Sam Cooke – (1) The King of Soul

Starting in the mid-50’s until his untimely death in 1964, Sam Cooke had an impressive string of pop and soul hits. In fact, according to Wikipedia, he had thirty U.S. top 40 hits between 1957 and 1964, plus three more posthumously. His music is so good that when I put together my “Indispensable 150 list,” of late ’50’s, early ’60’s songs, six of them were Cooke’s, more than any other artist. (More on that list in a future series.)

But where did Cooke come from? I don’t mean literally (born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, moved to Chicago) but musically. I didn’t know it at the time and not for years later, but prior to being a popular soul singer, Cooke was a gospel singer. Stories vary as to how old he was (six? nine?) but at a very young age he was in a gospel group called The Singing Children with his siblings.

When he was 14, he joined up with a group called the Highway QC’s, named for Chicago’s Highway Baptist church. During this time (mid-1940’s) he became friendly with singer Lou Rawls who would eventually replace him in the QC’s.

In 1950, the 19-year-old Cooke, whose father, like Aretha Franklin, was a preacher, joined another gospel group called the Soul Stirrers. At this point in time, he had not yet sung anything other than gospel, rock and roll was still germinating at Sam Phillips‘ Sun studio and there was no real intersection between secular and religious music.

With songs like “One More River,” the Soul Stirrers became popular. And the young, handsome, soulful singer attracted a largely female clientele (it was ever thus):

Cooke sang with the Soul Stirrers for six years. But gospel music, as beautiful and moving as it was, would never have the mass appeal that the burgeoning pop market had.

Since the crossover between secular and religious was still frowned on, Cooke, during his time with the Soul Stirrers, recorded a song called “Loveable” under the name Dale Cook, fooling no one. (“Loveable” was a remake of a gospel song called “Wonderful” and exchanges love of girl for love of God.) The Soul Stirrers were booed, “Loveable” sold 25,000 copies and Cooke shortly thereafter left the group:

Cooke soon hooked up with a producer with the great nickname of Bumps Blackwell who signed him to the Keen record label. (In those days, there were any number of small, independent record labels, at least in the US. A label named Vee-Jay released early Beatles singles when no one else would touch them.)

Turns out Sam was a songwriter too. He wrote the great love song “You Send Me,” which was originally the B-side of his take on George Gershwin’s “Summertime.” This song, released in late 1957, was a smash on all the charts and catapulted Cooke to stardom:

And to put this in context, by the time “You Send Me” was popular, rock and roll had been in full flight for a couple of years and black artists such as Cooke, Nat King Cole, Chuck Berry and Johnny Mathis were crossing over to mainstream (read non-black) charts. At least musically, the walls between black and white were being eroded. And while the more conservative elements were not crazy about it, the gap between secular and non-secular got smaller.

As one web site said, “The musical pattern in “You Send Me” was the basis for most of Cooke’s first year with Keen Records. They were love songs, with pretty arrangements and sung with a rolling, medium tempo.”

Next (and last) post: Sam Cooke scales the heights of stardom. And then falls way too soon.

“You Send Me,” was named as one of the 500 most important recordings by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2005, the song was voted #115 in Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. 

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