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Sam Cooke & The Soul Stirrers

Sam Cooke was the most important soul singer in history -- he was also the inventor of soul music, and its most popular and beloved performer in both the black and white communities. Equally important, he was among the first modern black performers and composers to attend to the business side of the music business, and founded both a record label and a publishing company as an extension of his careers as a singer and composer. Yet, those business interests didn't prevent him from being engaged in topical issues, including the struggle over civil rights, the pitch and intensity of which followed an arc that paralleled Cooke's emergence as a star -- his own career bridged gaps between black and white audiences that few had tried to surmount, much less succeeded at doing, and also between generations; where Chuck Berry or Little Richard brought black and white teenagers together, James Brown sold records to white teenagers and black listeners of all ages, and Muddy Waters got young white folkies and older black transplants from the South onto the same page, Cooke appealed to all of the above, and the parents of those white teenagers as well -- yet he never lost his credibility with his core black audience. In a sense, his appeal anticipated that of the Beatles, in breadth and depth.

He was born Sam Cook in Clarksdale, MS, on January 22, 1931, one of eight children of a Baptist minister and his wife. Even as a young boy, he showed an extraordinary voice and frequently sang in the choir in his father's church. During the middle of the decade, the Cook family moved to Chicago's South Side, where the Reverend Charles Cook quickly established himself as a major figure in the religious community. Sam and three of his siblings also formed a group of their own, the Singing Children, in the 1930s. Although his own singing was confined to gospel music, he was aware and appreciative of the popular music of the period, particularly the melodious, harmony-based sounds of the Ink Spots, whose influence could later be heard in songs such as "You Send Me" and "For Sentimental Reasons." As a teenager, he was a member of the Teen Highway QCs, a gospel group that performed in churches and at religious gatherings. His membership in that group led to his introduction to the Soul Stirrers, one of the top gospel groups in the country, and in 1950 he joined them.

If Cooke had never recorded a note of music on his own, he would still be remembered today in gospel circles for his work with the Soul Stirrers. Over the next six years, his role within the group and his prominence within the black community rose to the point where he was already a star, with his own fiercely admiring and devoted audience, through his performances on songs like "Touch the Hem of His Garment," "Nearer to Thee," and "That's Heaven to Me." The group was one of the top acts on Art Rupe's Specialty Records label, and he might have gone on for years as their most popular singer, but Cooke's goal was to reach audiences beyond the religious community, and beyond the black population, with his voice. This was a tall order at the time, as the mere act of recording a popular song could alienate the gospel listenership in an instant; singing for God was regarded in those circles as a gift and a responsibility, and popular music, rock & roll, and R&B were to be abhorred, at least coming from the mouth of a gospel singer; the gap was so great that when a blues singer such as Blind Gary Davis became "sanctified" (that is, found religion) as the Rev. Gary Davis, he could still sing and play his old blues melodies, but had to devise new words, and he never sang the blues words again.

He tested the waters of popular music in 1956 with the single "Lovable," produced by Bumps Blackwell and credited under the name Dale Cooke so as not to attract too much attention from his existing audience. It was enough, however, to get Cooke dropped by the Soul Stirrers and their record label, but that freed him to record under his real name. The result was one of the biggest selling singles of the 1950s, a Cooke original entitled "You Send Me," which sold over two million copies on the tiny Keen Records label and hit number one on both the pop and R&B charts. Although it seems like a tame record today, "You Send Me" was a pioneering soul record in its time, melding elements of R&B, gospel, and pop into a sound that was new and still coalescing at the time.

Cooke was with Keen for the next two years, a period in which he delivered up some of the prettiest romantic ballads and teen pop singles of the era, including "For Sentimental Reasons," "Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha," "Only Sixteen," and "(What A) Wonderful World." These were extraordinarily beautiful records, and in between the singles came some early album efforts, most notably Tribute to the Lady, his album of songs associated with Billie Holiday. He was unhappy, however, with both the business arrangement that he had with Keen and the limitations inherent with recording for a small label -- equally to the point, major labels were knocking on Cooke's door, including Atlantic and RCA Records; Atlantic, which was not yet the international conglomerate that it later became, was the top R&B-oriented label in the country and Cooke almost certainly would have signed there and found a happy home with the company, except that they wanted his publishing, and Cooke had seen the sales figures on his songs, as well as their popularity in cover versions by other artists, and was well aware of the importance of owning his copyrights.

