Sam Cooke - Biography

Sam CookeSam Cooke (January 22, 1931 December 11, 1964) was a popular and influential American gospel, R&B, soul, pop singer, songwriter, and entrepreneur. Indeed, musicians and critics today recognize him as one of the true founders of soul music, and as one of most important singer in soul music history.

The title "the king of soul" is often over-used but Sam Cooke's legacy is a very big one. He had 29 Top 40 hits in the U.S. between 1957 and 1965. He is therefore seen by many as "the creator" of the genre. Major hits like "You Send Me", "Chain Gang ", "Wonderful World" and "Bring It On Home To Me" are among some of his very best work.

Cooke was also among the first modern black performers and composers to attend to the business side of his musical career, and founded both a record label and a publishing company as an extension of his careers as a singer and composer. He also took an active part in the Civil Rights Movement, paralleling his musical ability to bridge gaps between black and white audiences.

Biography

Sam Cooke was born Samuel Cook in Chicago, Illinois (he added an "e" onto the end of his name because he thought it added a touch of class). He was one of eight children of Annie Mae and Rev. Charles Cook, a Pentecostal minister. The family moved to Chicago in 1933.

Cooke began his musical career as a member of a quartet with his siblings, the Singing Children, followed by a turn as a teenager as a member of the Highway QCs, a gospel group. In 1950, at the age of 19, he joined The Soul Stirrers and achieved significant success and fame within the gospel community.

His first pop single, "Lovable" (1956) was released under the alias of "Dale Cooke," in order to not alienate his fan base; there was a considerable taboo against gospel singers performing secular music. However, the alias failed to hide Cooke's unique and distinctive vocals. No one was fooled. Art Rupe, head of Specialty Records, the label of the Soul Stirrers, gave his blessing for Cooke to record secular music under his real name, but was unhappy about the type of music Cooke and Bumps Blackwell, Cooke's pop producer, were making. Rupe expected Cooke's secular music to be similar to that of another Specialty Records artist, Little Richard. When Rupe walked in on a recording session and heard Cooke covering Gershwin, he was quite upset. After an argument between Rupe and Blackwell, Cooke and Blackwell left the label, and Cooke signed with Keen Records in 1957. His first release was "You Send Me", which spent six weeks at #1 on the Billboard R&B chart but which also had massive mainstream success, spending three weeks at #1 on the Billboard pop chart.

In addition to his success in writing his own songs and achieving mainstream fame a truly remarkable accomplishment for an R&B singer at that time Cooke continued to astonish the music business in the 1960s with the founding of his own label, SAR Records, which soon included The Simms Twins, The Valentinos, Bobby Womack, and Johnnie Taylor. Cooke then created a publishing imprint and management firm, then left Keen to sign with RCA Victor. One of his first RCA singles was the hit "Chain Gang." It reached #2 on the Billboard pop chart. This was followed by more hits, including "Sad Mood", "Bring it on Home to Me" (with Lou Rawls on backing vocals), "Another Saturday Night" and "Twistin' the Night Away".

Like most R&B artists of his time, Cooke focused on singles; in all he had 29 top 40 hits on the pop charts, and more on the R&B charts. In spite of this, he released a critically acclaimed blues-inflected LP in 1963, Night Beat. He was known for having written many of the most popular songs of all time in the genre, and is often unaccredited for many of them by the general public.

Cooke died at the age of 33 under mysterious circumstances on December 11, 1964 in Los Angeles, California. Though the details of the case are still in dispute, it seems he was shot to death by Bertha Franklin, manager of the Hacienda Motel in South Los Angeles, who claimed that he had threatened her, and that she killed him in self-defense. The verdict was justifiable homicide, though many believe that crucial details did not come out in court, or were buried afterward. Cooke was interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery, Glendale, California.

Some posthumous releases followed, many of which became hits, including "A Change Is Gonna Come", an early protest song which is generally regarded as his greatest composition. After Cooke's death, his widow, Barbara, married Bobby Womack. Cooke's daughter, Linda, later married Bobby's brother, Cecil. Cooke was inducted as a charter member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.

Legacy

Cooke's influence has been immense: even people who have never heard one of his records have still heard his voice and phrasing if they have listened to any Rod Stewart or Southside Johnny. Other rock artists with a notable Cooke heritage include The Animals, Simon and Garfunkel, Van Morrison, James Taylor, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Perry, and numerous others, while R&B and soul artists indebted to Cooke include Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Lou Rawls, Al Green, and again many more. Shortly following his passing, Motown Records released We Remember Sam Cooke, a collection of Cooke covers recorded by The Supremes.

