The Soul Stirrer: Sam Cooke
FEW ENTERTAINERS have fallen quite so far from grace as Sam Cooke did when he died, 30 years ago, at the Hacienda Motel in south-central Los Angeles.
Whatever the doubts and suspicions surrounding the shooting – and there are still many – it is hard to see it as a martyr's death. Yet think of Sam Cooke and you think: Grecian good looks, irresistible charm and style, and a voice that rings out like a glorious, golden peal, cooing ‘You Send Me’ down the corridors of eternity.
For the best part of 15 years, Cooke was an archangel, a black American hero. Jerry Wexler called him "the best singer who ever lived, no contest". He was the first teen idol the gospel field produced, and he was instrumental in laying the foundation for the gospel-rooted style of R&B that became known as "soul music". At least a part of the tragedy of his death is that he never got to make the music he should have made: caught in the limbo period between '50s R&B and '60s soul, he was constantly obliged to tailor his music to the white pop market he thought he needed to survive.
"When I listen to him, I still can't believe the things he did," said Jerry Wexler, who wanted to sign Cooke to Atlantic Records. "It's always fresh and amazing to me. He has control, he could play with his voice like an instrument, his melisma…I mean, nobody else could do it. Everything about him was perfection."
Perfection is certainly what you hear when you listen to ‘Jesus Wash Away My Troubles’ or ‘Pilgrim Of Sorrow’ or ‘Bring It On Home To Me’ or ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’: two masterpieces from his gospel period and two soul classics from the first half of the '60s. No-one has ever quite sung with the verve and panache of Sam Cooke, a man conveying all, as Peter Guralnick wrote, "with a flick of the eyebrow, the tiniest modulation of tone". Probably no-one ever will.
BORN IN THE MISSISSIPPI blues hotspot of Clarksdale in 1931, Sam Cooke grew up as the fourth child of Charles and Annie May Cook (Sam added the 'e' years later).
Charles Cook worked as a servant in a Victorian mansion belonging to a rich white family, and when he wasn't working for them he was working for the Lord, preaching to local Baptist congregations. Unsurprisingly, Sam showed musical promise from the earliest age: both the Reverend and Sam's brother L.C. remembered him singing to a bunch of sticks he'd planted in the ground under an old pecan tree, in the back yard of the family home on Seventh Street. Sam would explain to his siblings that he was practising for his future audiences.
When the Depression wiped out his employers, Charles Cook joined the unending procession of black men heading North to the stockyards of Chicago. It wasn't long before his family followed him, to settle in the inner city of Bronzeville, where he'd already become an assistant pastor. In 1939 his offspring formed their own gospel group, the Singing Children, with Sam restricted to harmonising in a fledgling tenor voice behind teenagers Charles and Mary. The thriving gospel scene in Chicago – home to Thomas Dorsey, Mahilia Jackson and the famous Soul Stirrers – was a contagious one.
When the Singing Children stopped singing, Sam fell in with a local streetcorner gospel quartet and became their second lead. Singing with a quartet, you had your cake and ate it too. Anyone who'd seen famous outfits like the Stirrers on the gospel circuit knew how they juggled God-fearing zeal with snappy dressing and ladykiller appeal – hence the eventual secularisation of the quartet style by such R&B vocal groups as Billy Ward And His Dominoes. Sam's group christened themselves The Teenage Highway QCs.
When older brother Charles came out of service at the end of the Second World War he was stunned by the progress Sam had made with the QCs, who were busy making a useful little name for themselves on the Chicago circuit. It was already clear that Sam was ambitious – ambitious enough, at least, to ask Soul Stirrer R.B. Robinson to become the group's musical trainer. Nobody could touch the Stirrers for sheer polyrhythmic brilliance, but Sam learned fast and made sure the others kept up with him. The group's reputation had more than a little to do with the hordes of female admirers Sam was attracting to their shows. (And not merely attracting: he even did 90 days in Cook County Jail for supposedly corrupting a 16-year-old schoolgirl with some rather primitive pornography.)
In 1948, the Highway QCs found themselves a manager; attracted the attention of Aretha Franklin's preacher father, the Rev C.L. in Detroit; and fetched up finally in Memphis, Tennessee. Here Sam began writing songs, learning about composition from the illustrious Herbert Brewster (composer of ‘Surely God Is Able’, ‘Move On Up A Little Higher’, and other gospel classics). But the group's manager couldn't get them a deal and they weren't making any more than peanuts on the local circuit. When The Soul Stirrers approached Sam in 1950 to ask if he'd be interested in taking over from their departing leader R.H. Harris – quitting, significantly, because "the moral aspects" of gospel were "just falling out of the water" – the 20-year-old naturally jumped at the chance.
