Sam Cooke was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi in 1931 to Charles and Annie May Cook. According to biographer Peter Guralnick, Cooke added the "e" to his last name on the advice of his business partner/musical adviser Bumps Blackwell, who thought the extra "E" was classier. Several of Sam Cooke's siblings followed suit, adding the "e" to their names as well. Marvin Gaye also bought the vowel.
Cooke's father moved the family to Chicago during the Depression. Charles Cook, a pastor, encouraged Sam and his siblings' singing talents, and by 1939, Cooke and his siblings had formed a gospel group, the Singing Children.
Throughout the 1940s and early 1950s, Cooke gained acclaim as a member of gospel harmony groups, including the Highway Q.C.s and the Soul Stirrers. At the time, the Soul Stirrers were considered the most respected gospel singing group in the US.
Cooke released his first pop single, "Lovable," in 1956. "Lovable" was released under the name "Dale Cooke," as Cooke feared a backlash from Gospel fans who did not look fondly upon Gospel singers recording secular songs. However, Cooke's unique vocal style gave him away, and he was soon dropped by both the Soul Stirrers and their record label, Specialty.
In 1957, Cooke released his best known song, "You Send Me
," on Keen Records. "You Send Me" spent three weeks at the #1 spot on the Billboard pop chart. The song was written by Cooke's brother, L.C. Cooke.
Cooke was one of many R&B acts to tour extensively on the "chitlin' circuit," the name given to segregated clubs and venues that were friendly to African-American musicians during the segregated years of the 1950s-1960s. Cooke participated in a number of package tours of the chitlin' circuit, touring with artists such as Jackie Wilson, LaVern Baker, Clyde McPhatter, and Garnet Mimms.
Dissatisfied with the Keen label, Cooke moved to RCA in 1961. Many of his most popular songs, including "Chain Gang," "Sad Mood," "Bring it on Home to Me," "Another Saturday Night" and "Twistin' the Night Away" were recorded during his time at RCA.
Cooke was one of the first African-American artists to truly cross over onto the Pop charts and resonate with white audiences. Cooke cultivated his crossover success, opening up venues to African-American artists that had largely been denied them. His performance at New York's Copa club in 1964 was a triumph: he won over the mostly white audience, and the resulting live album, Sam Cooke at the Copa, was a huge success.
A shrewd businessman, in 1961, Cooke began his own record label, SAR Records. An excellent talent scout, Cooke signed The Valentinos and Johnnie Taylor to SAR. The Valentinos featured Bobby Womack on guitar and vocals. Cooke also formed a music publishing house and management firm.
Despite his desire to appeal to white audiences, Cooke embraced the civil rights movement, recording Bob Dylan's "Blowin' In The Wind
" soon after it was released. According to his biographer Daniel Wolff, Cooke composed and recorded "A Change Is Gonna Come
" as a response to "Blowin' in the Wind," and in doing wrote what is often referred to as the definitive song of the civil rights movement.
On December 11, 1964, Cooke was shot to death at the Hacienda Motel in Los Angeles, California. Bertha Franklin, the hotel's manager, told police that she shot and killed Cooke in self-defense after he attacked her. Cooke's body was found in Franklin's apartment-office; the singer was wearing only a sport coat and shoes. Cooke's death was ultimately ruled justifiable homicide.
Cooke's funeral was held in Chicago at A.R Leak Funeral Home. Thousands of fans lined up over four city blocks for his viewing. Cooke was buried at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.
Several of Cooke's songs were released posthumously, including "Shake," the B-side of which was "A Change Is Gonna Come." Both sides of "Shake"/ "A Change Is Gonna Come" charted.
After Cooke's death, his protégé, soul guitarist/singer Bobby Womack, wed Cooke's widow, Barbara Campbell. Cooke's daughter, Linda, later married Cecil Womack, Bobby Womack's brother.