During the early 1960’s, he ..
. encouraged Black people to support Black Press.
. read voraciously from early childhood and believed that reading enlarged the world.
. was a great student of Black History, inspired by John Hope Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom.
And the works of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Langston Hughes.
. was the first African-American artist to achieve crossover success, reaching #1 on the pop charts.
. refused to appear before racially-segregated audiences in The South.
. was a self-determined entrepreneur in the record industry.
. wore a natural at the height of his success before Black “became” Beautiful in 1964, the year he died at age 33.
And there’s more to Sam Cooke’s story, so much more we would have learned had he lived to reach his 79th birthday this January.
“Sam Cooke: Crossing Over” will be presented on THIRTEEN’s American Masters series, Monday, January 11 at 9:00pm on PBS. Narrated by Danny Glover, the film features archival footage and interviews with Cooke’s family and intimates including Muhammad Ali, James Brown, Smokey Robinson, Bobby Womack, Jimmy Carter, Billy Preston, Sam Moore, Dick Clark, Jerry Wexler and more.
The documentary follows the composer-lyricist-performer’s music career and shows how “game-changer” Cooke “created a new American sound.” With his “You Send Me” selling over a million records in 1957, the young gospel star alienated some fans by embracing “the devil’s music,” but he forever altered the course of popular music in America, and he still impacts today, 45 years after his death.
His “Change is Gonna Come” of 1962 was featured in Spike Lee’s 1992 biographical film Malcolm X and the same song inspired President Obama’s 2008 historic speech on race.
Cooke’s career was meteoric at every stage. From early childhood, his silky, soaring voice electrified the congregation at his father’s First Baptist Church in Chicago. By age 19, he became the lead vocalist for The Soul Stirrers gospel group. He redefined the genre and became gospel’s first iconic, and ironically, sexy superstar. Women flocked to his concerts to experience Sam, not Jesus.
Cooke had twenty-nine top-40 hits in the U.S. between 1957 and 1964. Major hits like “You Send Me”, “Cupid,” “A Change Is Gonna Come”, “Chain Gang”, “Wonderful World”, “Another Saturday Night” and “Bring It on Home to Me” 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 – accomplishing what no other Black performer had ever attempted -as an extension of his careers as a singer and composer. He also took an active part in the American Civil Rights Movement. His poignant, biting lyrics, especially on “Change” and “Chain Gang” were fashioned out of the depth of personal pain.
The film also shows his courageous stand against racism, and how he opened doors for Other artists, including mentoring Aretha Franklin and launching Otis Redding.
A great companion piece to the documentary is Peter Guralnick’s masterful biography Dream Boogie that captures the music scene of the late 1950s and ’60s and the “evocation of harsh realities” faced by Black musicians at that time.
In a phone interview with Our Time Press in November 2005, Guralnick said, “If the world had been a different place in the ’60s, Cooke would have been at a stature higher than any other performing artist in the world. He was a lot smarter, more attractive, more talented, and definitely a genius and visionary. Today he would have been doing great things. He might have been the Mayor of Chicago.”
Certainly, he would have been speaking out, as he did back then through his music and through his work. He was not afraid to speak about Black love and Black women. At the end of his life at 33, he was already beginning to work to empower the lives of other musicians, writing songs for them, encouraging them to go into their own businesses.
But you also know his pain: following Sammy Davis around, according to Guralnick, to get him to rehearse with him to no avail; and joy – hanging out at the home of the Rev. C.L. Franklin, the father of Aretha; meeting Muhammad Ali, then-Cassius Clay. The late-night road shows with Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, Garnet Mimms; radio interviews with the Magnificent “Burn, Baby, Burn” Montague disc jockey and so on.
To put together his portrait, Guralnick went to the people who knew him best, his brother, Bobby Womack, the Simms Twins, Magnificent Montague, his friend and business partner JW Alexander, Barbara Campbell.
But there is an abrupt end to Cooke’s life story in Guralnick’s book and the AMERICAN MASTERS documentary: Cooke was gunned down and killed by the manager of a California motel under questionable circumstances. She claimed self-defense.
Four-time Grammy-winner Etta James’ autobiography Rage to Survive reveals and shares another view. James says she viewed Cooke’s body in the funeral home. She said he was so badly beaten that his head was nearly separated from his shoulders, his hands were broken and crushed, and his nose was mangled.
Etta James, writes Myra Panache on her Panache Reports Web site, talks about the special friendship she shared with Cooke in her autobiography Rage to Survive.
“Me and Sam were walking from the parking lot into a club in California; we had to pass this little alley. Sam stopped and said, ‘Wait here, I’ll be right back.’ He strolled back to the alley and started shaking hands with all the bums. They loved him. He knew a lot of their names and they knew all of his songs. When one offered Sam a sip of wine, he didn’t hesitate. Sam reached right down, took the bottle in his hand and turned it up to his mouth and took a big swig. He gave you the impression that he was blessed to be Sam Cooke but he was always for the underdog in ways that weren’t showy.”
“Sam was also smart; he understood that ownership was the name of the game. He wanted to control his own record company and publishing and he wanted to cut the wiseguys out. I was devastated when he was murdered. One theory is that someone slipped him a mickey.
“No woman could have inflicted the injuries he suffered; I figured that (someone slipped him a mickey and it) had worn off at some point. That’s when Sam started struggling with the guys who were trying to kill him. They beat him and shot him and concocted this far-out story that no reasonable person could believe. At his inquest, they argued that Sam was drunk but when they tried to determine what was in Sam’s body, the court refused to hear the evidence, calling it irrelevant. The mickey would have led to more questions, questions that couldn’t be answered.”
A casual conversation here in Brooklyn back in 2005 revealed that Ms. James’ version is likely more factual than not. The Rev. of Crossover Baptist Church on Marcus Garvey here in Bedford-Stuyvesant lived in the same South Central neighborhood as the Figueroa Street motel where Cooke was shot dead. “Rumors were widespread that the greatest performer of that time was the victim of a hit.”
Maybe that story will be the subject of another book or documentary on the man who would be King of Pop music and the pop business world. For now, read Etta James’ autobiography Rage to Surivive and Guralnick’s book, Dream Boogie. But also watch AMERICAN MASTERS’ Sam Cooke: Crossing Over, executive produced by PBS’ Susan Lacy, on January 11. –
Bernice Elizabeth Green