Archive for April, 2015

by Robert Seoane




The first time that I saw Sam was at my dad’s church… and I just happened to look over my shoulder and went, ‘Oh, my God! Who is that?’” –Aretha Franklin, VH1 Behind The Music

While James Brown is known as the Godfather of Soul, Samuel Cooke was crowned King of Soul during his day. Both artists simultaneously pioneered the soul genre starting in the late Fifties but their styles couldn’t be more different. Sam Cooke is smooth and elegant while James Brown is raw and passionate. Sam’s laid-back, easy delivery oozes sensuality. James Brown’s vocalizations are more sexual than sensual, less seductive and more aggressive. Having invented the soul genre, then splitting it up into two opposite directions, both artists’ styles were profoundly influential throughout the rest of the 20th century. In Sam Cooke’s case, musicians who followed include Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Billy Preston and scores more.

Cooke’s family moved to Chicago from Mississippi when he was two. Cooke’s father, Reverend Charles Cook, was a Baptist minister. Sam added the ‘e’ at the end of his name once he began his career.

He grew up singing with his seven siblings, billed as The Singing Children, at churches. He and fellow gospel choir singer Lou Rawls were childhood friends. Rawls would go on to carve a solo career of his own in the Seventies, peaking during the disco heyday with the 1976 song, “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine”. He and Cooke would continue to cross paths often as they grew up into promising musical artists, with Rawls joining Cooke’s band whenever on tour.

“Sam was so outstanding. He was young, he was good looking, he dressed well, carried himself, presented himself with class and dignity and so, it was like, how do you compete with that?” – Lou Rawls, VH1 Behind The Music

Sam first became known once he joined a gospel group called The Soul Stirrers when he was 19. He replaced R.H. Harris, already a popular singer, and faced a lot of antipathy, that is, until he opened his mouth to sing. The Soul Stirrers enjoyed the biggest hit of their career with Cooke immediately after he joined, called “Jesus Gave Me Water”, a rousing, irresistible gospel tune, sure to exorcise your demons. Soon, the churches started to fill with a younger, mostly female flock wherever they sang.

“Sam changed the whole prospect of gospel music, ‘cause when Sam came in, all the teenagers started going to church, especially little girls because they wanted to see Sam.” –L.C. Cooke, brother, VH1 Behind The Music

“I never saw nothin’ like that, to this day I’m astonished the way that Sam Cooke would turn the church out. People got up, they’d shout and they’d pass out, and that ‘woo…’, nobody had ever done that.” – Lloyd Price, singer-songwriter, VH1 Behind The Music

It was a struggle for Cooke to transition from gospel to secular pop music. He felt he had hit a wall in terms of growing further within the gospel genre, but he received resistance from his label, Specialty Records, after he started writing pop songs, so he took “You Send Me” to label competitor Keen Records. It was released in late 1956 by Keen and became the biggest hit of his career, climbing up to the top spot in Billboard’s Hot 100 in the Winter of 1957. No other single he released in the Fifties even came close to the Top Ten after that.

Cooke had established himself as the King of Soul soon after the release of “You Send Me”. Over the years, as his success grew, Cooke managed to take control of his career. He didn’t allow himself to be pushed around. Bright, well-read and ambitious, he demanded respect and got it.

“Sam, he didn’t back down. You didn’t push him. Once he told the police in Memphis, (brother) Charles had run out of gas and the police come and told Sam to push the car over to the side of the street. Sam told him, ‘My name is Sam Cooke. If you haven’t heard of me, your wife know me… When you get off tonight, you ask your wife if she knows Sam Cooke… I don’t push no cars… you want to put a ticket on it, put a ticket on it, I’ll pay the fine… I’m not a pusher, I’m a singer.’ And he sat back in his car. The police went and left him alone.” – Brother, L.C. Cooke

Cooke was also an avid reader, with a keen interest and knowledge of African-American history. As a result, he wouldn’t tolerate segregation or prejudice, being one of the first black entertainers to demand an integrated audience.

“We got into Little Rock, we played in the military armory. And they said, ‘You’re going to have to do two shows. ‘ ‘Why?’ ‘You gotta do a show for the white audience and a show for the black audience.’ And Sam said no. We’ll do one show for both.” – Lou Rawls, VH1 Behind The Music

Sam was unhappy at Keen Records because of his lack of hits. In the three years he was signed to the label, none of his songs had entered the Billboard Top Ten since “You Send Me”, and only one other record made it into R&B’s Top Ten, so in 1959 he signed with RCA Records. Like most rock ‘n’ roll and pop artists of the day, Cooke focused more on his single releases rather than his albums, but his first single release through RCA in 1960, “Teenage Sonata”, was a bust, while the last single released by his old label Keen, is an enduring classic.


His last single for Keen Records was recorded in an impromptu session in March 1959. “(What A) Wonderful World” was released over a year later in April 1960 to compete against his move to RCA. It became his highest charting single since “You Send Me”, just missing the Top Ten by two positions at Number 12.

The song is a sweet, simple tune sung from the point of view of a student who admits his limited scholastic capabilities as he declares his love for the object of his affection, who seems to be unaware of his feelings. It’s a timeless song, reminiscent of the teenage crush everyone has had at one point in their lives.

“Don’t know much about history, don’t know much biology, don’t know much about a science book, don’t know much about the French I took. But I do know that I love you, and I know that if you love me, too, what a wonderful world this would be.” (What A) Wonderful World – Sam Cooke

Perhaps to appease the parents who still frowned on rock ‘n’ roll’s permissiveness, Cooke added a lyric alluding to the fact that the struggling love-struck student is at least open to getting good grades.

