Prompted by a discussion on a Rock’s Back Pages podcast, for the past week or two I have immersed myself in the music of Sam Cooke, and not for the first time.
         I recall first hearing Sam on the juke box in a coffee bar in Skipton, my home town, when I was about 12 and big on Elvis, Buddy and the Everlys. I liked Little Richard and Chuck Berry too, but Cooke was the first black singer that really got to me as a singer and not just as a rock’n’roller, which he wasn’t anyway. He was a gospel singer who moved into pop and in so doing became an innovator of soul music. ‘Only Sixteen’, ‘Wonderful World’ and ‘Cupid’ were pop songs, beautifully sung, as sweet as anything I’d ever heard, and I bought them as 7” singles on HMV and RCA. All the rest of the singles I bought, or was given, in those days were chosen because I liked the song or the performer but with Sam Cooke it was simply because I loved the sound of his voice, the way he seemed to float through the words and incorporate a sort of spontaneous yodel at the end of a line, a ‘whoa-ho-ho-wo’ signature phrase that I’ve never heard anywhere else.  
         A year or two later I bought ‘Twistin’ The Night Away’ too, and then The Beatles arrived and Sam got killed so I forgot all about him until one evening in 1974 when I was in my apartment in New York watching TV. Up popped an ad for The Legendary Sam Cooke, a triple-LP vinyl set, so I sent off for it, enclosing a cheque for something like $3.99. It was the first Sam Cooke album I’d ever bought, one of a handful of records I actually did buy in those days since my job as MM’s US editor brought an avalanche of free records on an almost daily basis.
         As soon as The Legendary Sam Cooke arrived I put disc one on my turntable and was drawn back to Sam and my old coffee bar, and I played the hell out of all three discs for the next year or two, often quietly in the background as I was writing or reading. In December 1975 I interviewed Bobby Womack who was once a protégé of Cooke, playing in his band and – scandalously – marrying his widow within three months of Cooke’s death. The interview was mainly about Womack’s brief association with The Faces, led by Cooke aficionado Rod Stewart of course, and I felt reluctant to mention Cooke to Womack, as if I was digging up something he might not want to talk about. In the event he talked a bit about Sam without me having to prompt him.
         The RBP Podcast led me to buy Peter Guralnick’s book Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, a masterly biography of the singer that I finished reading last weekend, and as read it I listened again to Cooke’s music, this time on the three-CD set The Essential Sam Cooke, which I’d had for years, and two CDs I bought while reading, one by The Soul Stirrers, the gospel sextet for whom Cooke sang before he turned to secular music, and Live At The Harlem Square Club where his band featured the great King Curtis on sax. In truth no two Sam Cooke records could be so different, from the sacred to the profane in one giant leap. In some ways Sam’s voice had toughened up by 1963, when the live album was recorded, but then again it seems to me that as he matured Sam employed a different, raspier, voice on stage than he did in the studio. This, the live voice, is the one that so influenced Rod. “Who knows, if there weren’t a Sam, there might not have been a Rod,” he writes on the reverse of the CD’s most recent package.
         Dream Boogie reveals that although Sam was the son of a pastor he was no saint. He fathered several children before he married (twice). He liked his whiskey and his women but he wasn’t into drugs. He was careless with his money, too generous to friends, but was an uncompromising perfectionist in the studio, taking immense care over his recordings, take after take, which are analysed in great depth by Guralnick. He wrote most of his own hits, usually on an acoustic guitar, and soon realised the benefits of controlling his own music publishing. He had interesting encounters with Cassius Clay (soon to become Muhammed Ali), Malcolm X, Jackie Wilson and others singers of the era. Elvis was a fan and once talked to LC, Sam’s brother, about Sam, “for 20 minutes. He knew his gospel music”.
         The book also reveals that my old editor at Melody Maker, Ray Coleman, in New York in June 1964 to cover Sam’s opening at the Copacabana, encountered a slightly tipsy Sam in the bar at the Warwick Hotel. “The Beatles are clever. They sell emotion,” he told Ray. Sam was among the first to predict – and welcome – the British Invasion. When I interviewed Bobby Womack I asked him about the Stones’ recording of ‘It’s All Over Now’ which Womack wrote for his group The Valentinos. “Y'know... I didn't dig it at all when I knew the Stones were doing that song,” he told me, confirming what Guralnik has written. “That was my first record and it was a hit and I didn’t want to know about no cover version. It was Sam Cooke that told me and he was happy because he had the publishing, but I didn't care about the Rolling Stones... no... I said, ‘Let them get their own songs together man’ but they did it and I didn’t understand why Sam was happy until I got the first cheque.”
         I never knew Ray had met Sam and if I had I’d have asked him about it.
         I did know that in the last year of his life Sam’s business affairs became managed by Allen Klein who was brought on board to straighten out Sam’s tangled finances. Klein managed to extract money that was owed to Sam and seems to have loved him like a son, and Guralnick steers well clear of any conspiracy theories that suggest his tragic death at the age of 33 was anything other than the outcome of a chain of unwise but disastrous circumstances. Sam changed labels, from Specialty to Keen to RCA, breaking contracts in the process, and was involved in lawsuits with disgruntled label owners. He could be abrupt, occasionally short-tempered, and he no doubt upset a few people by insisting on following his own path, managing his career the way he wanted to, but he didn’t make enemies to the extent that they might have wanted him dead. He was too nice a man for that. 
         Running parallel to Sam’s story in Dream Boogie is the best account of life on the chitlin’ circuit – the clubs where black musicians earned their living, usually in cash – that I’ve read anywhere, and also the gospel circuit where women were especially welcoming to the many competing vocal groups that praised the Lord in song. The book is also littered with instances of racism directed at Sam and other black performers during an era when segregation and brutality were rife, especially in the southern states. It was this ugly aspect of life in America for people of colour that gave birth to what is nowadays regarded as Sam’s masterpiece, the sublime ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’, inspired by Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have Dream’ speech at Washington DC in August 1963, which became an anthem of the Civil Right Movement, covered by many.
         But over and above these subplots in the all too short life of Sam Cooke, what all this listening and research has done is to impress on me yet again that he really was the greatest soul singer who ever lived. I didn’t know that when I was 12, only that I loved his voice, a voice that still charms me over 60 years later.

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