Samuel Cook was born on January 22, 1931, in Clarksdale, Mississippi. One of eight children, Sam and his family moved to Chicago in 1933. Sam attended the same high school as Nat King Cole, who attended a few years before Sam.
At the age of nine, Sam was singing with his siblings in a group called, “The Singing Children.” When he was fourteen, he was the lead singer of the gospel group, “The Highway QCs.” He then became the lead singer of “The Soul Stirrers” at nineteen and they were signed to Specialty Records.
Sam recorded pop singles under the name of Dale Cook, so as not to anger his gospel fans. During a recording session, Art Rupe, head of Specialty Records, heard Sam recording a Gershwin tune, but Rupe wanted Sam to record songs similar to Little Richard.
Leaving Specialty Records behind, Sam signed with Keen Records in 1957. He had his first hit with “You Send Me.” After a string of hits, Sam signed with RCA in 1960. Other hits while at RCA included “Bring It On Home To Me” with Lou Rawls on backing vocals, “Having A Party” and “Cupid.”
Sam started his own label, SAR Records, signing such artists as Bobby Womack and Johnnie Taylor. He had a good head for business and created a publishing imprint and management company.
On the pop charts, Sam Cooke had 29 Top 40 singles, with one going to number one on the charts. Here are Sam Cooke’s ten biggest hits, according to Billboard’s Top 40 Charts.
1. You Send Me – 1957 – Sam’s only number one pop hit was written by his younger brother, L.C. Cooke. Originally the flip side, the Gershwin tune “Summertime” was to be the “A” side, but deejays started playing “You Send Me” and it was a hit. Other charted versions include, Teresa Brewer and Aretha Franklin.
2. Chain Gang – 1960 – Written by Sam and his brother Charles, the inspiration for this song came when Sam encountered an actual chain gang while on tour. Legend has it Sam gave the men several cartons of cigarettes. This was the first top 10 hit for Sam on RCA.
3. Shake – 1965 – Released posthumously after, this rocker has been covered by Otis Redding, Eric Burdon and the Animals, Ike and Tina Turner and The Supremes. Written by Sam, Otis Redding’s version was selected by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s list of “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.” The B-side of Sam’s version, “A Change is Gonna Come” also went Top 40 and came to exemplify the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s.
4. Twistin’ The Night Away – 1962 – Cashing in on the Twist craze that was going on, Sam went Top 10 with this single on the pop charts and to number one on the R&B Charts. Covered by many, Rod Stewart also hit the charts with his version in 1973.
5. Another Saturday Night – 1963 – From the album “Ain’t That Good News,” this happy rocker went Top 10 for Sam on the pop charts and to number one on the R&B charts. Cat Stevens took his version to number six on the weekly charts in 1974.
6. Little Red Rooster – 1963 – Originally recorded by Howlin’ Wolf in 1961, Sam went Top 20 with his version that featured Ray Charles on the piano and Billy Preston on the organ.
7. (Ain’t That) Good News – 1964 – Done in three takes, this is an adaptation of an older secular song with Sam’s soulful vocals bringing new spirit with an up-tempo beat. He performed this song live on American Bandstand in April 1964.
8. Good Times – 1964 – The B-side of this Top 20 hit was the classic “Tennessee Waltz.” Cover versions of “Good Times” were done by Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones and Dan Seals did a country version taking it to number one on the Country Charts in 1990.
9. Wonderful World – 1960 – Written by Sam, Lou Adler and Herb Alpert, the inspiration for this song came from Sam’s high school sweetheart. The song has had many successful remakes, including Herman’s Hermits (1965) and Art Garfunkel with Paul Simon and James Taylor (1978). Sam’s version was also prominent in many movies including “Witness” which had Harrison Ford teaching Amish girl, Kelly McGillis how to dance.
10. Nothing Can Change This Love – 1962 – From the album, “The Man and His Music.”
Sam Cooke’s private life was wrought with tragedy. In 1963, Sam’s 18 month old son, Vincent, was with his wife, Barbara. Vincent wandered away and drowned in the family swimming pool. Sam went into a deep depression and blamed his wife for their son’s death. He worked out of town as much as he could to deal with his grief.
On December 11, 1964, Sam was shot dead, in the manager’s office of the Hacienda Motel in Los Angeles. There is much controversy surrounding the shooting, which the manager claimed was in self defense. However, a large sum of money of Sam’s was missing, plus some inconsistencies in witness accounts and the extent of injuries Sam sustained, after only a single bullet was found in his torso. Injuries that included broken hands, beatings around the face and head and other facial injuries were evident at the funeral.
There has been no evidence to support a conspiracy theory and the motel manager was exonerated with a jury returning the verdict of justifiable homicide.
In 1986, Sam Cooke was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In 1999, he was honored with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
In 2008, he was named the fourth “Greatest Singer of All Time” by Rolling Stone magazine.
Singer Bobby Womack married Sam’s widow, Barbara. Sam’s nephew is singer R.B. Greaves of “Take A Letter Maria” fame.
Sam Cooke was interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.
Although it has been nearly five decades since his passing, he is still revered by many as the definitive soul singer.