Sam Cooke: The Most Important Soul Singer in History
One Night in Miami, started out as a Kemp Powers play that turned into an exciting film that has ruffled a few feathers and stirred a bit of controversy. This is not only due to its political and social implications but also concerning the four key characters involved — boxing legend Mohammad Ali (then Cassius Clay), American football star Jim Brown, Malcolm X, one of the most important social and political figures of the ’60s, and Sam Cooke, possibly one of the greatest soul singers and composers ever.
And it was the last two statements about Cooke that have somehow gathered the most interest in the aftermath of the film. Partly it is because of his artistic stature, and partly due to the many question marks that still hang over his violent death back in December 1964.
Some of the songs Cooke wrote and sang first still get cover after cover, sweet ballads like “Cupid” or some of the most socially charged works that still ring with importance like “A Change Is Gonna Come.” These and other songs from Cooke’s cannon will always have their place in soul/pop music history. There is also the fact that Cooke was one of the first artists to truly get a recording contract that worked in an artists’ favor. But it seems that his death and the circumstances surrounding it, including his connection with the three figures he is portrayed alongside in One Night in Miami seem to be the things that are still getting more attention and are a subject of an engaging Netflix documentary, ReMastered: Two Killings of Sam Cooke.
Still, the facts of Cooke’s life and career tell a story that certainly supports his role as one of the greatest pop artists there ever was.
“The most important soul singer in history.”
Open any biography of Cooke and you can find the above statement. Sure, you can add Marvin Gaye and a few other artist to Cooke’s name in that respect. But one thing distinguishes Cooke — in many respects, he was the trailblazer in modern music.
First of all, it can be easily claimed that Cooke was actually the inventor of soul music in its modern (and current) terms. And as AllMusic points out, he was among the first black performers and composers to attend to the business side of the music business, founding both a record label and a publishing company as an extension of his careers as a singer and composer.
And as is pointed out by quite a few sources, “business interests never prevented him from engaging in topical issues, including the struggle over civil rights. The pitch and intensity of that battle followed an arc which paralleled Cooke’s emergence as a star; his career bridged gaps between black and white audiences that few had tried to surmount, much less succeeded at doing.”
It can be easily claimed that Cooke was actually the inventor of soul music in its modern (and current) terms
A brief look at Cooke’s artistic career tells the story. One of the eight children of a Mississippi Baptist minister, Cooke’s voice shone in his father’s church choir. When the family moved to Chicago in the 1930s Sam quickly formed The Singing Children, a gospel group with his family members. After a stint with another minor gospel group, Cooke joined The Soul Stirrers, one of the top gospel groups of the 1950s.
Cooke quickly became the leading light of the group, but he had an ear and taste for popular music. In 1956 he decided to record a pop single “Lovable” under the name of Dale Cooke, as not to attract the attention of the gospel fans.
From Gospel to Pop to Social Commentary
Pop was considered ‘devil’s music’ in gospel circles at the time, so this thinly veiled cover got Cooke dropped both by his group and their record label. Immediately after the split, Cooke started making wider music history. It came with one of his biggest hits, “You Send Me,” a song that seventy years on remains a pop and soul classic. It was, as noted many times, “a pioneering soul record in its time, melding elements of R&B, gospel, and pop into a sound that was new and still coalescing at the time.”
Cooke continued with this pop/soul ballad vein that obviously worked, with hits like “For Sentimental Reasons” or “(What A) Wonderful World.” Big labels went after Cooke’s signature and he picked up RCA. Many questioned his decision at the time. Atlantic Records were the key R&B label, but the reason Cooke didn’t sign with them is the fact that they wanted his publishing, and Cooke insisted on keeping his copyrights. Still, even after signing with RCA, Cooke formed his own publishing company (Kags Music) and a record label (SAR). Through the latter, he released records by other artists like Bobby Womack, Johnny Taylor, and Billy Preston, among others.
While most of his big hits with RCA became pop and soul standards, his first release for the label was also the sign of Cooke’s social commentaries through music. It was “Chain Gang,” a song that had quite a bit to say even though Cooke packed it into a sweet melody. It went on to become a number two hit on both the pop and R&B charts. The only song that worked better for Cooke was “You Send Me,” although titles like “Cupid,” “Twisting’ the Night Away,” or “Bring it on Home to Me” never lagged much behind.
From Complicated to Tragic
Cooke’s initial albums were mostly collections of his singles until he released Night Beat in 1963. On it, Cooke brought Blues to Soul, so to say, and it included some of his best numbers that didn’t actually become hits. This was also the time when Cooke became a dual phenomenon. On one side, he became a true crossover artist, bringing Soul music to white audiences, and on the other, he became a prominent figure promoting social and racial equality.
His two live shows of the time actually exemplify this dual phenomenon. At The Copa, (1964) the album of the live recording at the New York club of the same name exemplifies his success with white audiences, with Cooke covering all his big pop hits.
Meanwhile, Cooke did a show at the Harlem Square Club in Miami in 1963 of which recording exists, mainly in front of a black audience. But there, it was a full Soul performance with Cooke presenting his complete persona.
At the same time (mid-1963), things went downhill on a personal level. His infant son drowned, and Cooke wasn’t capable to record until the end of that year. Despite these personal setbacks, he became fully financially and creatively independent, as he achieved full ownership of his recordings by the end of that year.
It was also the time when Cooke’s social activism reached its peak. And it was not just associating with people portrayed in One Night in Miami but particularly coming up with “A Change Is Gonna Come,” which AllMusic rightly calls “perhaps the greatest song to come out of the civil rights struggle, and one that seemed to close and seal the gap between the two directions of Cooke’s career, from gospel to pop.”
Such a strong statement did not go down well with those political and social structures that were not keen on Cooke’s popularity with both black and white audiences. Still, Cooke’s popularity was on the rise at the time.
He became a prominent figure promoting social and racial equality
The political controversy still remains a cloud over Cooke’s tragic death in December 1964. Formally, while in Los Angeles, Cooke became involved in an altercation at a motel, with a female guest and the motel’s night manager, and he was shot to death while allegedly trying to attack the manager.
But throughout the investigation, which from many standpoints seems to have been haphazard, the eventual trial in the case, and up until now, there are many discrepancies and shady details that still have no concrete answers.
These discrepancies and unresolved facts are still a matter of debate and were the subject of at least two documentaries, Lady You Shot Me (2017) and more recently, Netflix’s ReMastered: The Two Killings of Sam Cooke.
Still, 90 years after his birth (January 22, 1931), one fact remains undeniable, Sam Cooke remains the greatest soul singer around.