On his birthday, we look back at the life of the man called the “King of Soul.”
Samuel Cook (he would add the “e” later in life) was born Jan. 22, 1931, in Clarksdale, Mississippi, home of the Delta blues, one of eight children raised by Baptist minister Charles Cook and his wife Annie Mae. When he was only 2, the family relocated to Chicago and there he began his singing career, performing with his siblings in a group dubbed, appropriately if not imaginatively, The Singing Children. At 19, Cooke joined pioneering gospel quartet The Soul Stirrers and sang with them on their big hits “Jesus Gave Me Water,” “Peace in the Valley,” and “One More River.”
He stayed with the group until 1957, when he left to start a solo career in secular music. After a brief stint with Specialty Records, artistic differences led him to sign with Keen Records, where he landed his first big solo hit, “You Send Me.” The tune topped the Billboard R&B charts for six weeks, and also spent three atop the pop charts.
It was the beginning of a run of hits that would see him land in the Top 40 an astounding 29 times in five years. He also launched his own label, SAR Records, which he started with J.W. Alexander and Roy Crain. One of the first Black artists to take direct financial control of his career, Cooke also started his own publishing company and management firm. Though focused primarily on R&B singles, he released a well-received blues album with 1963’s “Night Beats,” a record that featured a mere 16-year-old Billy Preston on the organ. In his role as label head, he also signed acts like Johnnie Taylor and Bobby Womack.
His life was marked by personal tragedy. The accidental drowning death of his 18-month-old son Vincent put a strain on his marriage, and he and his wife separated.
These troubles—and the racism he and his band sometimes confronted on tour—would inform “Ain’t That Good News.” Widely acclaimed as his best album, it featured more than 60 session musicians and more elaborate production than on any of his previous works. It was also a concept album of sorts, with one side showcasing the harder, faster side of his music while the other focused on slower ballads. The album also boasted what would become his signature song “A Change Is Gonna Come,” his answer to Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind.” The song became an anthem of the civil rights movement and was played at the funeral of Malcolm X.
Sadly, it would also be his swan song.
On Dec. 11, 1964, Cooke was shot to death by the manager of the Hacienda Motel in Los Angeles. Cooke had been in the company of Elisa Boyer, a new girlfriend who some warned him was also a prostitute. After Boyer left the room (she claimed she fled when Cooke attempted to rape her), Cooke went to the motel office where he believed she was hiding. He was shot four times by the manager, Bertha Franklin, in what was ruled a justifiable homicide.
Friends and relatives questioned this official version of the events. There were reports that he had been approached that day by shady types wishing to invest in his business and had rebuffed them. When Cooke’s body was found, he was wearing only a sports jacket and one shoe—no shirt, pants or even underwear—and the cash he’d had on him was never recovered. In her biography, Etta James said she viewed Cooke’s body at the funeral parlor and saw that his hands were broken, his nose was broken, and there was a huge welt on his forehead.
But there was no further investigation following the inquest. Bertha Franklin moved to Michigan and died eight months later. Elisa Boyer was arrested for prostitution two months after Cooke’s death and, in 1979, was found guilty of second degree homicide in the shooting death of her boyfriend.
Three months after Cooke died, his ex-wife married Bobby Womack and sold Cooke’s publishing catalogue for a mere $100,000. Currently, it generates nearly $5 million per year.
In 1986, Cooke was inducted as a charter member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Rolling Stone later named him as one of the top five singers of all time. Legendary Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler went a step further in his assessment.
“He was the best singer who ever lived,” said Wexler. “No question.”