Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Death of Sam Cooke

High School Group

Sam Cooke
Sam Cooke

By the late 1930s, the family was doing 15 cents-per-seat shows every weekend at one church or another. Eventually, the demand became so great that Rev. Cook hired a manager to do their bookings.

The oldest of the children, Mary and Charles Jr., took many of the vocal leads, but Sam grew up as the lead tenor, with sister Hattie and brother L.C., the youngest, providing harmonies.

Sam stood out in his ambition. He would tell his siblings, "I'm gonna sing and make a lot of money doing it."

The Singing Children's repertoire included the traditional sacred standards of black churches, songs like "There'll Be Singing Over Yonder," "Roll Jordan Roll" and "Just a Closer Walk With Thee."

But black gospel music was reaching a new heyday in the 1950s, and groups like the Blues Jays, out of Birmingham, Alabama, the Sensational Nightingales, from Philadelphia, and the Soul Stirrers, originally from Texas, were attracting concert crowds with showy performances.

Young Sam grew to idolize and emulate the Soul Stirrers' tenor, R.H. Harris, whose three-octave range and startling falsetto made him a gospel star.

The Soul Stirrers
The Soul Stirrers

By the time he enrolled at Wendell Phillips High School in Chicago, Sam Cooke had been singing professionally with his family for nearly ten years.

He was ready to branch out.

He and four other teenagers formed a gospel quintet, the Highway QCs. The group covered most of the Soul Stirrers' repertoire, with Sam copying R.H. Harris' vocal gymnastics.

But he proved to be much more than a mere mimic.

Even at age 15, he was a velvet-smooth singer with perfect diction, in the style of his pop idols, Nat Cole and the Ink Spots.

During high school, serendipity had placed Cook in regular contact with R.B. Robinson, a baritone with the Soul Stirrers who had moved to Chicago. Robinson was a relative of one of the QCs, and he began attending their rehearsals when he wasn't touring, acting as coach and polishing the act.

Wendell Phillips High School in Chicago
Wendell Phillips High School in Chicago

The group seemed to be headed places when it was invited to join a gospel jubilee tour after Sam graduated from high school, in 1948. But when the tour ended, the QCs were back in Chicago, with no record contract and few prospects beyond $15-a-man revival shows.

Even with the surge in its popularity, gospel music had a limited number of fans, many of them poor. The market for recordings was a fraction of that of pop music, even for top acts like the Soul Stirrers and Mahalia Jackson.

But Sam Cooke was about to take another avenue toward fame.

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