soul, the epitome of cool -- sincere. I don't know that much about his all too-brief career -- yet -- so I'll begin writing this from a fan's perspective. Methinks I'll be a much bigger fan after I've contributed this little piece ...

I have one Sam Cooke record, an LP: The BEST Of SAM COOKE on RCA -- 12 songs. But I know the man did so much more -- he was a noted gospel singer long before he crossed over to Pop in 1957. A Change Is Gonna Come is my favorite Sam Cooke song. Released after his untimely death, his former gospel greatness with the Soul Stirrers is evident in this classic song -- it's spine-tingling. To get myself more into a Sam Cooke groove (and for inspiration) I've been listening to all kinds of Sam Cooke tracks lately,
including many more great songs not found on the aforementioned album. I have not heard most of these before, but will listen to them all when all is said and sung. The man could sing and had style to burn, and an LP of 12 songs just doesn't do him justice. I've still heard none of his 50's gospel recordings with the Soul Stirrers -- not yet, that is. I think I'm in for a treat. I don't recall when I was first captivated by Sam Cooke's voice and soul -- I'd heard his better-known Pop songs, but didn't get the aforementioned album until 1981 or thereabouts. That voice. Sam didn't just sing, he wailed. I read a little about the man in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock & Roll and learned he was a renowned gospel singer before crossing over to Pop. I read of the circumstances surrounding his untimely death in 1964 and how a near riot ensued at his wake. That's about the extent of my knowledge of Sam Cooke -- that knowledge is about to grow ...

"The best singer who ever lived, no contest."
-- Jerry Wexler, co-founder of Atlantic Records
A- whoaa-ooah-a-whooah ...
-- Sam Cooke

SAM COOKE was one of the most popular and influential black singers to emerge in the 1950s and arguably one of the most influential musical forces of the last half century. He was a seminal influence on Soul music and R&B. 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-twentieth century.
He successfully synthesized a blend of gospel music and secular themes, providing the early foundation of the music that later came to be known as 'Soul'. Cooke's pure, clear vocals were widely imitated, and his suave, sophisticated image set the style of soul crooners for the next decade. He was born Sam Cook (he later added the 'e' to his surname), the son of a Baptist minister in Clarksdale, Mississippi -- the heart of the Delta Blues -- on January 22, 1931. He had four brothers and three sisters. The Cook family moved to the South side of Chicago in 1933, where his father became a minister in the Church of Christ Holiness Church. Sam started singing in the Church choir as a child.

Encouraged by his father during his formative years, Sam and several of his siblings performed as a gospel group called 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. At the age of 15, Sam became lead singer of the nationally famous Highway Q.C.'s (so named because their home base was the Highway Baptist Church) with his younger brother, L.C. Cook. It was here that they sang with all the leading gospel groups of the day when they passed through Chicago and where J.W. Alexander, tenor and manager of The Pilgrim Travelers, first saw the young Cooke. The Pilgrim Travelers were the second gospel group recorded by Specialty Records and Alexander soon became the label's chief gospel scout. In 1949 he brought the seminal gospel group The Soul Stirrers to Specialty Records after they'd recorded for Aladdin Records during the '40s. The Soul Stirrers were one of the top acts on the all night gospel circuit.

Sam had graduated from Chicago's Wendell Phillips High School, where he distinguished himself as an 'A' student as well as being voted "most likely to succeed." In December, 1950, The Soul Stirrers' legendary lead singer R.H. Harris quit the group. The group's manager Roy (S.R.) Crain hand-picked Sam to replace Harris as lead vocalist of the Soul Stirrers. In 1951, Cooke's first session with the group on Specialty Records produced Jesus Gave Me Water. With his soaring vocal leads Cooke brought style to the gospel format. Thus began Sam Cooke's writing and recording career, with such gospel classics as Nearer To Thee, Touch The Hem Of His Garment and Be With Me Jesus. Cooke soon became a gospel superstar.