Thus, he signed with RCA Records, then one of the three biggest labels in the world (the others being Columbia and Decca), even as he organized his own publishing company, Kags Music, and a record label, SAR, through which he would produce other artists' records -- among those signed to SAR were the Soul Stirrers, Bobby Womack (late of the Valentinos, who were also signed to the label), former Soul Stirrers member Johnny Taylor, Billy Preston, Johnnie Morisette, and the Simms Twins.

Cooke's RCA sides were a strangely schizophrenic body of work, at least for the first two years. He broke new ground in pop and soul with the single "Chain Gang," a strange mix of sweet melodies and gritty, sweaty sensibilities that also introduced something of a social conscience to his work -- a number two hit on both the pop and R&B charts, it was his biggest hit since "You Send Me" and heralded a bolder phase in his career. Singles like bluesy, romantic "Sad Mood," the idyllic romantic soul of "Cupid," and the straight-ahead dance tune "Twistin' the Night Away" (a pop Top Ten and a number one R&B hit), and "Bring It on Home to Me" all lived up to this promise, and also sold in huge numbers. But the first two albums that RCA had him do, Hits of the Fifties and Cooke's Tour, were among the lamest LPs ever recorded by any soul or R&B singer, comprised of washed-out pop tunes in arrangements that showed almost none of Cooke's gifts to their advantage.

In 1962, Cooke issued Twistin' the Night Away, a somewhat belated "twist" album that became one of his biggest-selling LPs. He didn't really hit his stride as an LP artist, however, until 1963 with the release of Night Beat, a beautifully self-contained, dark, moody assembly of blues-oriented songs that were among the best and most challenging numbers that Cooke had recorded up to that time. By the time of its release, he was mostly identified through his singles, which were among the best work of their era, and had developed two separate audiences, among white teen and post-teen listeners and black audiences of all ages. It was Cooke's hope to cross over to the white audience more thoroughly, and open up doors for black performers that, up to that time, had mostly been closed -- he had tried playing the Copa in New York as early as 1957 and failed at the time, mostly owing to his inexperience, but in 1964 he returned to the club in triumph, an event that also yielded one of the most finely recorded live performances of its period. The problem with the Copa performance was that it didn't really represent what Sam Cooke was about in full -- it was Cooke at his most genial and non-confrontational, doing his safest repertory for a largely middle-aged, middle-class white audience; they responded enthusiastically, to be sure, but only to Cooke's tamest persona.

In mid-1963, however, Cooke had done a show at the Harlem Square Club in Miami that had been recorded. Working in front of a black audience and doing his "real" show, he delivered a sweaty, spellbinding performance built on the same elements found in his singles and his best album tracks, combining achingly beautiful melodies and gritty soul sensibilities. The two live albums sum up the split in Cooke's career and the sheer range of his talent, the rewards of which he'd finally begun to realize more fully in 1963 and 1964.

The drowning death of his infant son in mid-1963 had made it impossible for Cooke to work in the studio until the end of that year. During that time, however, with Allen Klein now managing his business affairs, Cooke did achieve the financial and creative independence that he'd wanted, including more money than any black performer had ever been advanced before, and the eventual ownership of his recordings beginning in November of 1963 -- he had achieved creative control of his recordings as well, and seemed poised for a breakthrough. It came when he resumed making records, amid the musical ferment of the early '60s. Cooke was keenly aware of the music around him, and was particularly entranced by Bob Dylan's song "Blowin' in the Wind," its treatment of the plight of black Americans and other politically oppressed minorities, and its success in the hands of Peter, Paul & Mary -- all of these factors convinced him that the time was right for songs that dealt with more than twisting the night away.

