Sam Cooke grew up singing gospel music, and at age 19 landed a big gig with The Soul Stirrers, a group who toured the entire U.S. As African-American musicians, they were harassed in the Southern states, not allowed to sleep in many hotels or sit in restaurants.
When Sam turned 25 years old, in 1956, he started writing and singing pop music. One year later he produced “You Send Me,” kicking Elvis’s “Jailhouse Rock” out of the #1 spot in the charts. After that, the singles kept coming from Sam Cooke: “Twistin’ The Night Away,” “Chain Gang,” “Bring It On Home To Me” and “Cupid.” With Sam’s movie star looks, intelligent, friendly way of talking and his savvy as a businessman, it seemed that he’d have a long, successful career.
But Sam Cooke was an African-American who refused to be treated as less than an equal in a time of intense racial struggles. So every single he released, every African-American artist he produced or wrote for, every bit of fame made his life more dangerous.
In 1963, Sam heard Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind,” a song that Sam felt really explained what it was like to be an African-American. Inspired by this song, Sam wrote “A Change Is Gonna Come” (which much later would be voted as #12 in the Rolling Stone‘s “Greatest Songs of All Time”). One year later Sam Cooke was shot to death by a hotel owner. The details of his shooting still remain a mystery.
I wish Sam Cooke were around today because, even though the struggle for civil rights is still going on, in 2008 the United States elected its first African-American president. And in his acceptance speech, then President-elect Obama quoted Sam Cooke’s song. He said, “It’s been a long time comin’, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has coming to America.”
KEXP Documentaries are created by Michele Myers, with assistance from John Felthouse. And made possible by the American Music Partnership of Seattle. Executive Producer is Kevin Cole. You can hear all our KEXP Docs series including: Punk Evolution, Pop Goes Electronic and The Heart of Soul in on-demand at kexp.org.