For six electrifying years he established a new standard for gospel expression, while touring and recording with the Soul Stirrers. With the times changing, soon J.W. Alexander was pressuring Specialty Records head Art Rupe to let Cooke issue records in the popular field. The monetary and worldly rewards for singing gospel could never equal those for singing to the masses. Sam's father also encouraged him to venture beyond the gospel circuit. Cooke gave in and recorded Lovable under the name Dale Cook. Sam's voice was too unique not to be recognized. Lovable sold 25,000 copies and set off a backlash from his gospel fans. Constraints against gospel performers performing secular material were strong and woven deep into the fabric of the black community; The Soul Stirrers were booed whenever they made a personal appearance. Cooke was released by the Soul Stirrers and replaced by Johnny Taylor.

In the next five months there were no more releases by 'Dale Cook' or Sam Cooke. A Change was about to come ... Cooke crossed over into the world of popular music in June of 1957 when he left Specialty Records, along with his producer / manager Bumps Blackwell. Blackwell, Specialty's chief A&R man, had asked for his release. With royalties due, Blackwell was offered Cooke's recording contract in lieu of cash. Blackwell accepted and signed Cooke with Keen Records, a new label started by Bob Keane. Cooke sang his new songs with the same conviction he had brought to gospel music.

In 1957 he released his self-penned You Send Me, a #1 hit which shot to the top of the R&B and Pop charts, while selling 1.7 million copies. You Send Me established Cooke as a commercial artist and an original pop stylist. From that time on, he was never out of the Top 40. The musical pattern in You Send Me was the basis for most of Cooke's first year with Keen. They were love songs with pretty arrangements and sung with a rolling, medium tempo. After the success of You Send Me, Sam appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and performed at New York City's world famous Copacabana in March of 1958, where in his own words "he bombed." A triumphant return engagement in 1964 would redeem him.

In 1959 Cooke released Everyone Like To Cha Cha Cha (#31 on the pop charts) to cash in on the then-popular Cha-cha dance style; this was followed up with Only Sixteen (#28). That same year Sam married his childhood sweetheart, Barbara Campbell. They would have two daughters and a son, who at the age of eighteen months would tragically drown in 1963.

Cooke left Keen Records over a royalty dispute in 1959. In 1960 he signed with RCA Victor and began writing blues and gospel inflected songs. A Cooke composition called Nobody Loves Me Like You became a hit for the Flamingos, and Cooke continued to be a big hit on the R&B circuit. In March, he toured the Caribbean to sold out houses. Then RCA released Chain Gang (1960), which peaked at #2 on both the Pop and R&B charts. After Sam joined RCA, Keen Records issued the million selling Wonderful World (#12, 1960). In the following months Sam released Cupid (#17, 1961); then teamed up with Lou Rawls to sing Bring It On Home To Me (#13, 1962) and Havin' A Party (#17, 1962). With Twistin' the Night Away in 1962, Cooke got back on track to stay; it was a #1 on the R&B charts and a Top-10 pop hit (#9). Other hits followed, most notably Another Saturday Night (#10, 1963). Sam scored so heavily in the best selling charts during this period that his RCA producers nicknamed him "The Consistent One." During his lifetime, Cooke was RCA's second-biggest seller, behind only Elvis Presley.

In addition to being perhaps the best gospel and pop singer of his day, Sam Cooke was an accomplished songwriter who wrote and co-wrote many of his biggest hits. He was a groundbreaking African-American music business visionary and a major force on the corporate side. He was one of the first artists to recognize the importance of owning the publishing rights to his own compositions (something almost unheard of in the early '60s), with his own music publishing company (Kags Music), formed in 1959. He later established his own business empire to better realize his far-reaching musical ambitions, becoming the first black musician to establish his own record label (SAR / Derby) and had a management firm with offices in the Warner Brothers Building in Hollywood. His impact as a producer was substantial (though less widely recognized): on his SAR label, Sam produced such gospel-oriented artists as the Womack Brothers (who later became the Valentinos), Johnnie Taylor, Billy Preston, R.H. Harris & His Gospel Paraders, The Simms Twins and Johnnie Morisette, as well as giving continued expression to The Soul Stirrers. The 1994 compilation Sam Cooke's SAR Records Story 1959-1964 spotlights Sam Cooke the producer.