The result was "A Change Is Gonna Come," perhaps the greatest song to come out of the civil rights struggle, and one that seemed to close and seal the gap between the two directions of Cooke's career, from gospel to pop. Arguably his greatest and his most important song, it was an artistic apotheosis for Cooke. During this same period, he had also devised a newer, more advanced dance-oriented soul sound in the form of the song "Shake." These two recordings heralded a new era for Cooke and a new phase of his career, with seemingly the whole world open to him.

None of it was to be. Early in the day on December 11, 1964, while in Los Angeles, Cooke became involved in an altercation at a seedy motel, with a woman guest and the night manager, and was shot to death while allegedly trying to attack the manager. The case is still shrouded in doubt and mystery, and was never investigated the way the murder of a star of his stature would be today. Cooke's death shocked the black community and reverberated far beyond -- his single "Shake" was a posthumous Top Ten hit, as were "A Change Is Gonna Come" and the At the Copa album, released in 1965. Otis Redding, Al Green, and Solomon Burke, among others, picked up key parts of Cooke's repertory, as did white performers, including the Animals and the Rolling Stones. Even the Supremes recorded a memorial album of his songs, which is now one of the most sought-after of their original recordings, in either LP or CD form.

His reputation survived, at least among those who were smart enough to look behind the songs -- to hear Redding's performance of "Shake" at the Monterey Pop Festival, for example, and see where it came from. Cooke's own records were a little tougher to appreciate, however. Listeners who heard those first two, rather poor RCA albums, Hits of the Fifties and Cooke's Tour, could only wonder what the big deal was about, and several of the albums that followed were uneven enough to give potential fans pause. Meanwhile, the contractual situation surrounding Cooke's recordings greatly complicated the reissue of his work -- Cooke's business manager, Allen Klein, exerted a good deal of control, especially over the songs cut during that last year of the singer's life. By the 1970s, there were some fairly poor, mostly budget-priced compilations available, consisting of the hits up through early 1963, and for a time there was even a television compilation out there, but that was it. The movie National Lampoon's Animal House made use of a pair of Cooke songs, "(What A) Wonderful World" and "Twistin' the Night Away," which greatly raised his profile among college students and younger baby-boomers, and Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes made almost a mini-career out of reviving Cooke's songs (most notably "Having a Party," and even part of "A Change Is Gonna Come") in concert. In 1986, The Man and His Music went some way to correcting the absence of all but the early hits in a career-spanning compilation, but since the mid-'90s, Cooke's final year's worth of releases have been separated from the earlier RCA and Keen material, and is in the hands of Klein's ABKCO label. Finally, in the late '90s and beyond, RCA, ABKCO, and even Specialty (which still owns Cooke's gospel sides with the Soul Stirrers) each issued comprehensive collections of their portions of Cooke's catalog. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi
full bio


I saw sam cook when I was 10 years old that brother was bad
One of the best ever.
Take just a moment. From your busy.
Monday schedule.Sil e n t l y . To pray.....
............ . . f o r normal peace!
you soothe me samw and i love you who can possibly portray u in a movie
The late great singer Sam Cooke.
i a in love with same cooke there isno one better listen please because he will filll tyour heart and soothe your soul
I love all of his music. An
He touch many life
soul stirrers
Imiss him.
The inspiration for many soul singers especially Marvin Gaye. Sam Cooke was his hero.
Amazing voice ahhhhhhhh
Pat moore Pandora is the best I get me a glass of wine and sit back and enjoy love old school back in the old days when you say I love you it was real
Sam Cook..... I'm glad my dad told me to listen to music. Who could sing like that!
oh ya he is the best
samaria1mill e r
Sam Cooke is my favorite, I never get tired of listening to him. He was WONDERFUL! I wish he was still alive. No one can replace his awesome soul touching voice. He was born January 1931 & I was born January 1973! I LOVE HIM AND HIS SONGS!!!!
sam cooke is a child of god, who had change ,and turned toward the lord.
great to know he is the Patriarch of soul musick,i had no idea!!
Words cannot speak to the deepness, which he eloquently spoke the human emotion. Actions can only speak louder.
Sam cooke real music
Mr. Sam Cooke ,what can you say I have said it all when I said Mr. Sam Cooke.
The best to ever do it...Mr Sam Cooke
I know that Sam's voice is the most perfect, smooth, angelic, honest voice I've EVER heard. What a treat to be able to hear him. Thank you Lord for your gift.

