Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Death of Sam Cooke

**Update: Interview with Erik Greene II

CL: What objections do Cooke's loved ones have to the way his demise has been portrayed in the media?

Greene: The "Twist" picture of Sam dancing onstage with his niece is a perfect example of how slipshod the coverage of Sam's life has been. In a recent biography, my cousin Ophelia was misidentified as my mother even though there's an eight year age difference between them! Sam's younger brother L.C. was mistakenly identified as Sam in the early pages of the same book. How credible are the book's intimate details if the subject can't be identified correctly?

Another book had a picture of Sam getting dressed backstage in 1968 — four years after his death! Though the corrections in the first book were eventually made, shoddy attention to the simplest details is why there needed to be clarification in Sam's story, a reference source which would bring things "back to center."

Since December of 1964, the sketchy facts surrounding Sam Cooke's death have been a topic of discussion by fans worldwide. Some see him as "being in the wrong place at the wrong time," or "a victim of his lifestyle catching up with him," or any one of a number of open-and-shut explanations. Some hint at a conspiracy to make an example out of an outspoken black entrepreneur. Others have insisted the hit was mob-related.

CL: And what does the family believe?

Greene: Since Sam's untimely death, the Cook family has commonly held the belief that the whole scenario was a set-up. They immediately dismissed the "facts" as presented because they knew certain things about his nature: Sam would never have to force himself on a woman—any woman. While he was known to have his trysts, he would routinely turn down dozens of propositions from women who threw themselves at him. The family knew the actions as described weren't in Sam's nature. Sam always did everything first class. As a successful entertainer and businessman, his clothes were tailor-made and he drove the finest cars (he was sporting a new, 1965 Ferrari the night of his murder). The thought of him checking into a $3-a-night motel would be laughable if the situation weren't so gravely serious.

Sam Cooke is remembered by my family and colleagues alike with love and admiration. When in public, his nieces and nephews remembered how their Uncle Sam would acknowledge fans, but still keep his family top priority. He found out a childhood friend was having trouble raising a family and going to school at the same time, so he stepped in paid his friend's tuition. Aretha Franklin described Sam Cooke as "a fabulous humanitarian, a dynamite artist, and a prince of a man." Lou Adler, who co-wrote Sam's 1959 classic "(What a) Wonderful World," called him "the greatest guy I ever met." Etta James said "he gave you the feeling he was very glad and blessed to be Sam Cooke."

Etta James
Etta James

The fact that Sam was portrayed as an over-sexed potential rapist deeply disturbed those that knew him best. Not only was this far from the truth, it was the kind of accusation that was almost impossible to disprove. On the other hand, a black entertainer taking advantage of a defenseless, star-struck Eurasian girl was much more plausible in the public's eyes, especially if it's been reported alcohol was involved. But just how innocent was the victim?

The question of Elisa Boyer's character and occupation was quickly suppressed by the coroner in the inquest, and the fact that she was indeed a prostitute didn't come out until she was arrested in a LAPD sting operation a month later. Had the question been allowed, it would've made inquiring minds ask, "Why would a well-known entertainer with a pocket full of money attempt to rape a prostitute?" These inconsistencies, as well as others, are discussed in detail in Our Uncle Sam.

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