Sam Cooke was only two years old in 1933 when his family moved from Mississippi to Chicago. Lucky for us that they did, since it gave young Sam plenty of places to hear and perform gospel music before he even finished high school. He would go on, in his too-brief life, to become arguably the most influential soul musician ever.
His first solid job, starting in 1950, was as a tenor with the Soul Stirrers, a Chicago-based gospel group whose popularity increased in part thanks to Cooke’s voice, personality, songwriting, and good looks. Rock and roll hadn’t even arrived yet, but Cooke had the girls swooning at the stage door for his gospel sound and winning grin.
He was fully aware of the extent of his contribution to the Soul Stirrers’ success, and in 1957 he decided to strike out on his own. First he changed the spelling of his family name, Cook, and then he signed with Keen Records for his eponymous solo debut.
The majority of tracks on Sam Cooke (1958) are standards like “Old Man River” from Showboat and “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess. But the opening number is a Cooke original: “You Send Me” kickstarted his career with some serious propulsion.
Side B closes with “That Lucky Old Sun.” Dating from the 1930s, this tune is by Tin Pan Alley songwriting team Beasley Smith and Haven Gillespie. Cooke’s wistful version is accompanied by the Bumps Blackwell Orchestra.
Cooke put out a second album in 1958, called Encore. This was also accompanied and produced by Bumps Blackwell, a musician who influenced the careers of many important artists, including Ray Charles and Quincy Jones. Encore is further proof of Cooke’s understanding of his own voice. He consistently chooses songs with wide-ranging, fluid melodies and emotionally demanding lyrics. That’s where he shone.
“Today I Sing the Blues” is one of the few new songs on the album, this one by Cooke’s guitarist, Clifton White, with lyrics by Curtis Lewis, one of the first Black songwriters to succeed in Tin Pan Alley. The melody lets Cooke show off his sophisticated sense of musical line.
The following year he made his last record for Keen, Tribute to the Lady (1959). The lady in the title is the matchless Billie Holiday, who died not long after the album came out. This record is further proof of Cooke’s ear for great songs, not to mention great performances. It’s thrilling to hear his supple voice capture the essence of Holiday’s signature melodies.
Except for “God Bless the Child,” Cooke avoids the most painful and controversial of the repertoire associated with the troubled singer. It would have been fascinating to get his take on “Strange Fruit,” for example. Maybe that absence is for the best, since Cooke is more focused on creating beautiful phrasing than on echoing Lady Day’s deep melancholy in songs like “Good Morning, Heartache.” The René Hall Orchestra accompanies.
For Cooke’s Tour (1960), Cooke leveled up his career by signing with RCA Victor. His producers were the team of Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore, known as Hugo & Luigi, who also worked with The Isley Brothers, Perry Como, and Elvis Presley.
The theme of the album was travel, with songs about or from many parts of the world, from “Jamaican Farewell” to “Galway Bay.” To represent East Asia, Cooke chose “Japanese Farewell Song” by Hasegawa Yoshida and Freddy Morgan, a touching song that had already been a hit for Kay Cee Jones.
By this point Cooke and two colleagues had started their own label, SAR Records, but that company was not intended for Cooke’s own recordings. Instead, he stayed with RCA and used his new label as a way for other artists he respected to promote themselves. These included the Soul Stirrers (with whom he’d started his career) and The Valentinos, also known as the Womack Brothers. Bobby and Cecil Womack were friends of Cooke’s, and Cecil eventually married Cooke’s widow.
Although Cooke’s career was brief, few artists in history have enjoyed as much success in such a short period of time. Between 1957 and 1964, 30 of Cooke’s singles reached the Top 40. One of his biggest hits was “Chain Gang,” off the 1961 album Swing Low.
A lesser-known track from that album is the Hollywood-style cowboy song, “Twilight on the Trail,” first recorded by Bing Crosby in 1936 and made into a hit by Gene Autry a decade later. As far as I can find, Cooke’s is the first recording of it by a Black artist, beating out Nat King Cole’s version by a year.
For My Kind of Blues (1961), Cooke assembled a top-notch cadre of session musicians on saxophone and trumpet, bringing a richness and flair to the arrangements of American popular standards by the likes of Gershwin, Rodgers, and Berlin. Adding Milt Hinton on bass didn’t hurt either.
That R&B pomp is especially outrageous in “But Not for Me,” bolstered by Morris Wechsler’s rolling piano chords. Cooke makes some custom alterations to Gershwin’s oft-recorded melody, adapting the style to the new genre.
“The Twist” was a big hit from Twistin’ the Night Away (1962), and the album was Cooke’s second to hit the Top 100. He had far more success on the singles charts. From Mr. Soul (1963) came “Nothing Can Change This Love,” which reached the No. 2 spot.
Also on Mr. Soul, he included the haunting “Willow Weep for Me,” written in the 1930s by a big-band composer named Ann Ronell (she also wrote “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf”!). The bird-like flute part is played by Plas Johnson.
Night Beat came out in 1963 as well, but its release was quickly followed by a terrible personal tragedy for Cooke. His son Vincent, only two years old, drowned in the family swimming pool. Grief forced Cooke to slow his pace, and he stayed away from the studio for six months. That left only one more studio album during his lifetime, Ain’t That Good News (1964). He had just signed a new contract with RCA.
The most culturally significant song on that record is the civil rights anthem “A Change Is Gonna Come.” At the time it was only a moderate hit but in subsequent years soared in popularity as American society struggled through the 1960s. Of a very different style is Clifton White’s heartbreak number “There’ll Be No Second Time,” swirling in a lush arrangement by René Hall.
On December 11, 1964, Cooke got into an argument with a hotel manager. She shot him, and the bullet struck his heart. Sam Cooke died that day at the age of 33, in the prime of his artistry. RCA had one more album in its vaults, Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963. It was finally released in 1984.