He is more than Amazing. He is, like we all are, Child of God. What a blessing to hear such wonderful words truly from a Blessed Soul. May he rest in Peace and May his music continue to Bless All who Listen To It! I know exactly why he was taken sooo soon. He had a plan designed from His Father, Our Lord, of which he followed to perfection, and once completed, like in his song, he was back with His Father Again. We Love You Forever & Eternity, Sam Cooke. See you when I leave here.
I felt like Sam Cooke was a part of my family the way my father played his music. I am 30 and can sing all his songs word for word...I find myself in tears being that I lost my dad last year but listening to Uncle Sam brings back all the memories.My father played his music all the way from Chgo to Tupelo,MS every year. I thank God and my father for raising all ten of us in the church and introducing us to Sam Cooke music. M y son is ten and loves Uncle Sam as well.....A TRUE LEGEND.....S A M COOKE
When I first heard A Change Is Gonna Come my life was changed forever...I somehow knew that all things are possible...
THE GREATEST EVER in his time!!!!
the greatest soul singer in the history of music. all that in such a short time .just a testament to what TRUE TALENTS GOD BLESSED HIM eternally in peace hope to meet you when THIS IS ALL OVER.
jazzgirlsing s 2 3
I just can't get enough of Sam and the Soul Stirrers. Sam Cook drives crazy. Amazing how the man could SAAANG!!!!!!
Thank you so much for this interesting update of Sam Cook's background and musical talents & contribution s . I am 65 years old and have never found anyone that can copy or top his style of singing. He was unique and a gifted singer. Still love all of his music, especially his gospel songs.
Sam Cooke is the greatest soul artist in the world. I too grew up listening to Sam Cooke at home my grandfather was a huge of him. Just his pitch and his tone was emmaculate.
I grew up listening to Sam Cooke. My dad woulkd play it all of the time, especially New Year's Day my dad's birthday. Pecan55
Thanks Pandora, Sam Cooke was the man. I use to listen to his music as a child. Sam Cooke's music relaxes me.
Thank you for Pandora. Sam Cooke is one of my favorite gospel singers. I grew up listening to him. There is something comforting about listening to him sing, unlike a lot of the "noise" you hear today.
I always loved him. It was sad the way he died.Maybe to see him again one day with The Haevenly Father*** Marva Spicer
very good
I love Sam Cooke. such a beautiful voice died to young..
Soul singer of the Mil.
sam coom was the man just great.
"Its been too hard livin' but im afraid to die cuz i dont know whats up there beyond the sky?" That, my friends, is Where It's At.
love his songs
Leon O'Neal says:
A man that was gifted with such a melodious voice. There may never be another singer with a smooth silky voice as Sam Cooke.
sam the man......... . . . . .
Sam Cooke, what do you say? He is so good. I mean so good. His voice makes me want to cry. I don't know if there is a more perfect voice in early rock and soul. My mother was the first to introduce me to his music and I ended up exploring the rest. His life ended far too early and I wish I had had the opportunity to know that voice in my own life.
Sam Cooke has the exquisite ability to touch the soul with his insightful lyrics and angelic voice. If you are looking to enlighten your spirit….then Sam is your man.
Sam Cooke is my favorite singer ever. I love him and he had one of the greatest voices I have ever heard. I live in MS and have listened to his music since I was a child. Thanks Pandora for having so many songs by Sam Cooke to listen too.
And it is SUCH A Wonderful World, isn't it? I just love being alive.
This is wonderful. Thank you for educating me.

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