Sam Cooke was a man of many faces. He was a man whose gospel roots gave way to pop perfection. A soul man and a businessman, beloved by audiences of all races but a powerful spokesperson for black lives. An artist whose tragic death in 1964, at 33 years old, is still surrounded by unanswered questions.
Born into a large family headed by a minister, Cooke began singing as a child, and in 1950 joined the legendary gospel group The Soul Stirrers. “He brought young people into the church to the point where it was like a rock and roll show,” Bobby Womack said of Cooke's tenure in The Soul Stirrers. He wrestled with the decision to turn to the secular until his father gave him some sage advice: "The Lord gave you a voice to sing to make people happy." Some of the best of what followed is below.
"You Send Me" (1957)
Crossing over into the pop charts was a feat for many acts of color, in an era where white acts recorded middle-of-the-road version of songs by black artists with an eye to sell to middle America. But Cooke made it look easy with his first solo single, which soared to the top of the Billboard Hot 100. While it was a difficult sell at first - it was intended for Specialty Records until founder Art Rupe vehemently expressed his dislike of the track during the session - a pair of airline-parts manufacturers-turned-record impresarios were happy to sign Cooke off the strength of the session, beginning his tenure with the Keen Records label.
"Wonderful World" (1960)
Cooke wasn't long for the Keen label, either, but before he left for greener pastures at RCA Victor, he cut this uplifting ballad written by two then-unknown songwriters: Lou Adler (who later founded Ode Records and signed artists like Carole King) and Herb Alpert (future frontman of The Tijuana Brass and the "A" in A&M Records). It was Cooke who molded the song into its familiar form, with its references to school subjects. While Adler didn't think much of it, he noted Cooke's passion in a biography on the singer. "He’d say, ‘What about that song, you know?’ And then he'd start on it again," Adler remembered. His instincts were right: "Wonderful World" reached No. 12 on the pop chart.
"Chain Gang" (1960)
One of Cooke's first singles for RCA Victor was one of his biggest - a No. 2 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. But it's also a sign of things to come for the singer, all too aware of America's need for improvement in terms of race and class. "Chain Gang" was reportedly inspired by a real-life encounter Cooke had with a group on inmates while on tour.
"Twistin’ the Night Away" (1961)
A committed songwriter as well as a smooth singer - toward the end of his career, his own SAR label had its own publishing arm, for good measure - Cooke injected his personality into every track that bears his name. 1962's Twistin' the Night Away features no less than five songs inspired by the Chubby Checker chart-topper turned nationwide dance craze. But it's the title track, Cooke's own creation, that takes the cake: the perfect blend of radio-friendly rock and swingin' soul, and another Top 10 hit for the singer.
"Bring It on Home to Me"/"Havin’ a Party" (1962)
Adler described Cooke's approach to songwriting thus: "He wrote with conversation. He said you have to be having a conversation, you have to be able to talk it. Then, you've written a good lyric." Few singles speak to that tendency - and the places it could go - than this classic offering one side of sweet romance and another packed with upbeat good times. Believe it or not, both songs (each of which reached the Top 20) were recorded in the same session; friend and fellow gospel singer-turned-pop icon Lou Rawls can be heard singing background vocals on both tracks.
"Shake"/"A Change is Gonna Come" (1964)
As one of the sides from Cooke's final recording session before his untimely death at the end of 1964, the cha-cha flavored "Shake" was an obvious posthumous hit, reaching No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the new year. But its B-side is now known as the singer's signature song. Inspired in part by a racist encounter Cooke had at a Louisiana hotel and released the same year the Civil Rights Act was signed into law, "A Change is Gonna Come" remains one of the most powerful songs of its era - one whose impact and message has yet to fade nearly six decades later.