"Sam did it in a different way," said S. Roy Grain, the Soul Stirrer who effectively doubled as the group's manager. "He didn't want to be that deep, pitiful singer…" The observation neatly encapsulates just what made the rookie Cook stand out from the throng of ecstatic gospel screamers on the circuit – men like Archie Brownlee of the Five Blind Boys Of Mississippi, Kylo Turner of the Pilgrim Travelers, and the Soul Stirrers' own Paul Foster.
In the words of J.W. Alexander, the Pilgrim Traveler who would go on to play a big part in the Sam Cooke story, "If they understand you, you can come up behind the screamers and always get the house". Sam may have been slim and boyish – "that pretty child", people called him – but he brought a new grace to the business of testifying and it made some of the vein-popping veterans look passé.
Sam's first few years on the road with the Stirrers were relentless. Ten months of the year were spent travelling the gospel highway usually with all five Stirrers wedged into one car and surviving on bread and bologna. But as people began to accept the successor to righteous "old man Harris", the touring began to pay off. "I had a wonderful time, a wonderful life," Sam recalled later. "I was doing the thing I liked best and getting paid for it." Teenage girls who'd sat giggling at the back of the church now pressed forward to the front in a state of feverish excitement, digging the cocksure self-assurance that reflected the transition from the '40s to the prosperous '50s and paralleled the rise of such secular stars as Sonny Til and Clyde McPhatter.
Sam's first recordings with The Soul Stirrers – for Art Rupe's Los Angeles label Specialty – remain the first and last occasion on which he ever sounded remotely insecure. On ‘Peace In The Valley’, cut in March 1951, the thin voice squeaks and cracks, its thunder stolen by the barking baritone of Paul Foster. Far more assured are ‘Jesus Gave Me Water’ and the self-composed ‘Until Jesus Calls Me Home’. Art Rupe thought Sam both more mellifluous and more controlled than R.H. Harris, his light, suave touch the perfect counterpoint to the rough country harmonies of the Stirrers.
By the following year Sam was starting to develop the famous "woah-ooh-oh-oh" yodel that became his falsetto vocal trademark: the Rev Sammy Lewis called these melismatic embellishments "curlicues", and the term was perfect. He came into his own on the Thomas Dorsey song ‘Someday, Somewhere’, taking risks and throwing up superb cries. The brisk, uptempo ‘Come And Go To That Land’ (1953) found him in total command. "Of course Sam did his best work in gospel," chided gospel matriarch Dorothy Love Coates. "How you gonna take somebody who loves what he's doing and turn him around and put him in something unfamiliar and he's gonna be as free and natural as he was at home?"
But the best was saved for last, on the Specialty sessions Sam recorded with the Stirrers early in 1956: masterpieces such as ‘Jesus Wash Away My Troubles’, ‘Touch The Hem Of His Garment’, the poppy ‘Wonderful’ and the harrowing ‘Pilgrim Of Sorrow’. The airy grace and jewel-like precision of his singing on these songs remain unsurpassed in either gospel or soul. And ‘Were You There?’, his very last gospel side, sounds like a last desperate testimony from someone who knew he was going over to the other side – the sinners' side – for good. "Were you there when they pierced him in the side?" Sam all but shrieks, for once sounding closer to Archie Brownlee than to R.H. Harris.
That Sam Cook knew he was about to "cross over" to the land of pop godlessness is pretty clear. And urging him on was the very man Art Rupe had hired as Specialty's A&R man: ex-bandleader Robert Bumps Blackwell, who'd produced the big Little Richard hits the label was currently enjoying. "Bumps said I had the voice, the confidence and the equipment to work as a single [sic] and that I ought to give it a try," Sam remembered. "Making a living was good enough, but what's wrong with doing better than that?"
Bumps had seen Sam's sex appeal up close during a big Soul Stirrers show at LA's Shrine Auditorium. "My initial impression was, This cat should be pop," he recalled. He thought it ludicrous that a gospel singer could have two illegitimate children – as Sam Cook did by now – and yet not record a pop song without incurring the opprobrium of the gospel community. As Bobby Womack recalls, "In those days everybody who sang gospel believed that if you switched over to popular music, something bad would happen to you."
