Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Death of Sam Cooke

Up from the Delta

Clarksdale, Mississippi
Clarksdale, Mississippi

Cooke hailed from Clarksdale, Mississippi, the Mississippi Delta city downstream from Memphis, regarded as the birthplace of the blues.

The Clarksdale area, surrounded by fertile cotton fields, was hometown to many of America's most influential bluesmen, including Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, BB King, Howlin' Wolf and John Lee Hooker.

Sam Cook (he added the "e" to his stage name) was born to that musical heritage.

He was the fifth of eight children of a Church of Christ (Holiness) preacher, Charles Cook, and his wife, Annie Mae.

Charles Cook had high expectations for his children. He was stern but fair, demanding punctuality and commanding respect — to the point that his own wife addressed him as "Reverend."

Peter Guralnick
Peter Guralnick

According to Cooke biographer Peter Guralnick, the Rev. Cook drilled into his children his favorite adage:

"Once a task is once begun/Never stop until it's done.

Be the labor great or small/Do it well or not at all."

His ministry did not support his family, but Cook was an industrious man. He worked many jobs, from cotton farming to handyman for a wealthy white family.

But by the time Sam was born, in 1931, the Great Depression had gripped the South, and Cook joined the black migration north, preaching his way to Chicago. He had one motivation.

"It was to educate my children," Cook told Guralnick. "It was a better chance up here. In Mississippi, they didn't even furnish you with the schoolbooks."

Cook landed a pulpit position at Christ Temple Church in Chicago Heights. His southern-style preaching was one attraction, but the vocal harmonies of his musical offspring also became a draw. Five of the eight were talented vocalists, and the family began performing as a religious act, Rev. Cook and His Singing Children.

The children were ages 13 to four when they began singing professionally.

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