This Thursday, December 11th, marks the 50th anniversary of the death of the man who I, and many others, regard as the greatest soul singer of all time, Sam Cooke. His voice both on his gospel recordings with the Soul Stirrers and his later pop and soul records for Specialty, Keen and RCA was a thing of utter beauty, able to move people deeply. But he was not just a singer, he was a songwriter, producer and arranger, owned his own record labels and music publishing company and was the first black artist to retain his own publishing rights with a major record label. Add to that the fact that he was a dynamic performer and you have the complete package. Sam Cooke is one man who
truly deserves the term 'legend'.
I was too young to really be aware of You Send Me, his first smash hit, at the time so my love of Sam Cooke's music really began with his 1960 recording of Wonderful World, which was only a minor hit in the UK but reached number one in the personal top ten chart that I started that year. In the five years that followed every one of his releases made an impact on me, including Chain Gang, Sad Mood, That's It I Quit I'm Movin' On, Cupid, Feel It, Twistin' The Night Away, the great double sider Havin' A Party/Bring It On Home To Me, Nothing Can Change This Love, Send Me Some Loving, Another Saturday Night, Frankie and Johnny, Little Red Rooster, Good News, Good Times, Cousin Of Mine backed with That's Where It's At, the immense double sider Shake and A Change Is Gonna Come, It's Got The Whole World Shakin' and Sugar Dumpling. Not surprisingly Sam was the most successful artist in my top ten by a mile.
When he toured the UK in 1962 with Little Richard I went to the show and was hugely impressed by both Sam and
Richard, who were both fantastic live performers. I was lucky enough to go back stage at the Tooting Granada and meet both of them and get their autographs. The memory now is something of a blur and sadly Sam's signature, signed with a fountain pen, has faded over the years and is now barely legible, but it's something I will always treasure.
Recording-wise, Sam achieved greatness not because of his involvement with RCA, but despite it. The label wanted him to be a singer of standards and many of his LPs, produced by Hugo and Luigi, feature middle of the road material, but made special by Sam's fantastic voice and phrasing. His lasting legacy was in many ways A Change Is Gonna Come, originally a B side and a song which was considered too political at the time, which has become the ultimate civil rights anthem.
I was shocked when I heard of his death in 1964. He had achieved so much but still had so much more to do. I was on my way home from my first job in Croydon - shortly before I began my training as a journalist - and it was just a Stop Press piece in the Evening Standard. I could hardly believe that it was true, but sadly it was. 50 years later, he is still regarded as a major star, perhaps the first genuine soul singer and certainly an immense influence on everyone who has aspired to be one since. His life has inspired two major biographies -' Dream Boogie' by Peter Guralnick and 'You Send Me' by Daniel Woolf - and there have been rumours of a biopic, although nothing of note has transpired.
The circumstances of his death have been surrounded by much speculation and conspiracy theories abound. Was he really shot by Bertha Franklin, the manager of a sleazy motel, while chasing an escort Lisa Boyer, half dressed and drunk? Much of the story sounds far fetched and unlikely and theories range from involvement by the mob or the FBI to a set up by business associates or his wife. His nephew Erik Greene in his book 'Our Uncle Sam' has no doubt that there was more behind it than was revealed at the inquest, which appears to have been something of a sham. He claims that Sam was about to break his links with Allan Klein, who he had hired as his advisor (and who went on to play a major role in the careers of the Beatles, the Stones and others), and long time associate J W Alexander and that Klein in particular would have been financially out of pocket if he had done so. He also believes that Sam was on the verge of divorcing his wife Barbara, who had been having an affair with Sam's 20 year old protege Bobby Womack. Bobby went to Sam's funeral with Barbara in his mentor's Rolls Royce and wearing his clothes, causing considerable disgust in the family and Bobby and Barbara married just three months after Sam's death. Erik is dismissive of Bobby but is clearly unhappy with Barbara's actions after Sam's death.
We will probably never know the truth, although now that Bobby has gone perhaps more information will emerge, but whatever the reason, the fact remains that the world lost a unique talent 50 years ago this week. RIP Sam Cooke.