Sam Cooke walked into a solo recording session on June 1, 1957 and almost left a disaster. What he got instead was a career-making smash hit.
Cook (as he was known then, without the "e") was well-known through the '50s as a member of the gospel group The Soul Stirrers. But his honeyed voice and dashing looks made him an ideal pop idol, and by 1956, he was starting to consider singing secular music instead, going so far as to cut a few tracks under the name Dale Cook. He was uncertain whether or not he should heed the call of soul and pop music until his father, himself a preacher, gave him some advice. “That’s not your religion, that’s your job, you do that for a living," the elder Cook told him. "The Lord gave you a voice to sing to make people happy."
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After departing The Soul Stirrers, Cook and producer Bumps Blackwell, who'd overseen Little Richard's legendary recordings for the Specialty label, got to work on a brace of songs, including the Gershwin standard "Summertime" and a swaying original penned by Sam called "You Send Me." But the session nearly broke up when Specialty's head, Art Rupe, paid a visit to the studio. He wanted Sam to sing with a group that sounded similar enough to his old outfit, and the all-white Lee Gotch Singers didn't fit the bill - leading to a tirade from Rupe against everyone in the studio.
Those tensions led Cook and Blackwell to negotiate the recordings away from Specialty; Cooke (now with the "e") signed to Keen Records, an upstart label funded by an airplane manufacturing magnate. "Summertime" was pushed as the single that fall, but radio jockeys responded better to "You Send Me," and it would not only top Billboard's soul charts but also cross over into the pop survey, handily outselling a straightforward pop version by singer Teresa Brewer released with white audiences in mind.
Things reached a fever pitch in December when Cooke's intended national television debut on The Ed Sullivan Show was cut short due to the episode running over its time slot. Within a month, "You Send Me" began a three-week run at No. 1, and Cooke was invited back to sing the song in full - his solo star officially having risen.