The golden voice of Sam Cooke thrilled and enchanted millions of listeners on the hit recordings “You Send Me,” “Shake,” “A Change is Gonna Come,” “Chain Gang,” and many more. Cooke’s captivating blend of gospel, blues, pop, and rhythm & blues made him a pioneer of the genre that became known as soul music in the 1960s. Cooke was born in Clarksdale on January 22, 1931. His family resided at 2303 7th Street until they moved to Chicago in 1933.
Cooke, one of America’s most popular and charismatic singing idols, began his career with his brothers Charles and L. C. and sisters Hattie and Mary in a family gospel group, the Singing Children. Their father, Charles Cook, a preacher and Clarksdale oil mill laborer, brought his wife Annie and the five children to Chicago in 1933. Sam later sang with the Highway QC’s and developed a national following on the gospel circuit as a member of the renowned Soul Stirrers. In 1957 he made the controversial move to “cross over” from religious to secular music, adding an “e” to his surname to establish a new identity as a rhythm & blues and pop singer.
Cooke’s appeal transcended boundaries of race, age, and gender, and his musical sensibilities were equally diverse, ranging from ballads to teenage dance numbers. He recorded a number of songs in the blues vein, including “Little Red Rooster,” “Somebody Have Mercy,” “Summertime,” “Frankie and Johnny,” “Laughin’ and Clownin’,” and several Charles Brown tunes. Asked to name his favorite singers in a 1964 interview, Cooke replied: “Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. Louis Armstrong and Pearl Bailey also have a strong feeling for the blues.” According to his brother L. C., Sam also liked B. B. King, Bobby Bland, and Junior Parker.
An avid reader and astute, independent-minded businessman, Cooke was one of the first African American recording artists to own his own record label and publishing company. He also made headlines during the civil rights era by refusing to perform at a segregated concert in Memphis in 1961. Cooke was shot to death on December 11, 1964, in Los Angeles under circumstances that continue to generate controversy. More than forty-four years after Cooke’s death, his prophetic “A Change is Gonna Come” was revived as an anthem of a new political era when Bettye Lavette and Jon Bon Jovi sang it at the inauguration celebration for the country’s first African American president, Barack Obama.
Although L. C. Cooke never became as famous as Sam, he also made his mark as a vocalist, and in fact crossed over from gospel music before Sam did. L. C. was born in Clarksdale on December 14, 1932. His R&B career began in 1956 as a singer with a Chicago vocal group, the Magnificents. The Cooke brothers were the first of a number of noted performers in the soul music field to emerge from the Clarksdale area. Others include Charles Wright (leader of the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, famed for “Express Yourself” and other hits), Sir Mack Rice (composer of “Respect Yourself” and “Mustang Sally”), Chicago veteran Otis Clay, southern soul recording stars O. B. Buchana, David Brinston, and Luther Lackey, and local favorite Josh Stewart.
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