Sam Cooke was born Samuel Cook in Clarksdale, Mississippi in 1931 (he added the ‘e’ to his surname later). He was one of eight children and when Sam was only nine, he and his siblings sang together calling themselves the Singing Children. Their father was a Baptist minister so, not surprisingly, their repertoire consisted largely of gospel songs. In the mid-forties Cooke joined the newly formed Highway Q.C.’s – a gospel group whose career would span half a century. When he left them in 1951, his place was taken by another future soul legend, Lou Rawls.
Cooke then joined legendary gospel group the Soul Stirrers who were originally formed in the late twenties. Cooke is credited with bringing a much younger audience to the group. They were signed to the Specialty record label and their first big hit with Cooke was ‘Jesus Gave Me Water’ recorded in 1951. He stayed with the group until 1957 and during that time also recorded a number of singles that were released on Specialty. These solo singles were originally released under the pseudonym of ‘Dale Cook’ so that his gospel fan base would not be alienated, for it was not considered acceptable at the time for gospel singers to record secular music. Cooke’s vocal style was so distinctive, however, that the name-change fooled no-one, as you can judge for yourself for we have included the tracks on this compilation. ‘Loveable’ was a remake of the gospel standard ‘Wonderful’ and, along with its b-side ‘Forever’, was recorded in December 1956. It was his first solo release. Later the head of Specialty Records gave his blessing for Cooke to release any subsequent tracks under his real name. These included ‘I’ll Come Running Back To You’, ‘Happy In Love’ and ‘I Need You Now’ althoughh it is thought that all these titles date from the same December 1956 recording session.
Cooke and his manager eventually fell out with the head of Specialty Records over their choice of recording material and he signed for Keen Records in 1957. His first hit on that label was the self-penned ‘You Send Me’ which reached number 1 in the US pop chart (and a respectable 29 in the UK chart). It was originally the b-side of Cooke’s version of Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’ but DJs preferred playing ‘You Send Me’.
Cooke stayed with the Keen label until 1960 but he had mixed fortunes with his single releases, never quite recapturing the success of ‘You Send Me’. Probably his biggest hit during this period was the classic ‘Wonderful World’ which reached number 12 in the US charts in 1960 and number 27 in the UK. Cooke’s self-penned ‘Only Sixteen’ was released by him in 1959 but in the UK it was the cover version by Craig Douglas which was the big hit, reaching number 1 in the charts.
In 1960 Cooke signed for the RCA-Victor label and it was with his first single release for that label that he scored his first big hit in the UK. This was ‘Chain Gang’, written by Cooke after he saw a real chain gang of prisoners working on a highway while he was on tour. He and his brother Charles felt sorry for them and gave them several cartons of cigarettes.
Cooke’s 1961 release ‘Cupid’ was his biggest UK hit so far, reaching number 7 in the charts (although only number 17 in the US). The distinctive sound of the arrow was made by backing vocalists Kenneth and Bobbie Simms who were twins.
Sam Cooke’s biggest UK hit came in 1962 with ‘Twistin’ The Night Away’ which reached number 6 in the UK and number 9 in the US. Again penned by Cooke, the song’s inspiration was TV footage of the Peppermint Lounge in New York – where the twist craze originated.
Cooke’s life ended in a bizarre manner in 1964 when he was shot dead by Bertha Franklin, a motel manager in Los Angeles, apparently in self-defence. The exact details of the incident are to this day hotly disputed but it is a sad irony that the owner of such a velvety-smooth voice should have ended his days in such a violent manner.
Today Cooke is regarded as one of the handful of artists who single-handedly created the soul music genre. So whether you’re ‘Only Sixteen’ or a lot older, then sit back and bask in the ‘Wonderful World’ of Sam Cooke.
Also available on CD