In 1963 Allen Klein became Sam's manager and was appointed to manage SAR, Kags and all related companies. The same year, Sam signed a new agreement whereby all of his RCA business would pass through Tracey Records (now ABKCO Records). RCA was now merely Tracey Records' distributor. This new deal guaranteed Sam a minimum advance of half a million dollars over three years and established Sam's complete ownership of his work. Everything he did from this point on would be by his own design and direction, and in fact even RCA's distribution rights of the Tracey material were limited to 30 years from the term of the agreement. ABKCO (Allen Klein) now controls Sam's 152 classic compositions and the compositions written by artists signed to SAR Records.

A triumphant early-'60s tour of the UK left a generation of young British musicians enthralled. 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 friends Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, 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. Cooke's struggle to make it in the world of popular main-stream music culminated in his triumphant return engagement at New York's Copacabana in the summer of 1964. With his LP Live At The Copa in the Top 30 and his career flying high, Sam Cooke was in LA partying at a club on the night of December 11, 1964. There he met a young woman named Lisa Boyer. They later drove to South Central LA where they registered at the seedy Hacienda Motel. While Cooke was in the bathroom, Boyer (a prostitute) left the room with most of Cooke's clothing. Moments later an enraged Cooke, wearing only a suit jacket allegedly broke into the motel office where he suspected the woman was hiding -- there he encountered motel manager Bertha Franklin. With the enraged Cooke demanding the whereabouts of the woman, a scuffle ensued. Franklin grabbed a .22 and fired three shots, one hitting and killing Cooke. Franklin claimed Cooke had tried to rape the young woman and feared he was about to turn on her. The coroner's office ruled the death as justifiable homicide, but to this day there remain questions about the mysterious circumstances surrounding Sam Cooke's death. Allen Klein had a private investigator on the case, but Sam Cooke's widow requested the case be closed. Sam Cooke should not have died at age 33.

After establishing himself as the dominant force in the music that came to be known as 'Soul', Sam Cooke's untimely death was felt in America's inner cities on a par equaling the loss of a head of state. There were two funerals, in Los Angeles and Chicago. At the church in LA, a crowd of 5,000 persons overran facilities designed to accommodate 1,500. In an emotion packed atmosphere, super charged by the singing of Lou Rawls, Bobby Blue Bland and Arthur Lee Simpkins, women fainted, men wept and onlookers shouted. A grief-stricken gospel singer who was to sing in the funeral program had to be carried off. Ray Charles stepped in from the audience to sing and play.

Two months after his death his song Shake peaked at #7 on the pop charts (1965). A Change Is Gonna Come was the B side and charted at #31. It represented a return to Cooke's roots, placing him back in the spiritual setting from which he had first emerged just nine years before. Sam Cooke was a true superstar in his lifetime.

Sam Cooke's legacy continues with each new generation:
In 1986 he was one of the first ten charter inductees into the newly founded Rock 'N' Roll Hall Of Fame.
In 1987 he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame.
In 1993 he received the Chairman's Award from The Apollo Theater Foundation. In 1999 he received the first Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation;
and in 1999 he received the NARAS Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award
In 2001 he received proclamations in Los Angeles County, Mississippi and Chicago declaring December 17 Sam Cooke Day.
Almost 40 years after his death, Sam Cooke's legacy and influence is stronger than ever. His music endures with cover recordings by many diverse recording artists such as Rod Stewart, The Animals, Cat Stevens, The Rolling Stones, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson, Wilson Pickett, Jackie Wilson, Bobby Womack, Herman's Hermits, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ray Charles, The Spinners, Nina Simone, Jim Croce, Art Garfunkel, The Pointer Sisters, Solomon Burke, Luther Vandross, The Manhattans, Bryan Adams, Dan Seals, Jimmy Buffett, James Taylor, Michael Bolton, Steve Miller, Dr. Hook and Tina Turner, to name a few.

