Remembering Sam Cooke, the King of Soul

Sam Cooke was undeniably one of the most well-known and influential artists in mid-20th Century America. Rising to fame singing in the gospel group The Soul Stirrers in the early 1950’s before starting an incredibly successful solo career in 1957, Cooke is often hailed as the ‘King of Soul’. Cooke’s success laid the way for soul legends such as Aretha Franklin, Al Green and Marvin Gaye (among countless others) and the influence of Cooke cannot be underestimated within the general history of popular music. His beauteous, effortlessly emotive touched the lives of millions and remains popular to this day, with artists such as Beyoncé covering his work.

Enjoying much commercial success in the late 50’s, with singles such as ‘You Send Me’, ‘I’ll Come Running Back to You’ and ‘Wonderful World’ gaining a lot of traction in the charts, as Cooke moved into the 1960’s the rise of the Civil Rights Movement inevitably had an influence on Cooke’s work. His greatest work ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ became an anthem for the Civil Rights movement  and was performed for the first and only time of the Tonight Show in February 1964. The song expresses a melancholic hopefulness regarding African American rights, rather than expressing outright anger as many songs of the time did.

Whilst this politicisation of his music lost him the support of many white listeners, the issue of Civil Rights was something Cooke was unable to ignore any longer. The events of Little Rock in 1957, the 1961 Freedom Rides, 1963 March on Washington, among other vital events on the timeline of the Civil Rights movement, had caused many African American musicians to become politicised within their music – perhaps most notably Nina Simone and ‘Mississippi Goddamn’ (released 1964). Music as a form of political protest was not a new idea, especially within the issue of Civil Rights, Billie Holiday released ‘Strange Fruit’ in 1939 which was not only an amazing song but also perhaps the first time protest music had been popular since the marching songs of the Civil War.

The legacy of ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ lives on – the song has been covered by a plethora of legendary artists including Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Lizzo and Beyoncé. The lyrics were even referenced by President Barack Obama after his victory in the 2008 Presidential Election.

Image: Wally Seawell, ABKCO Music & Records, Inc

December 11th, 2020 marks 56 years since Cooke’s death, which is still viewed by many as a great injustice. Cooke was shot to death in a sleazy Los Angeles motel by hotel manager and pimp, Bertha Franklin, after an alleged altercation with a 22-year-old woman, Elisa Boyer,  who was later found out to have a record of prostitution. After just a 2-hour inquest into his death, it was ruled justifiable and Franklin was not charged. Whether Cooke had attacked or been violent with either Franklin or Boyer we will never know, but either way you spin it, it is evident that Cooke’s death was not of much note to the LAPD. As boxing icon, and personal friend of Cooke, Muhammed Ali said “If Cooke had been Frank Sinatra, The Beatles or Ricky Nelson the FBI would be investigating…and that woman would be sent to prison”. The facts that Franklin had a record for pimping, and Boyer had been arrested for prostitution were not even known by the LAPD at the time, because they simply did not bother to check – the entire case was open and shut within 2 hours, showing to many that the LAPD simply did not care. Justice was not served. Cooke, in their eyes, was just another dead black man. Furthermore, these attitudes seemingly have not changed within America: Run DMC’s Jam Master Jay, Tupac, and the Notorious B.I.G. were all murdered and none of their murders have ever been solved, largely due to a lack of effort to solve them. These injustices are indicative of the extent of racism within the United States; it does not matter who you are, or how successful you have become, you are just another dead black man to the Police and the courts.

Nevertheless, Sam Cooke’s spirit lives on through his music, which sounds just as good today as it would have done 60 years ago, the soulfulness of Cooke’s music transcends time and his voice will never grow old. Rightfully hailed as the King of Soul, Cooke still acts as a beacon of hope for anybody and everybody still determined that “a change gonna come”.

Header image: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images