IN JUNE 1956, Sam wrote an endearingly naive letter to Art Rupe saying he wanted to record some "popular ballads" for one of the major recording companies" – if Rupe would be good enough to arrange it! Rupe understandably lacked, enthusiasm for this plan: quite apart from any business considerations, he genuinely loved gospel music and wanted no part of any attempt at a pop crossover. But he finally OK'd a pop session that winter, in the very New Orleans studio where Bumps Blackwell had recorded Little Richard. Recorded under the name 'Dale Cook', ‘Lovable’ was a straight secularisation of ‘Wonderful’, but it made for a terrible pop record and everyone knew it.
Meanwhile SR. Cram and J.J. Farley of the Stirrers were concerned about the potential damage 'Dale Cook' – who, despite the alias, was transparently Sam – could do to the group. They cabled Art Rupe begging him not to issue any more pop sides on Sam. The upshot was that Sam stopped paying attention to Cram, who'd been his "guiding force" for five years, and turned instead to J.W Alexander, who had far less of a problem with the notion of crossing the great divide between gospel and pop/R&B and who was already helping to scout pop acts for Bumps Blackwell.
"It seemed to me like there was a void that existed at that particular time," J.W recalled. "There was one boy, Sonny Til with The Orioles, who'd been very big with young black girls. In Sam, though, I saw even more of a potential – he was more handsome."
In April 1957, Sam sent Bumps six songs on tape featuring just him and his guitar, among them ‘I'll Come Running Back To You’, ‘I Don't Want To Cry’ and a little throwaway thing called ‘You Send Me’. Bumps listened to the songs but decided to concentrate on a pop arrangement of Gershwin's ‘Summertime’ that he felt sure would be a hit. Unlike J.W Alexander, Bumps seemed to be thinking "housewives" as much as "teenagers". With arranger Rene Hall doubling as a rhythm guitarist, the recently-arrived New Orleans sessionman Earl Palmer on drums, and a white vocal group by the name of the Pied Pipers, he and Sam went into the studio to record ‘Summertime’ and some of the songs on Sam's tape.
When he heard what they were doing, Art Rupe turned puce with rage. "Bumps Blackwell and myself were running an arrangement through on ‘Summertime’ and Art just exploded," said Rene Hall. "He said, Who the hell is going to buy Gershwin and opera and all that stuff?!" For Rupe, Porgy And Bess was so far removed from what Specialty was about that he wanted to kill Bumps. What he actually did was fire him on the spot. As legend has it, he then turned to a gormless-looking gofer and told him he'd just got Bumps's job. The gofer was Salvatore 'Sonny' Bono.
Amazingly, the session continued, perhaps because no one was altogether sure if Rupe was serious. Nobody thought ‘You Send Me’ was anything other than a piece of fluff, although it was hard to deny the simple beauty of Sam's phrasing – trademark yodel and all – against the blanched cooing of the Pied Pipers. On June 17, 1957, Bumps Blackwell walked out of Art Rupe's office with the masters of ‘Summertime’ and ‘You Send Me’ under his arm and a cheque for $1,500 in his pocket, having waived all future royalties from his previous Specialty productions. He went directly to the newly-formed Keen label, jointly owned by jazz clarinettist Bob Keane and Greek businessman John Siamis Keane and Siamis promptly hired him as their A&R man.
Sam spent the summer living in Bumps Blackwell's apartment while Keen's new A&R man searched in vain for material that night suit him. Finally, in desperation, Bumps pulled his Specialty masters out of the cupboard and played them for his new employers. Keane and Siamis flipped out when the heard ‘Summertime’ and ‘You Send Me’ and insisted on releasing them. By September it was clear that ‘You Send Me’ was the sidle everyone wanted to hear.
The record – the debut release by "Sam Cooke" – wound up selling 80,000 copies in Los Angeles alone. Not even the predictable threat from a white cover by Teresa Brewer was enough to stop the original ‘You Send Me’ soaring all the way to Number 1. Pop fluff it might have been, but Sam sang it with a creamy, dreamy wistfulness that registered instantly with millions of American teenagers. The hook was irresistible, moreover. "Sam would say, Keep going back to the same thing and repeat it…you get a melody and stick to it," recalled Bobby Womack. "He'd say, That's why my songs hit, 'cos people like to sing along."
Overnight, Sam Cooke was a secular superstar. With his first solo release he was all over American radio and prominent on TV shows such as American Bandstand. When the entertainment machine went into predictable overdrive, a white agent at William Morris convinced Sam that he could "move him into the non-black market". Meanwhile, Art Rupe rushed out ‘I'll Come Running Back To You’ in an attempt to cash in on his departed star's glory. (The remaining Specialty sides were much of a muchness, although ‘That's All I Need To Know’ coaxed one of his most enchanting performances.)
