Samuel Cook (January 22, 1931 – December 11, 1964), known professionally as Sam Cooke, was an American singer, songwriter, and entrepreneur.
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 contributed to the rise of Aretha Franklin, Bobby Womack, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and 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".
On December 11, 1964, Cooke was shot and killed at the Hacienda Motel in Los Angeles, California after an alleged altercation with Bertha Franklin, the manager of the motel, who said she fatally shot him when he attacked her in a rage. A jury ruled that the shooting was justifiable homicide, preventing Franklin from being convicted. Since his death, the circumstances of Cooke's killing have been called into question by his family.
Cooke was born Samuel Cook in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in 1931. In 1957 he added an "e" at the end of his name; the reason for the change is disputed. He was the fifth of eight children of the Rev. Charles Cook, a minister in the Church of Christ (Holiness), and his wife, Annie Mae. One of his younger brothers, L.C. (b. 1932), later became a member of the doo-wop band Johnny Keyes and the Magnificents.
The family moved to Chicago in 1933. Cooke attended Doolittle Elementary and 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 six years old. He first became known as lead singer with the Highway QC's when he was a teenager, having joined the group 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, who had signed with Specialty Records on behalf of the group. Their first recording under Cooke's leadership was the song "Jesus Gave Me Water" in 1951. They also recorded the gospel songs "Peace in the Valley", "How Far Am I from Canaan?", "Jesus Paid the Debt" and "One More River", among many others, 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.
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", "Another Saturday Night", 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.
His first pop/soul single was "Lovable" (1956), a remake of the gospel song "Wonderful". It 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 hit, "You Send Me," released as the B-side of "Summertime," 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 (who were Bobby Womack and his brothers), Bobby Womack and Johnnie Taylor. Cooke then created a publishing imprint and management firm named Kags before leaving Keen to sign with RCA Victor. One of his first RCA singles was "Chain Gang", which reached No. 2 on the Billboard pop chart. It 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.
In 1963 Cooke signed a five-year contract for Allen Klein to manage Kags Music and SAR Records and made him his manager. Klein negotiated a five-year deal (three years plus two option years) with RCA in which a holding company, Tracey, Ltd., named after Cooke's daughter, owned by Klein and managed by J. W. Alexander, would produce and own Cooke's recordings. RCA would get exclusive distribution rights in exchange for 6 percent royalty payments and payments for the recording sessions. For tax reasons, Cooke would receive preferred stock in Tracey instead of an initial cash advance of $100,000. Cooke would receive cash advances of $100,000 for the next two years, followed by an additional $75,000 for each of the two option years if the deal went to term.
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 acquaintances.
The official police record states 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 a gun. She said she then fired at Cooke in self-defense because she feared for her life. Cooke was struck once in the torso. 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.
The motel's owner, Evelyn Carr, claimed that she had been on the telephone with Franklin at the time of the incident. Carr claimed to have overheard Cooke's intrusion and the ensuing conflict and gunshot. She 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 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 her and Cooke that night; however, her story has long been called into question. Inconsistencies between her version of events and details reported by diners at Martoni's Restaurant, where Cooke dined and drank earlier in the evening, suggest that Boyer may have gone willingly to the motel with Cooke, then slipped out of the room with his clothing in order to rob him, rather than to escape an attempted rape. Cooke was reportedly carrying much more money at Martoni's than the $108 cash found at his death scene, and Boyer was arrested for prostitution in January 1965, though the charge was dismissed and she accrued no more notoriety or arrests.
However, questions about Boyer's role were beyond the scope of the inquest, the purpose of which was only to establish the circumstances of Franklin's role in the shooting. Boyer's leaving the motel room with almost all of Cooke's clothing, and the fact that tests showed Cooke was inebriated at the time, provided a plausible explanation to the inquest jurors for Cooke's bizarre behavior and state of dress. In addition, because Carr's testimony corroborated Franklin's version of events, and because both Boyer and Franklin later passed lie detector tests, the coroner's jury ultimately accepted Franklin's explanation and returned 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 that there was a conspiracy to murder Cooke and that the murder took place in some manner entirely different from the three official accounts. Singer Etta James viewed Cooke's body before his funeral and questioned the accuracy of the official version of events. She wrote that the injuries she observed were well beyond the official account of Cooke having fought Franklin alone. James wrote that Cooke was so badly beaten that his head was nearly separated from his shoulders, his hands were broken and crushed, and his nose mangled. Some people speculated that Cooke's manager, Allen Klein, might have had a role in his death. Klein owned Tracey, Ltd., which ultimately owned all rights to Cooke's recordings.
No concrete evidence supporting a criminal conspiracy has been presented to date.
The first funeral service for Cooke was held on December 18, 1964, at A. R. Leak Funeral Home in Chicago; 200,000 fans 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 on December 19, which included a much-heralded performance of "The Angels Keep Watching Over Me" by Ray Charles, who stood in for grief-stricken Bessie Griffin. Cooke was interred in the Garden of Honor, Lot 5728, Space 1, at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.
Two singles and an album were released in the month after his death. One of the singles, "Shake", reached the top ten of both the pop and R&B charts. The B-side, "A Change Is Gonna Come", is considered a classic protest song from the era of the Civil Rights Movement . It was a top 40 pop hit and a top ten R&B hit. The album, also titled Shake, reached the number one spot for R&B albums. 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 shooting 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.
Cooke was married twice. His first marriage was to singer-dancer Dolores Elizabeth Milligan Cook, who was killed in an auto accident in Fresno, California, in 1959. Although he and Dolores were divorced, Cooke paid for his ex-wife's funeral expenses. Cooke and his second wife, Barbara Campbell Cooke, had three children, Linda (b.1953), Tracy (b.1960), and Vincent (1961 – 1963), who drowned in the family swimming pool. Cooke also fathered at least three other children out of wedlock.
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