YOU SEND ME: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF SAM COOKE by Daniel Wolff with S.R.Crain, Clifton White and G.David Tenenbaum, (Quill Books) 1995
By far the most popular gospel entertainer to cross over into mainstream acceptance, Sam Cooke was the quintessential soul singer. The son of an itinerant preacher with the Church of God in Christ, the denomination, part of the Holiness Movement, stressed the importance of music: song was a central ingredient to full worship. Billed as “The Singing Children” Cooke and his brothers and sisters were put to work on the revival circuit accompanying their father.
First achieving national notice as a member of the legendary Soul Stirrers gospel group, Cooke’s approach was modern, sophisticated, and relaxed. He gained a reputation as one of the finest storytellers on the gospel circuit. Many felt he was blessed with a miraculous gift that enabled him to write songs far wiser than his years. On one occasion an entire tune was composed enroute to a recording studio. Informed the group needed an extra tune for the days’ session, Cooke began thumbing through his Bible, strumming a guitar, and quickly came up with Touch The Hem Of His Garment.
Many felt his decision to record popular tunes was tantamount to treason. In the church much could be forgiven, but to abandon the gospel for a pop career was all but committing the unforgivable sin. Career wise there were concerns he would lose his following in the gospel scene. After a tentative stab releasing a single under the pseudonym Dale Cook, he left for good in 1957, immediately scoring a number one hit with the self-penned You Send Me.
There is little stylistic difference between Cooke’s gospel and pop material. In many cases the popular tunes were simply toned down treatments of the more raucous gospel material, with heavenly aspirations replaced by more earthly desires. A song like Cupid, if Christ’s name is substituted, works just as effectively. He soon went from topping the gospel charts to becoming a formidable presence on the pop hit parade.
In total, Cooke would place 43 singles on the pop charts, including Only Sixteen, Twistin’ The Night Away, Chain Gang, Another Saturday Night, Cupid, and Wonderful World. In addition to possessing a near perfect voice, Cooke was a brilliant writer: the above songs, all original compositions, continue to place high in the charts thanks to cover versions by everyone from Cat Stevens and James Taylor to Dr. Hook. Popular singers from Otis Redding and Rod Stewart to Jimmy Cliff, Al Green, and Aaron Neville have cited Cooke as a principal influence on their own styles.
When Cooke and the Soul Stirrers would drive black audiences to a frenzy, shrieking and crying, it was taken as evidence of the Holy Spirit’s presence. Similar results, occurring at Rock n’ Roll shows attended by white teenagers were seen as a loosening of morals, and a threat to society. The audience on The Great 1955 Shrine Concert, which featured the Soul Stirrers, is as rowdy as any rock audience ever got. Yet the joy they sing of is Christ.
In addition to being one of the first performers, black or white, to retain ownership of his publishing, Cooke was the first rock artist to set up a record label. In 1959 SAR Records was founded as an attempt to introduce gospel music to a larger audience and implement it’s techniques to pop music. Cooke’s vision was to have gospel music played on pop radio stations. Shortly before his death he told a journalist “Real gospel music has GOT to make a comeback.” Every artist signed to SAR, including Johnny Taylor, Billy Preston, Mel Carter and the Valentinos, came from a gospel background, and fully half the music released on the label was straight ahead gospel. For Cooke the line between the two forms was all but invisible. SAR acts would record near identical songs, except for lyrics: one set for pop, one for gospel. The same day he recorded his own Somewhere there’s a Girl, he had The Womack Brothers record Somewhere there’s a God. A tune the Soul Stirrers recorded, Stand By Me Father was rewritten as Stand By Me, becoming an top ten hit for Ben E. King. Although The SAR Story (a two disc anthology of the label released last year) features only three performances from Cooke, his presence and influence is felt on every track.
In You Send Me Cooke’s story is intertwined with the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s. Segregation, lynchings and Jim Crow laws were facts of life. After his first pop hits, Cooke was seriously injured in an auto accident while on tour in the south. Sent to an ill-equipped “colored” hospital, management quickly moved him to a more expensive integrated facility where proper care was available. Cooke’s driver, left in the first hospital, died.
Forgetting one’s place in society could bring dire consequences. In 1960, the stars of an all-black revue refused to play to a strictly white audience in Little Rock, Arkansas. The performers were forced to leave town at gun point, unaware their tires had been punctured by angry promoters. As they sped away from the hall, Jesse Belvin (an up and coming performer from Los Angeles), his wife, and their driver were all killed when a tire blew out while passing another vehicle.
Much as gospel hymns were employed by the black church during times of slavery (Steal Away was a challenge to escape to the North), Cooke’s songs, such as Any Day Now, and A Change is Gonna Come, offered messages of hope to the black underground. Using his enormous popularity Cooke insisted on integrated audiences at all of his shows. Because of his drawing power, promoters finally acquiesced, and the days of segregated shows were soon a memory. It’s tempting to see this behavior as manifestations of a bygone era, but with over 100 black churches burned down in the last year, it’s all to clear we’ve not come far enough.
Attempts to find respect with the established music industry did not always result in satisfying performances: Live at the Copa recorded in 1963 at a bastion of old school show biz, comes across embarrassingly trite. Offering up medleys of show standards, Cooke comes across as polite to a fault and almost devoid of any soul. Yet Cooke saw the Copa as the ultimate accomplishment for a performer. Sinatra played there. Neverless, the fact that he succeeded on their terms could be seen as a victory. With the exception of Bobby Darin, no contemporary of Cooke even approached the versatility. Live At the Harlem Square Club, recorded the same year at a Miami show, sets things right. During a late night set Cooke rocks and wails, with an energy so tangible you can almost smell the sweat coming off the stage.
The final year of his life, Cooke recorded A Change Is Gonna Come. A reflection on the civil rights movement, it carries the weight of the great gospel standards, providing irrefutable evidence that Cooke had not abandoned moral issues when he took to singing popular music. Inspired by Bob Dylan’s then current Blowin’ in The Wind the song is if anything more effective, with a quiet dignity that belies the belief that this was Cooke’s ultimate statement. That same year Cooke’s only son drowned after a mishap in the family pool. Never fully recovering from the incident, his last year was by far his darkest. Cooke’s own death by shooting was shrouded in mystery, and while many theories have been postulated, the only consensus is that the official story in untrue.
It’s too easy to say that Cooke abandoned gospel and was victim of worldly ways. You Send Me offers a number of arguments that refute such simple thinking.
© John Cody 1995