First post here:
Sam Cooke wound up leaving Keen Records for the more lucrative environs of RCA. In 1960, Keen, looking to cash in, released his song “Wonderful World,” which became another big hit. (Interestingly, XTC‘s song “Mayor of Simpleton” was accused of, shall we say, borrowing the same theme. (“I’m perhaps not the brightest guy who ever lived but baby – baybeh! – all that matters is that I luv you.”)
In 1961, the increasingly socially conscious Cooke started his own label, SAR Records, to give voice to other African-American artists. (One of the acts was his previous band, the Soul Stirrers. Cooke himself never recorded for the label.) And while Sam had hits during this period such as “Chain Gang,” and “Having a Party,” – both worth checking out – a deeper look at his catalog from this period is revelatory.
He recorded everything from “Danny Boy,” to “God Bless the Child,” to Broadway (“Bali Ha’i” from South Pacific), to songs about the twist. (He has one album with five different songs (!) that have the word ‘twist’ in the title.) He even did a Willie Dixon-penned blues, “Little Red Rooster,” moving him, I think, very far from his gospel roots.
One of my very favorites of his that I still listen to frequently is the great “Bring it On Home to Me.” Cooke wrote this song and that other voice you hear is none other than his old friend, Lou Rawls. (Rawls went on to have a pretty good solo career himself.) If there’s a more soulful song than this, I need to hear it:
If you ever change your mind
About leaving, leaving me behind
Oh-oh, bring it to me
Bring your sweet loving
Bring it on home to me, yeah (yeah) yeah (yeah) yeah (yeah)
But there was more going on in the mind of the by-now married Mr. Cooke. Allmusic: “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 … all of these factors convinced him that the time was right for songs that dealt with more than twisting the night away.”
He was not only concerned in a general sense about the plight of black Americans, but also in a personal sense. He and his band had been turned away at a Louisiana motel which pissed him off. (This was an all-too-common occurrence for black artists in the ’50’s and well into the ’60’s. And not just in the South.) As a result of all this, Cooke wrote a song, “A Change is Gonna Come” which in and of itself was not only a great tune but which also became a civil rights anthem:
Sam Cooke, tragically, did not get to live to a ripe old age. For years I had always had this half-baked fuzzy idea in my head that Cooke had been killed by a jealous boyfriend.
Well, not exactly. The official story is that Sam picked up a woman – later discovered to be a prostitute – and drove her to a well-known hooker spot in Los Angeles, the Hacienda motel. (Rooms $3, today’s dollars $25, just to give you some idea of what a luxury palace it was.) Her claim is that Cooke tried to assault and possibly even rape her. (This, after signing in under his own name.)
So while he was in the bathroom, she grabbed her clothes – and, she says, accidentally grabbed his – and ran out. Naked but for a jacket, the inebriated Cooke chased her. The motel manager – a woman named Bertha Franklin – claimed that on not finding his “date,” an enraged Cooke attacked Franklin who, frightened, beat him with a broomstick and shot him to death.
This was the version of events accepted by the court which ruled it justifiable homicide. There are at least two other versions of what may have actually happened. One is that Cooke had had close ties with the mob and – instead of being a “good Negro” – wanted to break away from them. There were no Jay Z’s or Kanye West’s in those days who controlled their own fortunes. You were allowed to make money but only on someone else’s terms.
Losing the goose that laid the golden egg, they allegedly beat him, shot him and made up this whole story. Singer Etta James viewed his body pre-funeral and said he looked like he was pretty badly beaten. “No woman with a broomstick,” she later wrote, “could have inflicted that kind of beating against a strong, full-grown man.”
Cooke’s manager was the infamous – and let’s face it – kinda sleazy Allen Klein who later managed both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Klein had a knack for making his clients rich and himself richer. By some magic, he got all the rights to Sam’s songs on his death, providing small royalties to the singer’s wife. (I make no implication here that Klein was involved in Cooke’s death. Just that he was notorious for managing to enrich himself at others’ expense.)
An alternative theory is that Sam was “trick rolled.” So the prostitute brought Cooke to this incredibly seedy dive with every intention of robbing him. Bertha Franklin was reportedly an ex-madam and so probably not only knew the prostitute but perhaps the two of them came up with the idea of robbing him and planned to split the money. (Cooke was known for flashing large wads of bills.)
Whatever the truth is, the fact is that Sam Cooke, age 33, died on December 11, 1964. And to this day, the Cooke family does not believe they have gotten the full story.
Coda: Many artists have extolled the virtues of Cooke’s singing and songwriting and he, along with Ray Charles, is a direct antecedent of Aretha Franklin, Al Green and Otis Redding. Bruce Springsteen’s song “Mary’s Place,” is directly inspired by Cooke’s “Meet Me at Mary’s Place.” And as I mentioned in my post about Rod Stewart, Cooke had no greater adherent than Rod the Mod.
Several of Cooke’s compositions are on Rolling Stone’s list of 500 Greatest Songs. “A Change Is Gonna Come,” released almost two weeks after his death, was selected for preservation in the Library of Congress, with the National Recording Registry deeming the song “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important.”
Accolades: Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986; inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1987; received a Grammy Lifetime Award in 2004; Rolling Stone listed him as 16th on their 100 Greatest Artists of All Time and Fourth Greatest Singer of All Time.