Sam Cooke did "move into the non-black market", but with mixed results. Convinced that career longevity was contingent on breaking into the Harry Belafonte/Johnny Mathis/Sammy Davis Jr supper-club league, he not only packed his first Keen album with glutinous ballads and syrupy show tunes, but – long before he was ready for such a thing –allowed William Morris to set up an engagement at New York's legendary Copacabana club in the spring of 1958. Singing to the borscht-belt fans of standup Jewish comic Myron Cohen, the boy stiffed. "He doesn't seem ready for the more savvy Copa clientele," adjudged the reviewer forVariety.
IT IS CURIOUS to reflect that sam was bidding for the approval of white America at a time when black entertainers were having to make up their minds about issues such as segregation and civil rights. When he joined a 'Biggest Show Of Stars' package tour in April 1958 – headlining over Clyde McPhatter, LaVern Baker, The Everly Brothers, Paul Anka and Jackie Wilson – some Southern dates were played to segregated audiences. R&B stars like McPhatter were saying that it was time to stop sitting on the fence. The following year, Sam demanded integrated seating at a venue in Norfolk, Virginia, and got it.
When the tour finished, Sam returned to LA to record more tracks for Keen. One of the people close to him that summer was Lou Adler, a future kingpin of the LA rock scene through his masterminding of the Mamas And The Papas and the Monterey Pop Festival. With his partner Herb Alpert, Adler had parlayed his way into a songwriting/scouting/producing job with Keen, and quickly hit it off with the label's only star.
"Sam taught me how to communicate with musicians when you're not a musician yourself," says Adler. "He gave me a body language for working in the studio. He also introduced me to a black world in Los Angeles, because I roomed with him for about eight months. I learned more about the music and the people than I'd ever known, and I never experienced one bit of racial intolerance. People just took me in because I was with Sam."
Significantly, it was with Adler that Sam Cooke talked of navigating the fine line between kow-towing to his white audience and remaining loyal to his black fan base: "between the glitter and the chitlin'", as Daniel Wolff neatly puts it. He told Lou that he would always be able to "go back to my people" once the white audience was through with Sammy Davis Jr, and the two men tried to write songs that synthesized pop style with gospel feel in the way Little Willie John's records were doing. Yet it says everything about the almost schizophrenic split within Sam that his second Keen album was aimed squarely at what Adler's liner note conceded was "the after-dinner circuit". Hear Sam Cooke Encore for his decidedly iffy readings of ‘Accentuate The Positive’ and ‘Along The Navajo Trail’…
The fact is, Sam Cooke never did abandon his black fan base. However banal the songs he was recording – and writing, on occasion –that majestic voice always spoke to black America, its every modulation transmuting the triteness of the material into palpable emotional release.
"When Sam came in with a loose-leaf folder of lyrics, you didn't really get a tremendous feeling from the words on the page," recalled Herb Alpert. "But when you asked him to pick up the guitar and play the song, it turned into a magical experience…I'd look over his shoulder and say, Is that the same song you just showed me?"
Solomon Burke remarked that Sam would "give you the high sign in a lot of that pop stuff…new pop audiences heard that yodel like it was a shiny new thing, but if you knew Sam from gospel it was him saying, Hey, it's me."
The lack of symbiosis between the teen ephemera of his singles (‘Win Your Love For Me’, ‘Everybody Loves To Cha Cha’, the winsome ‘Only Sixteen’) and his wannabe-respectable long-players (such as an album of thoroughly unsuitable Billie Holiday songs) continued. ‘Everybody Loves To Cha Cha Cha’ was almost regarded as a joke by the musicians on the track, since Sam was notorious for having two left feet.
"He simply couldn't dance," says Lou Adler. "When he put that record out he had to learn three steps and he just barely got through them. But he had movement in his voice, so you were captivated by that."
By the spring of 1959, Sam was married to Barbara Campbell, whom he'd known from his childhood and who'd already borne him his first child Linda. (It was only a year before that he'd staved off a career-threat-ening paternity suit by paying one Connie Bolling $10,000 out of court.) He was also tiring of Keen Records and Bumps Blackwell, wanting bigger firepower behind his career. Ever since the farce of his Copa debut, he'd been talking to Adler about major label deals and bigshot managers. In due course, white manager Jess Rand assumed control of his career.
