Sam Cooke (1931-1964) was arguably the most influential of all soul singers. Elements of his unique style reverberate through pop, rock, soul, blues, gospel, reggae, and even bluegrass music. Shades of Cooke can be heard in the work of such singers as Johnnie Taylor, Otis Redding, Rod Stewart, and Al Green.
Born Sam Cook in Clarksdale, Mississippi, he moved to Chicago with his family at age 2 and as a boy performed with his siblings in a gospel group called the Singing Children. He later sang lead with the Highway Q.C.’s, a teenage gospel quartet that modeled itself in large part on the famous Texas-bred, Chicago-based Soul Stirrers, who featured the soaring, sometimes sweet, sometimes gritty voice of R.H. Harris.
The Soul Stirrers had been recording for Specialty Records for a year when Harris quit in late 1950 and Cooke was recruited to take his place. The young singer at times sounded uncannily like his predecessor, but he was no mere Harris imitator. Cooke’s effortlessly floating style, marked by graceful rhythmic and melodic invention, became increasingly pronounced as he settled into his role as the Soul Stirrers’ star lead. He also developed quickly as a songwriter, contributing such numbers as "Nearer to Thee,” "Be with Me Jesus,” "Touch the Hem of His Garment,” and "That’s Heaven to Me” to the quartet’s repertoire.
Cooke’s distinctive singing style and his youthful good looks made him a favorite on the gospel circuit, especially with women. He also began drawing the attention of secular music producers. He initially turned down offers to "jump the fence” but relented at the end of 1956 by doing an r&b session in New Orleans with producer Bumps Blackwell that yielded "Loveable,” a song modeled melodically on the Soul Stirrers’ "Wonderful.” Became Cooke was still a member of the gospel group, Specialty attempted to disguise his identity by issuing the single as being by "Dale Cook.” The tune was not a hit, but it touched off controversy because few in the gospel community were fooled by the charade.
Blackwell tried again several months later, after Cooke had tendered his resignation from the Soul Stirrers. The producer took Cooke in more of pop direction at a Southern California session that included an original Cooke love ballad titled "You Send Me.” Specialty owner Art Rupe was so displeased with the results that he gave Cooke and Blackwell a release from their contracts. The settlement enabled Blackwell to carry "You Send Me” and other songs he’d been working on across town to the fledgling Keen label. As "You Send Me” was climbing the charts in the fall of 1957, peaking at the summit of Billboard’s pop and r&b lists, Specialty took a demo still in its possession, "I’ll Come Running Back to You,” on which Cooke had crudely accompanied himself on guitar, and overdubbed a band and vocal group. The result also topped the R&B chart.
Between 1957 and ’65, Cooke had 19 Top 10 r&b hits and four Top Ten pop hits. He composed the majority of them himself, including "You Were Made for Me,” "Chain Gang,” "Twisting the Night Away,” "Bring It on Home to Me,” "Having a Party,” "Somebody Have Mercy,” "Another Saturday Night,” "Shake,” and "A Change Is Gonna Come.”
After two years at Keen Records, Cooke signed with RCA Victor. While most of his sessions for the company ware credited to the production team of Hugo & Luigi, the vocalist and arranger-guitarist Rene Hall took creative control of many, especially the singles. Cooke’s early RCA albums were geared to a middle-of-the-road audience, but the singles were pure soul music with wide pop appeal.
He launched his own song publishing company, Kags Music, in1958 and his own label, SAR Records, two years later. For SAR, he produced the Soul Stirrers and such secular artists as Mel Carter, Johnnie Morisette, Billy Preston, Johnnie Taylor, the Sims Twins, and the Valentinos.
Cooke was shot to death on December 11, 1964, by the manager of a cheap Los Angeles motel during a scuffle surrounding an alleged rape attempt by the singer on a young woman he’d picked up at a restaurant.