50 years ago today, on December 11, 1964, Sam Cooke died at the age of 33.
There’s a home video of me at about age 5, where my mom asks if I want to sing a song. I sing a couple verses of “You Send Me." Then I point out that it's really "a grownup song." Sam Cooke had clearly touched me from very early on. He had a light, warm, amiable quality that could appeal to a young child, while having the depth and maturity to appeal to adults. And he has a passion and feeling that’s allowed his music to endure for 50 years.
Wikipedia sums up his career:
Samuel "Sam" Cooke (January 22, 1931 – December 11, 1964) was an American recording artist and singer-songwriter, generally considered among the greatest of all time. Influential as both a singer and composer, he is commonly known as the King of Soul for his distinctive vocals and importance within popular music. His pioneering contributions to soul music contributed to the rise of Aretha Franklin, Bobby Womack, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Billy Preston and popularized the likes of Otis Redding and James Brown. AllMusic biographer Bruce Eder wrote that Cooke was "the inventor of soul music", and possessed "an incredible natural singing voice and a smooth, effortless delivery that has never been surpassed."Here's "Good News," followed by a short interview of Sam Cooke (by Dick Clark), in which he tells "the secret" to his songwriting:
Cooke had 30 U.S. top 40 hits between 1957 and 1964, plus three more posthumously. Major hits like "You Send Me", "A Change Is Gonna Come", "Cupid", "Chain Gang", "Wonderful World", and "Twistin' the Night Away" are some of his most popular songs. Cooke was also among the first modern black performers and composers to attend to the business side of his musical career. He founded both a record label and a publishing company as an extension of his careers as a singer and composer. He also took an active part in the Civil Rights Movement.
Cooke wrote "Chain Gang," after meeting some chain-gang prisoners on a highway while he was on tour. (Chain gangs have been almost entirely abolished from the United States.)
("Chain Gang" covered by the Nylons and the Supremes.)
Cooke concisely answers the question: "What is soul?"
That recording shows that Cooke wasn't the most technically perfect singer — his voice breaks a little. And he didn't have the biggest range. I've read that he had the exact same range as Justin Bieber, of all people.
But just listen to this — a scorchingly intense performance of "Bring It on Home to Me," with an extended intro that brilliantly includes some of "You Send Me":
"Bring It on Home to Me" is probably one of Cooke's most covered songs — it's been done by Wilson Pickett (who gave a shout-out to "the late Sam Cooke" in the beginning of that 1968 recording), Aretha Franklin, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and She & Him.
He clearly brought something extra to his live show that isn't on the studio recordings:
Though he generally wrote his own songs, he was also a gifted interpreter of classics. Here's "Summertime" (by George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward):
"Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" (a traditional spiritual):
Before Cooke switched to pop, he sang gospel with the Soul Stirrers. Here's a rousing, 9-minute "Nearer My God to Thee":
But to many people, the most soul-stirring Sam Cooke song is his civil rights anthem, "A Change Is Gonna Come." He recorded it in January 1964, a little less than a year before he died.
When Rolling Stone ranked Cooke the 4th greatest singer of all time, Van Morrison wrote this for the magazine:
If a singer is not singing from the soul, I do not even want to listen to it — it's not for me.Let's keep his music alive for 50 more years.
Sam Cooke reached down deep with pure soul. He had the rare ability to do gospel the way it's supposed to be — he made it real, clean, direct. Gospel drove Sam Cooke through his greatest songs, the same way it did for Ray Charles, who came first, and Otis Redding.
He had an incomparable voice. Sam Cooke could sing anything and make it work. But when you're talking about his strength as a singer, range is not relevant. It was his power to deliver — it was about his phrasing, the totality of his singing.
He did a lot of great songs, but "Bring It on Home to Me" is a favorite. It's just a well-crafted song with a great lyric and melody. It's a song that's written to allow you to go wherever you can with it. "A Change Is Gonna Come" is another song I covered; it's a great arrangement.
Not many people can play this music anymore, not the way Sam Cooke did it, coming directly from the church. What can we learn from a singer like him, from listening to songs like "A Change Is Gonna Come"? It depends on who the singer is and what they are capable of, where their head is and how serious they are. But Sam Cooke was born to sing.
(Sam Cooke in Billboard magazine, from Wikipedia.)