Photo by Wally Seawell/ABKCO Records
With his smooth, soaring vocal style and boyish good looks, Sam Cooke was one of the most popular and influential recording artists of the 1950s and 1960s, with a string of enduring Top Forty hits such as “You Send Me,” “Only Sixteen, ” and “Cupid.” He was also a multi-talented force in the record business, as a songwriter and producer, and as a pioneering Black businessperson who headed his own recording and publishing companies.
Like many rhythm and blues stars of the era, Sam Cooke began his career as a gospel singer, joining the Chicago-based Highway QC’s at age fifteen. His initial rise to fame came in 1950, when he was recruited to be the lead singer of The Soul Stirrers, who were already established as recording and touring artists on the “Gospel Highway,” and signed to Specialty Records. Many of Cooke’s outstanding recordings with the ensemble, including “Jesus Gave Me Water” and “Touch the Hem of His Garment,” were major gospel hits, while Cooke lit up the gospel circuit as if he were a matinee idol.
In 1957, with the support of his father, a pastor at Chicago’s Christ Temple Church, Sam made the transition to secular music with the release of “Lovable,” an adaptation of the gospel song “Wonderful.” Fearing that Cooke would lose his gospel audience, for whom the switch to popular music would be perceived as blasphemous, Specialty owner Art Rupe released the record under the name of Dale Cook.
While it seems puzzling in retrospect, Rupe did not believe that Sam’s gentle vocal style and often ballad-oriented approach were a hit-making formula. Following an argument with Rupe, Cooke left Specialty for Keen Records, which released his first number one pop hit, “You Send Me.” Specialty subsequently released several outstanding secular singles, this time under Cooke’s real name, including “I’ll Come Running Back to You” and “That’s All I Need to Know.”
The 2 Sides of Sam Cooke, originally released with one LP side each of gospel and pop, is a perfect introduction to the early work of this compelling artist, whose fully formed persona shines in both contexts.
Remembering Sam Cooke, Bronzeville and great ambitions.
Tracing the Highs and Tragic End of Sam Cooke.
Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction.
DEEP CUTS WE LOVE...
“Jesus Gave Me Water”
In contrast to the rougher style of singers such as Archie Brownlee (of the Blind Boys of Mississippi) and Alex Bradford that was becoming prevalent in gospel music in the early 1950s, Sam Cooke’s sweet lead on this early a cappella hit brings its message home with his melisma and falsetto trills—a trademark sound that would define his later pop hits. Younger singers such as Aaron Neville also took note.
“Touch the Hem of His Garment”
Sam Cooke’s talent as a songwriter helped give the Soul Stirrers this memorable 1956 hit, with lyrics that retell a familiar Bible story. The group was now recording with full band accompaniment, and this performance makes clear the parallel between the evolving gospel sound, and rhythm and blues vocal groups such as the Five Royales or Hank Ballard and the Midnighters.
“I’ll Come Running Back to You”
With its trendy piano triplets and airy backing vocals, this song was rushed to market by Specialty in 1957 in the wake of the success of “You Send Me.” Another Cooke original, it reached number one Billboard R&B singles chart, and number eighteen on the pop chart. Like many Specialty hits, the track was recorded at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Studio in New Orleans with the legendary Earl Palmer on drums (who would later record with Cooke in Los Angeles).
DID YOU KNOW?
- Sam Cooke met Aretha Franklin when he was twenty-three and she was twelve, when he was a guest at the Franklin home. It is reputed that he wrote “You Send Me” for her.
- Gospel “quartets” such as the Soul Stirrers may have more than four members. The term evolved to describe a style of close harmony gospel singing, and not the number of singers in the group.
- Sam Cooke added the “e” to his given name of Sam Cook in 1957, to mark his emergence as a popular music artist.
- “A Change Is Gonna Come,” which is often cited as Sam Cooke’s greatest song, was released after his death, when it became one of the anthems of the civil rights movement.
Words by Scott Billington