"Wonderful World" was a featured song in the film National Lampoon's Animal House, one song in that film that was not a "party" song. The song was also featured in the film Hitch with Will Smith.

The well-known verse of "Wonderful World" "Don't know much about [history, geography, etc.]" provided the inspiration for titles of several books authored by writer Kenneth C. Davis. His books explored both basic and lesser-known facts about those subjects.

Discrepancies involving Cooke's murder

The details of the case involving Sam Cooke's death are still in dispute. The official police record states that Cooke was shot to death, apparently by Bertha Franklin, the manager of the Hacienda Motel, where Cooke had checked in earlier that evening. Franklin claimed that Cooke had broken into the manager's office/apartment in a rage, wearing nothing but a shoe and an overcoat (and nothing beneath it) demanding to know the whereabouts of a woman who had accompanied him to the motel. Franklin said that the woman was not in the office and that she told Cooke this, but the enraged Cooke did not believe her and violently grabbed her demanding again to know the woman's whereabouts. According to Franklin, she grappled with Cooke, the two of them fell to the floor, and she then got up and ran to retrieve her gun. She said that she then fired at Cooke in self-defense because she feared for her life. According to Franklin, Cooke exclaimed, "Lady, you shot me," before finally falling, mortally wounded.

According to Franklin and to the motel's owner, Evelyn Carr, they had been on the phone together at the time of the incident. Thus, Carr claimed to have overheard Cooke's intrusion and the ensuing confrontation and gunshots. Carr called the police to request that they go to the motel, informing them that she believed a shooting had occurred.

A coroner's inquest was convened to investigate the incident. The woman who had accompanied Cooke to the motel was identified as Elisa Boyer, who had also called the police that night shortly before Carr did. Boyer had called the police from a phone booth near the motel, telling them she had just escaped from being kidnapped.

Boyer told the police that she had first met Cooke earlier that night and had spent the evening in his company. She claimed that after they left a local nightclub together, she had repeatedly requested that he take her home, but that he instead took her against her will to the Hacienda Motel. She claimed that once in one of the motel's rooms, Cooke physically forced her onto the bed and that she was certain he was going to rape her. According to Boyer, when Cooke stepped into the bathroom for a moment, she quickly grabbed her clothes and ran from the room. She claimed that in her haste, she had also scooped up most of Cooke's clothing by mistake. She said that she ran first to the manager's office and knocked on the door seeking help. However, she said that the manager took too long in responding, so, fearing Cooke would soon be coming after her, she fled the motel altogether before the manager ever opened the door. She claimed she then put her own clothing back on, stashed Cooke's clothing away and went to the phone booth from which she called police.

Boyer's story is the only account of what happened between the two that night. However, her story has long been called into question. Due to inconsistencies between her version of events and details reported by other witnesses, as well as other circumstantial evidence (e.g. cash Cooke was reportedly carrying that was never recovered, and the fact that Boyer was soon after arrested for prostitution), many people feel it is more likely that Boyer went willingly to the motel with Cooke, and then slipped out of the room with Cooke's clothing in order to rob him, rather than in order to escape an attempted rape.

Ultimately though, such questions were beyond the scope of the inquest, whose purpose was simply to establish the circumstances of Franklin's role in the shooting, not to determine exactly what had happened between Cooke and Boyer preceding that. Boyer's leaving the motel room with almost all of Cooke's clothing in tow, regardless of exactly why she did so, combined with the fact that tests showed Cooke was inebriated at the time, seemed to provide a plausible explanation for Cooke's bizarre behaviour and state of dress, as reported by Franklin and Carr. This explanation together with the fact that Carr, from what she said she had overheard, corroborated Franklin's version of events, was enough to convince the coroner's jury to accept Franklin's explanation that it was a case of justifiable homicide. And with that verdict, authorities officially closed the case on Cooke's death.

However, some of Cooke's family and supporters have rejected not only Boyer's version of events, but also Franklin's and Carr's. They believe that there was a conspiracy from the start to murder Cooke, that this murder did in fact take place in some manner entirely different from the official account of Cooke's intrusion into Franklin's office/apartment, and that Franklin, Boyer and Carr were all lying to provide a cover story for this murder.

My brother was first class all the way. He would not check into a $3 a night motel; that wasn't his style.

Agnes Cooke-Hoskins, sister of Sam Cooke, attending the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 2005 tribute to Cooke.

To date, no solid evidence supporting such a conspiracy theory has been presented.

Sam Cooke Official Website

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