Rumours began circulating in November 1959 that a bidding war for Sam Cooke's signature was hotting up between Capitol, Atlantic and RCA-Victor. Capitol had Nat 'King' Cole, but RCA had Harry Belafonte and Elvis Presley. Indeed, RCA were already attempting to effect a major pop crossover with local LA hero Jesse Belvin, like Sam an ex-Specialty artist. As for Atlantic, it's naturally tempting to speculate as to what might have happened had Sam plumped for a label that was more solidly anchored in R&B than either RCA or Capitol. Unfortunately, they ruled themselves out of contention by stipulating somewhat greedily that rights to Sam's publishing had to be part of the deal.
BUT GOD! If only he'd signed with Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler and spared the world the saccharine, string-saturated atrocities he was to record with RCA's hotshot duo Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore. All Sam should really have needed to know about these Italian cousins was that they were the perpetrators of ‘Dance With Me Henry’, the white Georgia Gibbs' soulless bowdlerising of Etta James's lubricious classic ‘Wallflower’. They may have been "magnificent scammers", in the words of Jess Rand, but they had even less taste than all the other scammers on the pop scene at the turn of the decade.
"Most people don't realise how bad those records are," Jerry Wexler said years later. "That he overrode a lot of the sterility in them is a tribute to his genius."
A first session at RCA's New York studio in late January 1960 saw an initial attempt at the drecky ‘Teenage Sonata’, Sam's first single for the label. Fortunately, it also saw the recording of the vastly superior ‘Chain Gang’, based on an experience Sam had while driving through Georgia during a tour. There was a certain disjunction between the grimness of the theme and the jauntiness of the song's arrangement – complete with a white backing chorale – but it was a terrific pop record anyway RCA showed just how lacking they were in judgement by shelving the record for seven months and issuing ‘Teenage Sonata’ and the even less successful ‘You Understand Me’ in its place. Meanwhile he cut Cooke's Tour, a pathetic album of songs with the common theme of travel: ‘Galway Bay’, ‘Bali H'ai’, ‘Jamaica Farewell’ and other staggeringly soul-free ditties. That didn't do too well either.
Ironically, it was Keen Records who put Sam back on the pop map by digging out an old Adler/Alpert song called ‘Wonderful World’, cut virtually as a demo a year earlier. With its references to history and trigonometry, the song was an instant teen classic and climbed all the way to Number 12 on the pop chart. When RCA finally got around to issuing ‘Chain Gang’ it did even better, making Number 2 on both pop and R&B charts.
Thanks to ‘Wonderful World’ and ‘Chain Gang’, Sam Cooke finished 1960 as a pop monarch. In his open-neck shirts, cardigans and checkered pants, he was already the epitome of svelte, casual sophistication, beaming from the covers of magazines like Sepia.
"If you look at Belafonte and Cooke and Marvin Gaye, they all look alike," says Kim Fowley, who met Sam Cooke several times in the nascent days of the LA pop industry. "They all have a Grecian quality to their bone structure. Sam had white features and Italian suits and he drove around in a green E-type Jaguar. Sam was the black Elvis, but in pop terms he wasn't really a black artist."
And yet Sam Cooke was becoming increasingly conscious of his status as a black icon. It was significant, for example, that in late 1959 he stopped processing his hair and began letting it grow naturally. In a syndicated piece for black papers in the summer of 1960 he wrote about civil rights and said he "detested people…who've lacked the courage to stand up and be counted". Increasingly, like his friend Cassius Clay, he was prepared to be counted alongside his more courageous colleagues.
Increasingly, too, Sam was thinking about black self-sufficiency, black capitalism; like Berry Gordy in Detroit, he wanted to start his own label, with a stable of artists he could groom and develop. "Control was very important to Sam," said Hugo Peretti. "He saw what had happened to a lot of other black artists and he didn't want to get ten-percented to death."
When J.W Alexander told him he'd started a publishing company called KAGS Music, Sam said he wanted in on it and proposed a partnership. By the end of 1960, the two men had established a small complex of companies in a tiny office on Hollywood Boulevard, with SAR Records as its centrepiece.
After releasing the surprisingly bluesy ‘Sad Mood’, in December 1960, Sam played a stint at the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem. Also on the bill was a young Aretha Franklin, whose passage from the gospel highway to ritzy pop arrangements of Broadway show-stoppers roughly paralleled the journey Sam had made. Ree had met Sam when she was just a kid in Detroit and had always been sweet on him.
