Samuel "Sam" Cooke (January 22, 1931 – December 11, 1964) was an American recording artist and singer-songwriter, generally considered among the greatest of all time. Influential as both a singer and composer, he is commonly known as the King of Soul for his distinctive vocals and importance within popular music. His pioneering contributions to soul music led to the rise of Aretha Franklin, Bobby Womack, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Billy Preston and popularized the likes of Otis Redding and James Brown. AllMusic biographer Bruce Eder wrote that Cooke was "the inventor of soul music", and possessed "an incredible natural singing voice and a smooth, effortless delivery that has never been surpassed."
Cooke had 30 U.S. top 40 hits between 1957 and 1964, plus three more posthumously. Major hits like "You Send Me", "A Change Is Gonna Come", "Cupid", "Chain Gang", "Wonderful World", and "Twistin' the Night Away" are some of his most popular songs. Cooke was also among the first modern black performers and composers to attend to the business side of his musical career. He founded both a record label and a publishing company as an extension of his careers as a singer and composer. He also took an active part in the Civil Rights Movement.
On December 11, 1964, at the age of 33, Cooke was fatally shot by Bertha Franklin, the manager of the Hacienda Motel in Los Angeles, California. After an inquest, the courts ruled Cooke's death to be a justifiable homicide. Since that time, the circumstances of his death have been consistently called into question by Cooke's family and his wide circle of friends and acquaintances.
Cooke was born "Cook" in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He later added an "e" onto the end of his name, though the reason for this is disputed. He was one of eight children of the Rev. Charles Cook, a Baptist minister, and his wife, Annie Mae.
He had a brother, L.C., who some years later would become a member of the doo-wop band Johnny Keyes and the Magnificents. The family moved to Chicago in 1933. Cooke attended Wendell Phillips Academy High School in Chicago, the same school that Nat "King" Cole had attended a few years earlier. Sam Cooke began his career with his siblings in a group called The Singing Children when he was 9. He first became known as lead singer with the Highway QC's as a teenager joining at the age of 14. During this time, Cooke befriended fellow gospel singer and neighbor Lou Rawls, who sang in a rival gospel group.
In 1950, Cooke replaced gospel tenor R.H. Harris as lead singer of the gospel group The Soul Stirrers, founded by Harris. Under Cooke's leadership, the group signed with Specialty Records, where their first recording was for the song "Jesus Gave Me Water" in 1951. They also recorded other gospel tracks, such as "Peace in the Valley", "How Far Am I From Canaan?", "Jesus Paid the Debt" and "One More River", among many other gospel songs, some of which he wrote. Cooke was often credited for bringing gospel music to the attention of a younger crowd of listeners, mainly girls who would rush to the stage when the Soul Stirrers hit the stage just to get a glimpse of Cooke.
His first pop single was "Lovable" (1956), which was a remake of the gospel song "Wonderful" and was released under the alias "Dale Cook" in order not to alienate his gospel fan base; there was a considerable stigma against gospel singers performing secular music. However, it fooled no one—Cooke's unique and distinctive vocals were easily recognized. Art Rupe, head of Specialty Records, the label of the Soul Stirrers, gave his blessing for Cooke to record secular music under his real name, but he was unhappy about the type of music Cooke and producer Bumps Blackwell were making. Rupe expected Cooke's secular music to be similar to that of another Specialty Records artist, Little Richard. When Rupe walked in on a recording session and heard Cooke covering Gershwin, he was quite upset. After an argument between Rupe and Blackwell, Cooke and Blackwell left the label.
In 1957, Cooke appeared on ABC's The Guy Mitchell Show. That same year, he signed with Keen Records. His first release, "You Send Me", spent six weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard R&B chart. The song also had mainstream success, spending three weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard pop chart.
In 1961, Cooke started his own record label, SAR Records, with J.W. Alexander and his manager, Roy Crain. The label soon included The Simms Twins, The Valentinos, Bobby Womack and Johnnie Taylor. Cooke then created a publishing imprint and management firm before leaving Keen to sign with RCA Victor. One of his first RCA singles was the hit "Chain Gang". It reached No. 2 on the Billboard pop chart and was followed by more hits, including "Sad Mood", "Cupid", "Bring it on Home to Me" (with Lou Rawls on backing vocals), "Another Saturday Night" and "Twistin' the Night Away".
Like most R&B artists of his time, Cooke focused on singles; in all, he had 29 top 40 hits on the pop charts, and more on the R&B charts. He was a prolific songwriter and wrote most of the songs he recorded. He also had a hand in overseeing some of the song arrangements. In spite of releasing mostly singles, he released a well-received blues-inflected LP in 1963, Night Beat, and his most critically acclaimed studio album, Ain't That Good News, which featured five singles, in 1964.
Cooke was married twice.
Cooke's first marriage was to singer-dancer Dolores Mohawk, who was killed in an auto accident in Fresno, California in 1959. Although he and Mohawk were divorced, Cooke paid his ex-wife's funeral expenses.
Cooke and his second wife, Barbara, had three children: Linda (b 1953); Tracy (b 1960); and Vincent (1961 - 1963).
Cooke died at the age of 33 on December 11, 1964, at the Hacienda Motel at 9137 South Figueroa Street, in Los Angeles, California. Answering separate reports of a shooting and of a kidnapping at the motel, police found Cooke's body, clad only in a sports jacket and shoes but no shirt, pants or underwear. He had sustained a gunshot wound to the chest, which was later determined to have pierced his heart. The motel's manager, Bertha Franklin, said she had shot Cooke in self-defense after he broke into her office residence and attacked her. Her account was immediately questioned and disputed by friends and acquaintances.