Recommended recordings, etc.:
Almost 40 years after his death, interest in the life and work of Sam Cooke is stronger today than ever before. His most essential album recordings have been newly remastered, with breathtaking sound. Some of the more notable ones are:
*Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964: The definitive remastered hits collection. You've gotta hear the short bonus track: a snippet of Sam's interview with LA disc jockey 'The Magnificent Montague'. When asked by the DJ to "hum Soul", Sam defines Soul by humming the way John Coltrane plays sax.

*Night Beat, Sam Cooke At The Copa: Cooke's triumphant return to the Copacabana in the summer of 1964. Remastered so it sounds you're sitting at the front table.

*Sam Cooke Live At The Harlem Square Club, 1963: Critically acclaimed as his masterpiece. A live recording released in 1985 sat unreleased in the RCA vaults for 22 years.

A new definitive Sam Cooke biography is in the works, and a new video documentary is in production. Should be a fitting tribute.

Download Sam's masterpiece, A Change Is Gonna Come here:

Inspired by Bob Dylan's Blowin' in the Wind, this song has come full circle, with Dylan singing it live at The Apollo. The NBC Apollo Theater 70th Anniversary Show will be broadcast in June on NBC.

Writing this piece on Sam Cooke was a gas. It opened my ears to music of an artist I'd heard before, beyond the occasional Sam Cooke oldie played on the radio. And Sam Cooke is vastly underplayed on Oldies radio. I'm surprised I didn't dig deeper into his music long ago ... this great singer's musical legacy has been virtually remastered in the past year or two. I have a feeling that this year many people will discover / rediscover this great singer.

A singer of this caliber comes along maybe once each generation. This has been a learning process, just like those book reports we used to do in school. I learned so much more about a musical icon who's music has always been out there ... available. I suppose I was too caught up in other genres of music. I always appreciated this cat, but my eyes and (especially) my ears are open now. 'Listen to the music', 'cuz this cat had it goin' on.

Like I said, a singer of this caliber comes along maybe once each generation, kind of like a Michael Jordan of popular music, the likes of whom you'll not hear again in this lifetime. Thanks, Kent, for giving me the opportunity to rediscover this great artist! I'll now seek out his music on CD, as well as await the new video documentary and the book, when they're available. Long live Sam Cooke!b0b

Keeping in mind that this article was written back in 2003, there have been MANY Sam Cooke releases since then. Among my personal favorites are the box set "Sam Cooke: The Man Who Invented Soul", the "live" albums Bob mentions in his article above, The Soul Stirrers Box Set and the "Legend" DVD ... try to make it through THAT one with a dry eye. Between the beauty of the music and the sad, tragic end to Sam's story, you'll come away with a far greater appreciation for the man and his music. Thanks again, Bob ... great piece! (kk)

By the way ... For an interesting perspective on Sam Cooke, the man, not normally presented in your traditional biography (and there are SEVERAL now available covering Sam's life and career), be sure to check out "Our Uncle Sam", written by Sam's Great Nephew Erik Greene. Erik has participated with Forgotten Hits a number of times over the years ... and you'll find a website devoted to his efforts to keep the memory of his Great Uncle alive right here:
Click here: Our Uncle Sam: The Sam Cooke Story From His Family's Perspective

One of the things Bob and I wanted to do back when this piece first ran in Forgotten Hits in 2004 was to visit some of the Sam Cooke Landmarks that adorn the great city of Chicago. Sadly, we were never able to do so ... but Erik, if you're ever up for a weekend jaunt ... and are willing to act as our tour guide ... we would LOVE to see a part of the history that helped to shape the man. In fact, if there's an interest from some of our local readers ... and a willingness on Erik's part to head up this venture ... we'll see if we can't arrange some sort of a Sam Cooke Chicagoland Tour sometime this spring when the weather gets a little bit nicer! Stay tuned for more details. (kk)