"He wore me down," Franklin remembered. "Ooooh, I loved him. I just loved him. That man could mess up a whole room full of women!" Some have speculated that Sam and Aretha had "a thing" going on, and her words do little to discourage the gossip.
"Sam was mesmerizing," says Lou Adler. "He was like five ten, but he seemed to have a larger stature because he was so slim. When he was onstage women had to hold back the way they felt in order not to anger the men they sat with." For his new William Morris agent Jerry Brandt, however, Sam Cooke had "sex appeal that women loved and men didn't resent". Certainly, not all the women who came to Sam's shows held back: he was already used to being showered with panties.
ALTHOUGH HE HAD now turned 30, Sam continued to keep pace with teen trends. 1962 saw two classic dance-party records in ‘Having A Party’ and ‘Twistin' The Nite Away’ (complete with its sly lines about "A place up New York way where the people are so gay" and "The fellow in the blue jeans dancing with the older queen").
But it was telling that his twist album also contained ‘Soothe Me’ and ‘Somebody Have Mercy’, soulful performances which showed he was completely in tune with the new sanctified R&B of James Brown and Bobby 'Blue' Bland. The flip-side of ‘Having a Party’, moreover, was the magnificent ‘Bring It On Home To Me’, perhaps the most convincing of all the arguments for Sam's soul credentials. Mercifully free of the baroque orchestral embellishments of Hugo and Luigi's arranger Horace Ott, and featuring a marvellous harmony vocal by fellow gospel graduate Lou Rawls, ‘Bring It…’ was pure undiluted church. Late that summer, he cut the equally impassioned ‘Nothing Can Change This Love’. SAR, meanwhile, continued to provide an outlet for his rootsler musical tendencies. (With an irony by now typical of Sam's career, an album called Mr Soul was full of cafe au lait renditions of songs such as ‘These Foolish Things’ and ‘Cry Me A River’.)
These tendencies were even more pronounced in 1963, when Sam persuaded RCA to record one of his sporadic chitlin'-circuit shows at a club in the black ghetto of North Miami. Although it didn't see the light of day for two decades, Live At The Harlem Square Club is tantamount to being a posthumous vindication of Sam as Soul Godfather. With Sam in rawly abrasive voice and sax god King Curtis in the band, the album is a thrilling black counterpoint to the schmaltzy live album he would record on his return to the Copacabana the following year. It may not be Live At The Apollo Vol.1, the unbelievably funky album James Brown & the Famous Flames cut during a week when Sam himself caught their show, but it's admirably rough-hewn, full of sweat-soaked swagger and boisterous exhortation.
Sam followed up the Harlem Square recording by insisting that his Night Beat album be cut in LA with his old Specialty/Keen arranger Rene Hall.
"I remember there was all this frustration that Rene Hall wasn't as involved in the RCA records as he'd been in the Keen records," says Kim Fowley "Sam was probably hustled in the way they used to hustle you in the early '60s, which was to say: if you stay in LA, perceived by New Yorkers as a second-class music city, you'll be a piece of s*** forever."
The scaled-down, intimately bluesy sound of ‘Little Red Rooster’, ‘Lost And Lookin'’ and ‘Nobody Knows The Trouble I've Seen’ mark Night Beat as one of Sam's most satisfying RCA albums.
IT WAS IN THE SPRING OF 1963 THAT THE FIGURE OF Allen Klein entered the Sam Cooke story.
Klein was a feisty New York accountant who'd made music business history by auditing Atlantic Records and enabling Bobby Darn to quit the label and sign with Capitol. Klein later claimed that "Sam didn't have a dime and was heavily in debt due to mismanagement" when he first approached him, a claim disputed by Jess Rand but backed up by Jerry Brandt at William Morris.
By September 1963, Allen Klein had audited RCA's books, found $150,000 in unpaid royalties, and renegotiated Sam's RCA contract to the tune of $450,000 spread over four years. He'd also won control of Sam's songs and recordings by setting up an independent company called Tracey Limited, a similar kind of wheeze to the one he'd employ when addressing the financial affairs of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles.
People say that Sam Cooke changed during the course of 1963, not least because of the tragic drowning of his infant son Vincent in the pool of a new home purchased in the Los Feliz Hills, east of Hollywood. Vincent's death not only rocked Sam's religious faith to its foundations, it severely tested his marriage to Barbara, whose lack of vigilance he couldn't help blaming for the tragedy. Friends and colleagues noticed that he started to drink more and laugh less as the months went by. It is also likely that this seasoned philanderer began running around with other women in an even more compulsive way than he'd ever done before.
