Portrait of a Legend: Sam Cooke

Picked by: 
Sam Cooke

Sam Cooke packed a lot of living into his 33 years. The smooth soul singer made the leap from gospel music (including a six-year stint with the Soul Stirrers) to secular music and enjoyed unprecedented crossover success: he was the first black solo artist to top the Billboard pop chart in the rock era, landing 29 Top 40 hits in nine years. Cooke was also a visionary businessman, forming his own label (SAR) and publishing company in 1961. His life was cut short when he was shot to death during a controversial incident at a hotel in Los Angeles on Dec. 11, 1964.


In his 2005 biography, Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, Peter Guralnick wrote that the singer's music still sounds "as fresh, as elegant, as full of mirth, sadness, and surprise as when it first emerged, translating somehow across the ages in ways that have little to do with calculation or fashion and everything to do with spontaneity of feeling, with a kind of purity of soul."


We've compiled some facts and quotes to enhance your enjoyment of the songs of Sam Cooke.


Essential album: Portrait of a Legend: 1951-1964


You Send Me—Sam's career got off to a rousing start when his third single topped the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks in 1957 (it was the lone No. 1 of his career). Cooke wrote the song, but it was credited to his brother, Charles (L.C.) Cook, due do a dispute with his publisher. (Sam added an "e" to the family name when he released a single under the pseudonym Dale Cooke in 1956.)


(What A) Wonderful World—Cooke contributed lyrics to a song written by Herb Alpert and Lou Adler; the track is credited to Barbara Campbell, who was Sam's high school girlfriend. "Wonderful World" was Cooke's last hit for Keen Records, which released the single after he signed with RCA in 1960.


Twistin' the Night Away—The Twist dance craze had been gyrating for a few years when Cooke reached No. 9 with this song in 1962. Sam wrote it after he saw a report on high-society members swiveling their hips at the Peppermint Lounge in New York City. "Look at those old ladies dressed in diamonds, twisting away," he said, which inspired the opening lines: "Let me tell you about a place / Somewhere up in New York way / Where the people are so gay / Twistin' the night away."


Having a Party—Herb Alpert offered some insight into Cooke's songwriting: "Sam had great instincts. He was just one of those guys that had a feel—I mean, if he walked in and showed you the lyrics that he had, you'd kind of wonder what it's all about. But as soon as he picked up his guitar and played 'Having a Party,' the whole thing came to life. So he had this very personal way of expressing himself that was very touching." Adler concurred: "He said you have to be having a conversation, you have to be able to talk it. Then you've written a good lyric." "Having a Party" was the follow-up to "Twistin' the Night Away" in the summer of 1962.


Bring It On Home To Me—"[Cooke] was in the limo on his way to Atlanta," Guralnick wrote in Dream Boogie, "the car's headlights sweeping the highway as he sat in the backseat with the little pinprick of light from his reading lamp illuminating the lyrics he was writing down. The song would retain its gospel flavor and the call-and-response format that made it in essence a vocal duet, and some of the words would even continue to suggest its spiritual origins—but its refrain ('Bring it to me, bring your sweet lovin', bring it on home to me') would leave little doubt as to its secular intent." The song, with backing vocals by Lou Rawls, peaked at No.13 in 1962.


A Change Is Gonna Come—The stirring civil rights anthem was written soon after Cooke, his wife Barbara, and some friends were arrested for disturbing the peace when they were turned away from a Holiday Inn in Shreveport, La., in October 1963. "It was less work than any song he'd ever written," Guralnick told NPR in 2014. "It almost scared him that the song—it was almost as if the song were intended for somebody else. He grabbed it out of the air and it came to him whole, despite the fact that in many ways it's probably the most complex song that he wrote. It was both singular—in the sense that you started out, 'I was born by the river'—but it also told the story both of a generation and of a people." The song appeared on Cooke's 13th (and last) studio album, Ain't That Good News, in March 1964. "Generation after generation has heard the promise of it. It continues to be a song of enormous impact," Guralnick said. "We all feel in some way or another that a change is gonna come, and he found that lyric. It was the kind of hook that he always looked for: The phrase that was both familiar but was striking enough that it would have its own originality. And that makes it almost endlessly adaptable to whatever goal, whatever movement is of the moment." "Change" was released in January 1965 as the B-side of his final posthumous Top 10 hit, "Shake."


Listen on Hoopla.