Born January 22, 1935 (some sources say 1931 or 1932), in Chicago, Ill.; died of gunshot wounds, December 11, 1964, in Los Angeles, Calif.; son of Charles (a Baptist minister); married Barbara Campbell, October 1959. Education: Attended Wendell Phillips High School, Chicago, Ill.

Soul singer Sam Cooke was acclaimed as "a bravura vocal stylist who blazed the path for a generation of singers from Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett to Aretha Franklin and Al Green," by Jim Miller in Newsweek. A prominent feature on the music scene from the early 1950s, when he sang with the black gospel group the Soul Stirrers, through a solo pop career that ended when he was shot to death in late 1964, Cooke "became famous for letting his voice glide over every syllable of a song in a sustained lyrical caress," according to Miller. Popular with black and white audiences alike, Cooke--who wrote most of his own material--is remembered for such hit songs as "You Send Me," "Only Sixteen," "Wonderful World," "Cupid," and "Chain Gang."

Cooke, one of eight children in his family, was born in Chicago, Illinois. His father, the Reverend Charles Cooke, was a Baptist minister, and Sam began singing gospel songs in his father's church as a child. While still attending Chicago's Wendell Phillips High School, he and one of his brothers sang in a gospel group called the Highway Q.C.'s. But Cooke did not begin to achieve fame for his vocal abilities until he joined the already well-established Soul Stirrers.

Cooke quickly became the Soul Stirrers' featured tenor, and sang the lead on their hits "Pilgrim of Sorrow" and "Touch the Hem of His Garment." Gene Busnar asserted in his book, It's Rock'n'Roll, that "many knowledgeable listeners consider these two gospel performances the best of [Cooke's] career." In addition, Cooke, "with his good looks and dreamy voice ... lowered the age of the average female attendee of a gospel program by about thirty years," according to Ed Ward in Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll.

But even while a Soul Stirrer, Cooke was showing interest in more secular forms of musical expression. He released a pop single called "Loveable" in 1956 on the Specialty label that recorded the Stirrers' music, but was credited with the name "Dale Cooke" instead of his own. Art Rupe, the owner of Specialty, feared that the Stirrers' fans would be offended at their lead singer cutting a pop tune. He also felt that Cooke's voice was too mellow and smooth to make much of a dent in the pop music scene, and tried to discourage the singer from following that direction. Cooke did record a few more pop tunes for Specialty, however, including "I'll Come Running Back to You."

Despite Rupe's negative attitude, Cooke was undaunted in his mainstream musical ambitions. He left the Stirrers, and with Bumps Blackwell--who had produced his pop efforts for Specialty--broke with Rupe and signed with the fledgling label, Keen. Cooke's first hit for Keen was the 1957 release that he wrote with his brother, L. C. Cooke, "You Send Me," which sold 1.7 million copies in 1957 alone.

Cooke was an instant solo success; the "B" side of "You Send Me," "Summertime," also made the charts, and he followed this up with another double-sided hit released later in the year, "Desire Me," and "For Sentimental Reasons." As Busnar explained, these songs "introduced the public to a voice that was unlike any that they had ever heard. Cooke had a delicate but intense voice. His clear diction and timbre reminded some people of Nat King Cole. But Cooke had a depth of emotion below his polish which Cole could not touch."

Cooke had several other hits for Keen, including "Win Your Love For Me," "Everybody Likes to Cha-Cha-Cha," "Only Sixteen," and "Wonderful World" before moving to RCA in 1960. His first big hit for his new label was "Chain Gang," a song describing the sufferings of convict labor that rose to second place on the record charts. In 1961 he released "Cupid," his hit song of supplication to the Roman god of love, and in 1962 he capitalized on the new dance craze, the Twist, with "Twistin' the Night Away."

Cooke also introduced black phrases into the popular music lover's vocabulary with songs like his 1962 hit "Bring It on Home to Me," on which he was backed up by soul singer Lou Rawls in a call and response style, and his posthumous release "A Change Is Gonna Come," which gave new social overtones to a familiar black expression. In the early 1960s Cooke was also working as a record producer on his own independent label, Sar, which released cuts like "Soothe Me," by the Sims Twins, and "Rome Wasn't Built in a Day," by Johnny Taylor.

The circumstances surrounding Cooke's death are somewhat cloudy. In December 1964 he was vacationing in Los Angeles, California. In Rock of Ages Geoffrey Stokes claimed that Cooke, though he had married his high school sweetheart, Barbara Campbell, in 1959, checked into a motel room with Elisa Boyer as Mr. and Mrs. Cooke. He allegedly tried to rape her, and she fled. In the confusion that ensued, Cooke pounded at the motel manager's door, "eventually breaking in on the 55-year old manager, Bertha Franklin. She shot him three times with a .22 revolver.... He was dead when the police arrived." Despite the sordid aspects of his death, Cooke was perceived as a martyr by many of his fans, according to Miller. "Thousands of distraught fans mobbed A. R. Leak's Funeral Home in Chicago to catch a last glimpse of their idol," Miller noted. Cooke left some recorded but unreleased material when he died, thus 1965 added "A Change Is Gonna Come" and "Shake" to his list of hit records.

by Elizabeth Thomas

Sam Cooke's Career

Singer, songwriter. Singer with gospel group the Highway Q.C.'s, c. 1950; featured singer with gospel group the Soul Stirrers during early 1950s; solo vocalist, c. 1957-64; record producer on Sar label during early 1960s.

Famous Works

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 15 years ago


about 16 years ago

Your article is not representing the facts of this man's life Story. for one thing he was born in Clarksdale, MS not chicago, IL. And if you are trying to be funny with his date of birth it was 1931 not 1935. You should try another line of work. I do not appreciate stupidity.