On the musical front alone, Sam cut no new material for six months after his son's death, preferring to hit the road to numb his grief. Arriving in Shreveport, Louisiana, for a date in October 1963, he and his entourage were arrested for attempting to register in a whites-only motel, the ensuing fracas giving him more kudos as a civil rights crusader than he perhaps merited. In New York, he befriended Cassius Clay (soon to become Muhammad Ali) and Malcolm X. Right up until his death, Sam flirted with the Muslim teachings Clay had embraced, moving uneasily away from his own Christian upbringing. Where Martin Luther King attacked Clay as someone who propounded segregation – or at least black separatism – Sam lauded the boxer as a "model for our youth".
When Sam did go back into the studio, it was with the exiled New Orleans AFO (All For One) band led by Harold Battiste, a man as committed to the civil rights struggle as any black musician in Los Angeles. With Sam's help, Battiste conceived the idea of a network of so-called 'Soul Stations' that would serve as gathering points for young blacks in the black community.
"I remember vividly sitting at the house on Ames Street [in Los Feliz]…and talking about the racial things," Battiste told Daniel Wolff. "We were talking almost in the realm of the black Muslim kind of thing, about trying to find solutions for the tremendous problems our people were having. Sam was really concerned about that."
Significantly, it was the AFO band playing on the 1964 album Ain't That Good News, the centrepiece of which was a song that represented the culmination of all Sam's thoughts and feelings about black suffering and black pride. Written after he'd watched in amazement as Peter, Paul & Mary's version of Bob Dylan's ‘Blown' In The Wind’ all but topped the charts, ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ (its histrionic orchestral arrangement notwithstanding) remains Sam's most towering achievement as a songwriter, a song which – released immediately after his death – reached out across the airwaves as a barely-coded clarion-call to black America. As Gerri Hirshey remarked, it had all the power of Martin Luther King's "Free At Last" speech and Otis's posthumous ‘Dock Of The Bay’. All the power, too, of Sam's desolate vocal on the Soul Stirrers' ‘Pilgrim Of Sorrow’.
"Real gospel music has got to make a comeback," Sam told writer Don Paulsen in July 1964. "Rhythm and blues is the most fervent sound in pop music." Admirable sentiments you'd say, until you learned that they were uttered on the eve of the man's return to the Copacabana.
It's true that at least part of Sam's reasoning in having a second stab at the Copa was that he wanted to get off the one-nighter circuit and concentrate on recording and producing. But the fact that he could grin his way through ‘Bill Bailey’ and ‘If I Had A Hammer’ just months after writing ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ is close to grotesque.
Allen Klein arranged for the erection of a 20' by 100' Times Square sign announcing that Sam was "The Biggest Cooke In Town", and the $10,000 cost seemed justified when the engagement turned out to be a triumph. Billboard proclaimed it "a swinging affair that has appeal for the adult expense-account trade as well as for his teenage disk fans," but there were more than a few people shak-ing their heads at the spectacle. Sam's apparent schizophrenia was confirmed by the bizarre 45rpm coupling of the MOR abomination ‘Cousin A Mine’ and a new version of the fabulous ‘That's Where It's At’.
Sam spent the fall of 1964 in LA. So quiet were things on the SAR front that Harold Battiste, appointed the label's new A&R man, was able to use studio downtime to produce some sessions for ex-Specialty employee Sonny Bono and his girlfriend Cher. Thus the biggest thing to come out of the Soul Stations, as Battiste noted with bitter irony, was ‘I Got You Babe’.
Sam himself was by all accounts a troubled man. His marriage was over in all but name. People who were close to Cooke also claim he was beginning to feel unhappy about his business affairs. Roy Crain states that Sam wanted him to accompany him to New York to meet with Klein, and Jess Rand says Sam got back in touch with him for legal advice. Klein has always maintained that he loved Sam like "the sentimental old Jewish mommy" that John Lennon would later describe him as, although SAR employee Zelda Samuels formed a different opinion of Klein after he told her to back off from the career of Mel Carter, an artist signed to SAR's affiliate label Derby. Zelda was also upset that once she'd quit SAR, several artists were dropped from the roster.
ON DECEMBER 7, 1964, Sam dropped in at the RCA Victor studios in Hollywood, where JW Alexander was producing a Johnnie Taylor single called ‘You Can Run (But You Can't Hide)’. Three days later he met his engineer Al Schmitt for dinner at music-biz hangout Martoni's. Schmitt remembers that the singer was drinking fairly heavily and that he ended up talking at the bar with Elisa Boyer, a Eurasian "model" who'd come to the restaurant with Liberty Records publicity man Jim Benci. When Schmitt and his wife left to catch a show, Sam said he'd see them later at PJs nightclub on Santa Monica Boulevard.
