Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Death of Sam Cooke

Soul Stirrers

In 1950, R.H. Harris decided to leave the Soul Stirrers and strike out as a solo act. The group auditioned several replacement tenors before taking R.B. Robinson's advice and inviting in Sam Cooke. At 19, he was nearly a full generation younger than the others in the group, but Sam fit right in as a singer — in part because he already knew most of Harris' vocal lines.

Young Sam Cooke
Young Sam Cooke

The Soul Stirrers hired young Cooke, outfitted him with five new suits, and went on the road just days later. He sang with the busy group for six years, performing more than 1,000 concerts coast to coast and making dozens of records.

Cooke enjoyed a certain type of fame. But he was also an interested observer in the early 1950s as black pop artists like Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and Bo Diddley began to break out of the "race music" pigeonhole into which musicians like Louis Jordan had been forced.

The new breed of rock 'n' rollers began attracting "chessboard" crowds of both blacks and whites, and their songs shows up on both pop and R&B charts. Meanwhile, the Soul Stirrers were performing for audiences that were nearly invariably black, especially in the Jim Crow southern states.

 Cooke's friend Bumps Blackwell, a manager and producer with the Soul Stirrers, believed that the singer had pop potential. In 1956, with Blackwell's direction, Sam Cooke recorded his first pop single, "Lovable," under the name Dale Cooke so he wouldn't offend his gospel fans.

The move got the unexpected blessing of his father.

"It isn't what you sing that is so important, but rather the fact that God gave you a good voice to use," said the Rev. Cook. "He must want you to make people happy by singing, so go ahead and do so."

Ed Sullivan
Ed Sullivan

"Lovable" wasn't a hit, but it showed Cooke's potential.

The following summer, Keen Records released — under the name of Sam Cooke — "Summertime," the George Gershwin aria from "Porgy and Bess." But it was the song on the B-side of the record that began getting attention from disc jockeys, and the number began climbing.

On December 1, 1957, Cooke appeared on CBS' The Ed Sullivan Show to sing that tune: "You Send Me."

The Sullivan gig pushed the single over it over the top. The next day, it was No. 1 on the Billboard pop chart. Eventually, it sold a million copies — more than 10 times his best-selling Soul Stirrers recording.

Sam Cooke, gospel stalwart, and Dale Cooke, pop crooner, merged into Sam Cooke, rock 'n' roll's latest sensation.

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