The official police record says that Franklin fatally shot Cooke, who had checked in earlier that evening. Franklin claimed that Cooke had broken into the manager's office-apartment in a rage, wearing nothing but a shoe and a sports coat, demanding to know the whereabouts of a woman who had accompanied him to the hotel. Franklin said the woman was not in the office and that she told Cooke this, but the enraged Cooke did not believe her and violently grabbed her, demanding again to know the woman's whereabouts. According to Franklin, she grappled with Cooke, the two of them fell to the floor, and she then got up and ran to retrieve her gun. She said she then fired at Cooke in self-defense because she feared for her life. Cooke was struck once in the torso and, according to Franklin, he exclaimed, "Lady, you shot me", before mounting a last charge at her. She said she beat him over his head with a broomstick before he finally fell, mortally wounded by the gunshot.
According to Franklin and the motel's owner, Evelyn Carr (some sources identify the motel owner's last name as "Card"), they had been on the telephone together at the time of the incident. Thus, Carr claimed to have overheard Cooke's intrusion and the ensuing conflict and gunshot. Carr called the police to request that officers go to the motel, telling them she believed a shooting had occurred.
A coroner's inquest was convened to investigate the incident. The woman who had accompanied Cooke to the motel was identified as Elisa Boyer, who had also called the police that night shortly before Carr had. Boyer had called the police from a telephone booth near the motel, telling them she had just escaped being kidnapped.
Boyer told the police that she had first met Cooke earlier that night and had spent the evening in his company. She claimed that after they left a local nightclub together, she had repeatedly requested that he take her home, but he instead took her against her will to the Hacienda Motel. She claimed that once in one of the motel's rooms, Cooke physically forced her onto the bed and that she was certain he was going to rape her. According to Boyer, when Cooke stepped into the bathroom for a moment, she quickly grabbed her clothes and ran from the room. She claimed that in her haste, she had also scooped up most of Cooke's clothing by mistake. She said she ran first to the manager's office and knocked on the door seeking help. However, she said that the manager took too long in responding, so, fearing Cooke would soon be coming after her, she fled from the motel before the manager ever opened the door. She said she then put her clothing back on, hid Cooke's clothing, went to a telephone booth, and called police.
Boyer's story is the only account of what happened between the two that night; however, her story has long been called into question. Inconsistencies between her version of events and details reported by other witnesses, as well as circumstantial evidence, invited speculation that Boyer may have gone willingly to the motel with Cooke, then slipped out of the room with Cooke's clothing in order to rob him, rather than to escape an attempted rape.
Such questions were ultimately deemed beyond the scope of the inquest, which purpose was to establish the circumstances of Franklin's role in the shooting, not to determine precisely what had transpired between Cooke and Boyer preceding the event. Boyer's leaving the motel room with almost all of Cooke's clothing, regardless of exactly why she did so, combined with the fact that tests showed Cooke was inebriated at the time, provided what inquest jurors deemed a plausible explanation for Cooke's bizarre behavior and state of dress, as reported by Franklin and Carr. This explanation, in conjunction with the fact that Carr's testimony corroborated Franklin's version of events, and the fact that police officials testified that both Boyer and Franklin had passed lie detector tests, was enough to convince the coroner's jury to accept Franklin's explanation and return a verdict of justifiable homicide. With that verdict, authorities officially closed the case on Cooke's death.
Some of Cooke's family and supporters, however, have rejected Boyer's version of events, as well as those given by Franklin and Carr. They believe there was a conspiracy to murder Cooke, and the murder took place in some manner entirely different from the three official accounts. Singer Etta James wrote that her viewing of Cooke's body, before his funeral, led her to join those who question the accuracy of the official version of events. She said the injuries she observed were well beyond what could be explained by the official account of Franklin's alone having fought with Cooke. James described Cooke as having been so badly beaten that his head was nearly separated from his shoulders, his hands were broken and crushed, and his nose mangled.
No concrete evidence supporting a criminal conspiracy has been presented to date.
The first funeral service for Cooke was held in Chicago at A.R Leak Funeral Home, where thousands of fans had lined up for more than four city blocks to view his body. Afterward, his body was flown back to Los Angeles for a second service at the Mount Sinai Baptist Church, which included a much-heralded performance of "Angels Keep Watching Over Me" by Ray Charles. Cooke was interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.
Some posthumous releases of Cooke recordings followed, many of which became hits, including "A Change Is Gonna Come", an early protest song that is generally regarded as his greatest composition. After Cooke's death, his widow, Barbara, married Bobby Womack. Cooke's daughter, Linda, later married Womack's brother, Cecil.
Bertha Franklin said she received numerous death threats after slaying Cooke. She left her position at the Hacienda Motel and did not publicly disclose where she had moved. After being cleared by the coroner's jury, she sued Cooke's estate, citing physical injuries and mental anguish suffered as a result of Cooke's attack. Her lawsuit sought US$200,000 in compensatory and punitive damages. Barbara Womack countersued Franklin on behalf of the estate, seeking $7,000 in damages to cover Cooke's funeral expenses. Elisa Boyer provided testimony in support of Franklin in the case. In 1967, a jury ruled in favor of Franklin on both counts, awarding her $30,000 in damages.