By the time Sam rolled up at PJs, the Schmitts had gone. He talked instead to Nik Venet, the A&R man who'd attempted to sign hun to Capitol Records almost five wears before (and who'd signed Sam's friend Lou Rawls).
"I tried to talk him into taking my Cadillac convertible instead of his Ferrari, because he'd had a few drinks and mine was easier to drive," says Venet. "He was wearing my coat when he was shot. I took it out of my car because I thought I was going to take his car, but when I went to the parking lot he'd taken the Ferrari and gone."
Some people simply couldn't believe the idea of Sam Cooke with a prostitute in a $3-a-night motel in South-Central LA. Others knew it was hardly out of character.
"I often said Sam would walk past a good girl to get to a whore," said Bumps Blackwell, and Sam (& Dave) Moore laughed that "Sam loved himself some hookers!" Hugo Peretti said he and Luigi Creatore were shocked by the news of his death but not entirely surprised. "Sam was a very excitable guy," he told Gerri Hirshey. "When you have the power to excite people like that, there's always the possibility of weird stuff."
Sam also knew the area well: just up the street was the Sands Cocktail Lounge, where SAR act the Simms Twins played every Thursday night. There's even a pretty good chance that Sam had already used the Hacienda Motel and knew Bertha Franklin. But Sam kicking down a door, wrestling with Bertha? If he thought that Elisa Boyer had ripped him off and that Bertha was in on it, it's not out of the question.
Between five and six thousand people trooped through the People's Funeral Home to view Sam's body on December 12. Three thousand people jammed into the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Chicago the following week, with seven thousand more packed outside in the freezing Windy City streets.
The body was returned to LA on Friday 18, and a similar throng turned out at the Mount Sinai Baptist Church. Frenzied scenes outside the church delayed the family's arrival for almost 45 minutes. When Barbara arrived, it was in a Rolls Royce with the 20-year-old Bobby Womack in tow, wearing a suit which had belonged to Sam. Billy Preston played an organ interlude and Lou Rawls wailed ‘Just A Closer Walk With Thee’. Bessie Griffin collapsed with grief, and a weeping Ray Charles was led up the aisle to sing ‘Angels Watching Over Me’.
Black America was plunged into despair, refusing to buy the official police version of the tragedy. To this day, the gospel community believes its prodigal son was the victim of a Mafia hit, with Bertha Franklin paid to take the fall. If it's true that Sam was in bed with the mob – and there's no evidence to suggest that he was – it's also true that he was just hot-headed enough to have pissed them off.
Allen Klein and J. W. Alexander hired private detectives to find answers to the many perplexing questions. In March 1965, Barbara Campbell married Bobby Womack, provoking sufficient outrage in the black community for people to suspect that they'd had something to do with the murder. To compound a hastiness worthy of Shakespeare's Gertrude, Barbara later filed papers to dissolve the SAR label. In April 1966 she sold her half of Sam's publishing to Hugo and Luigi for $103,000; Hugo and Luigi in turn sold them to Allen Klein. J W. Alexander also sold out to Klein, who has won a succession of lawsuits over the catalogue.
"If he hadn't have left God, left the church, it would never have happened," pronounced one Baptist minister, voicing sentiments shared by many. Of course it wasn't true. Three years later Jimmie Outler, the singer who'd replaced Sam Cooke's replacement in the Soul Stirrers, was knifed to death in a fight. Religion and violence go hand in hand in black America. Born of the same evil root of slavery, they are merely flipsides of the same massive injustice.
It was part of Sam's identity crisis as a black American that he wanted to be all things to all his fans: to record string-driven MOR atrocities, to appear on gospel programmes, to nurture a roster of R&B/soul singers. He wanted the Copa and he wanted the Harlem Square Club. But what would he have done if he'd lived? Recorded in Memphis? Signed to Tamla Motown? Played at Monterey alongside his disciple Otis Redding? Or missed the boat completely?
In the end it doesn't matter, for the voice on the records speaks as loudly as the legacy of his influence. Leave the last words to Jerry Wexler, who might conceivably have steered Sam Cooke towards the deep soul he did so much to father.
"When I listen to his gospel work," said the veteran Atlantic producer, "everything else goes away."
© Barney Hoskyns, 1995