(1931 – 1964)
A Gospel singer who crossed over to Pop, Sam Cooke was hailed as one of the most gifted singers of his era, and he was also one of the most successful, with a prodigious run of hits between 1957 and 1964. Widely credited as a pioneer of Soul music, Cooke – who maintained huge popularity with black audiences even as he commandeered the Pop charts and built a substantial following among whites — had a notable influence on late 60s singers such as Otis Redding and Al Green.
Cooke was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, one of eight children. His father was a Baptist minister and as a young boy Sam sang in the choir of his father's church. Sam's singing talent was quickly recognized, and while still in his teens he joined the Gospel group the Highway QCs. In 1950 he joined the Soul Stirrers, a popular Gospel group whose formation dates back to the 1920s.
For six years he toured and recorded with the Soul Stirrers and with his pure, bell-clear tenor and boyish good looks, Cooke became one of Gospel music's biggest stars. But Cooke wanted more — he wanted to cross over in to the world of secular music. In 1956, while still in the Soul Stirrers, he released the single, "Lovable,” a barely altered remake of the Soul Stirers song “Wonderful.” To avoid blowback from his Gospel audience he issued it under the name Dale Cooke, but when Soul Stirrers fans found about the record it caused a minor scandal and Cooke was let go from the band.
Now free from the constraints of the Gospel world, Sam started work on his first Pop single. "You Send Me" was a smash, selling over two million copies and hitting No. 1 on both the Pop and R&B charts. This began a lengthy run of chart successes for Sam Cooke, which included "Only Sixteen," "(What A) Wonderful World," "Chain Gang," "Cupid," "Another Saturday Night," "Twistin' The Night Away," and "Bring it on Home to Me."
Cooke, who became the first black Pop singer to sign with RCA Records, was one of the few entertainers of his era to apply himself to the business end of the music business. He started his own publishing company and record label, SAR, and fought to control the rights to his compositions, a wise move considering Cooke's songs have been covered by hundreds of artists.
In 1963, with the country in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, Cooke, influenced by Bob Dylan's "Blowing in the Wind,” was moved to write "A Change Is Gonna Come." It became an anthem of the Civil Rights movement and is one of Cooke's most recorded songs. Sadly, Cooke was not around to see it happen – the song was issued posthumously after Cooke was shot at a Los Angeles motel, under mysterious circumstances.