In the Fifites and Sixties, Sam Cooke helped invent soul music by merging gospel sounds with secular themes. Cooke's pure, elegant crooning was widely imitated, and both his voice and his suave, sophisticated image influenced generations of soul men.
One of eight sons of a Baptist minister, Cooke was born on January 22, 1931, in Clarkesdale, Mississippi, and grew up in Chicago. As a teenager, he became lead vocalist of the Soul Stirrers (which later included Johnnie Taylor), with whom he toured and recorded for nearly six years. By 1951 Cooke was a top gospel artist, already boasting his now-famous phrasing and urban enunciation.
Hoping not to offend his gospel fans, Cooke released his pop debut, "Lovable" (1956), as Dale Cooke, but Specialty Records dropped him for deserting the Soul Stirrers. He released his own "You Send Me" the following year, and the 1.7-million-selling Number One song was the first of many hits. In the next two years his several hits — "Only Sixteen" (Number 28, 1959), "Everybody Likes to Cha Cha" (Number 31, 1959) — concentrated on light ballads and novelty items. He signed to RCA in 1960 and began writing bluesier, gospel-inflected tunes.
Beginning with his reworking of "Chain Gang" (Number Two) in August 1960, Cooke was a mainstay in the Top 40 through 1965, with "Wonderful World" (Number 12, 1960), "Sad Mood" (Number 29, 1961), "Twistin' the Night Away" (Number Nine, 1962), "Bring It On Home to Me" (Number 13, 1962), "Another Saturday Night" (Number 10, 1963), and "Shake" (Number Seven, 1965).
The nature of Cooke's death on December 11, 1964, tarnished his image. Bertha Franklin, the manager of the Hacienda motel in L.A., claimed she shot and killed the singer in self-defense after he'd tried to rape a 22-year-old woman and then turned on Franklin. The coroner ruled it a justifiable homicide. There still remain questions about the circumstances surrounding Cooke's demise.
Two months after his death, "Shake" peaked at Number Seven on the singles chart. The posthumously released "A Change Is Gonna Come," which Cooke wrote after hearing Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind," hit Number 31 in 1965. It represented a return to Cooke's roots, placing him back in the spiritual setting from which he had first emerged just nine years earlier. The song has a long legacy in social movements; it was played in Spike Lee's 1992 biopic Malcolm X and quoted by President Barack Obama in his 2008 victory speech.
Cooke also was a groundbreaking independent black-music capitalist. He owned his own record label (Sar/Derby), music publishing concern (Kags Music), and management firm. His hits have been covered widely by soul and rock singers — "Shake," for instance, has been interpreted by Otis Redding and Rod Stewart — and his influence can be heard in the music of artists as varied as Michael Jackson, Al Green and the Heptones. Rappers including the Roots, Nas and the late Tupac Shakur also have invoked Cooke's name in their songs. Cooke was one of the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986; three years later the Soul Stirrers entered separately.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Mark Kemp contributed to this article.