Sam Cooke stood out on many fronts. He was born in 1931 to a Baptist minister making him practice music in the gospel vein. In his teens, he formed a quintet called the Highway QCs. After graduating from high school in 1948, he got an invite from the Soul Stirrers – a popular gospel group.
But Cooke was not one to be boxed so he will move on to shock some key constituents of his when he emerged as one of the earliest gospel stars to do the devil’s music as Christians called soul, blues and pop songs in the early days. He convinced his record label to begin recording secular music in 1956.
Cooke first reached the top of the charts in 1957 with “You Send Me.” A string of pop and R&B hits soon followed. It didn’t take long for the man born Samuel Cook in Clarksdale, Mississippi and raised in Chicago to be referred to as the father of Soul music.
Cooke was a gifted composer, producer and songwriter, who actually wrote his own songs. He was also an entrepreneurial and established his own publishing company for his music in 1959, resulting in an impressive contract with RCA in 1960.
Not only did he get a substantial advance, but Cooke would also get ownership of his master recordings after 30 years. Getting this was a remarkable feat for any recording artist at the time. He founded his own record label in the early 1960s helping develop the careers of Bobby Womack and Billy Preston, among others.
But all of these strides came to a screeching halt in the early hours of December 11, 1964 as Cooke lay dead in a motel aged a mere 33 years. Reports had it that Cooke had been out the night before, reportedly drinking at a Los Angeles bar where he met a woman named Elisa Boyer. The pair hit it off and eventually ended up at the Hacienda Motel.
Things took a murky turn as reports have it that the pair had an altercation in their room with Cooke ending up in the motel’s office. He reportedly clashed with the motel’s manager, who shot him claiming self-defense.
Cooke died from his injury while the death was ruled justifiable homicide. Black America could not fathom the violent death of the hitmaker who produced chart-topping songs such as “A Change is Gonna Come,” “What A Wonderful World,” “You Send Me,” “Having A Party,” “Chain Gang” (1960), “Cupid” (1961) and “Twistin’ the Night Away” (1962).
More than 200,000 people viewed his remains at A.R. Leak Funeral Home and over 15,000 flocked to Tabernacle Baptist Church for his funeral on January 2, 1965. Thousands more attended a second set of services in California, where he was later buried.
Cooke’s violent death still stunned people and it didn’t help that the singer was being surveilled by the FBI due to his ties to Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, and because he had fought to keep whites from stealing his lucrative entertainment empire.
His recording of the iconic, A Change Is Gonna Come released posthumously was one of the voices of the civil rights movement serving as an anthem for marchers and an appeal to the people to rise up and make a change.
Supremely gifted and very capable in music, performance and in business, no wonder some fans called him the singing son of the gods. But no man continues to enjoy the gravy for long and so it was that Cooke had his fair share of tragedy.
Cooke was married twice. His first marriage was to singer-dancer Dolores Elizabeth Milligan Cook, who took the stage name “Dee Dee Mohawk” in 1953; they divorced in 1958. She was killed in an auto collision in Fresno, California in 1959. Although he and Dolores were divorced, Cooke paid for his ex-wife’s funeral expenses. She was survived by her son Joey.
In 1958, Cooke married his second wife, Barbara Campbell, in Chicago. They had three children, Linda (b.1953), Tracy (b.1960), and Vincent (1961–1963), who drowned in the family swimming pool. Less than three months after Cooke’s death, his widow, Barbara, married his friend Bobby Womack. Cooke’s daughter, Linda, later had an affair with Womack. Linda married Womack’s brother, Cecil Womack and they became the duo Womack & Womack.
Elisa Boyer, the lady who was with Cooke but stated she run when the singer used the washroom for which Cooke came to the motel’s office and getting killed by the manager, was arrested for being a prostitute in a police sting operation and again in 1979 after a fight with a boyfriend where he also ended up dead. She was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years to life imprisonment.
Her conviction reignited interest in the Cooke case and gave fuel to conspiracy theorists about the 1964 death.
Cooke was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 and was a 1999 recipient of the Grammy Award for lifetime achievement.