“Now, I don’t claim to be an ‘A’ student, but I’m tryin’ to be. For maybe by being an ‘A’ student, baby, I can win your love for me.” (What A) Wonderful World – Sam Cooke

The song was made popular once again in 1978 when it was showcased in “National Lampoon’s Animal House” in a scene where John Belushi “partakes” of the college cafeteria cuisine.


RCA’s second Sam Cooke single release after the dreadful “Teenage Sonata”, was the hit he was looking for. “Chain Gang”, Cooke’s 1960 summer single, would become his second biggest hit, just behind “You Send Me”. Released on July 26, 1960, it made it to the second position in both Billboard’s Pop and R&B charts.

Legend has it that he came across an actual chain gang on the way to a live appearance during one of his tours, inspiring Cooke to write the song.

“It was in the South, and it’s hot. They had the windows open and the chain gang was out there working. And Sam wrote the song. ‘That’s the sound of the men working on the chain gang.’“ –Lou Rawls, VH1 Behind The Music

Cooke was not only a pioneer in soul music, he was also an astute businessman. He had final say over the mix of his songs, and his contract with RCA also stipulated his ownership of the rights to them after a certain period of time. He wasn’t happy with RCA’s final mix of “Chain Gang”, so he remixed it himself, bringing the ho…ha’s up to the fore.

The song sympathizes with the convicted felons, a first, humanizing them and bringing the invisible people of society into focus. One of the few other artists of the rock ‘n roll era to write to and about jailed prisoners was Johnny Cash, who veered away from rockabilly to country during the late Fifties and released his classic album “Live From Folsom Prison” in 1968.

Hmm, I’m goin’ home one of these days, I’m goin’ home, see my woman whom I love so dear, meanwhile I have to work right here…” “Chain Gang” – Sam Cooke


In 1961, Cooke founded SAR Records with his manager Roy Crain and singer/songwriter J.W. Alexander. It was founded specifically to develop other burgeoning talent, while still recording his own singles and releasing them through RCA. Sam’s interests had expanded from singing and writing songs to producing records and discovering up and coming artists. By 1964, SAR Records’ stable of stars included Billy Preston, Mel Carter, Johnnie Taylor and The Valentinos, a group led by Seventies soul singer Bobby Womack.


Cooke was asked to write a song for a female singer that had appeared on “The Perry Como Show”. He wrote “Cupid” for her, but she didn’t deliver the song to his liking, so he wound up recording it for himself. Besides his perfect delivery, the sound of an arrow hitting a target was also Cooke’s contribution.

Although. “Cupid”, released on May 12, 1961, only made it as high as Number 17 In the pop chart, this love cherub prayer endures today as a timeless classic.

“Cupid, please hear my cry, and let your arrow fly straight to my lover’s heart for me…” – Cupid – Sam Cooke

Towards the end of the disco era in 1980, the Spinners released a version of “Cupid” that was updated to the times. The song succeeds, particularly because the Spinners know how to deliver a flow with style and substance, and despite its dated disco sound, the production remains strong by its timeless melody. This version reached Number Four in Billboard’s Pop chart.


Sam Cooke’s next Top Ten single was released on January 9, 1962 to ride the wave of the “twist” dance craze of the early Sixties. The Twist, a radical dance in its day, was the first in a wave of free-form “touchless” dancing that would cause teenagers’ parents to scratch their heads in wonder. The dance became popular after the release of a 1959 Hank Ballard song called “The Twist”, then re-recorded and released on September 16, 1960 by Chubby Checker. Checker’s version went to Number One, then it was released again two years later and made it to the Number One position again for two weeks starting on January 13, 1962, four days after the release of Cooke’s “Twistin’…”.

“Twistin’ The Night Away” was recorded with the aid of one of the most famous and prolific session musicians of the Sixties. The Wrecking Crew were comprised of various musicians in Los Angeles, California who were always the first call for any recording being done by the leading artists of the day. Names like Nat ‘King’ Cole, the Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas, the Beach Boys and Simon and Garfunkel comprise just a few of the artists who had The Wrecking Crew back them in their classic recordings. Legendary producers such as Phil Spector relied on the Wrecking Crew for almost every recording session they had. The nickname for the revolving short list of top rate musicians came about from drummer Hal Blaine, the story being that at the time, the older generation felt that the youth of the day was going to wreck the music industry.


“He would just sit up and listen to people, he said, ‘Man, listen to the people talk. And that’s where you get your hooks from.’” – Bobby Womack, Seventies soul artist and back up guitarist for Sam Cooke’s live performances, VH1 Behind The Music

Sam Cooke continued his string of hit singles with a song that harkened back to his days as a gospel singer, echoing the sounds of his old group The Soul Stirrers . “Bring It On Home To Me” is a re-working of a 1959 smolderingly slow, classic blues song called “I Want To Go Home” by Charles Brown.

“I wanna go home, ‘cause I feel, feel so all alone, I wanna go home, I wanna go home, oh yes, I wanna go home…” I Want To Go Home – Charles Brown

Cooke re-wrote the lyrics and gave the blues song a gospel feel by adding a call-and-response background vocal. He was deliberately taking a new musical direction to broaden his scope as a versatile singer by reaching back to his gospel beginnings in order to distance himself from the lighter melodies he had been recording since “You Send Me”. After this release, Cooke’s music began to veer a bit closer to James Brown’s style.

“If you ever change your mind about leaving, leaving me behind, oh bring it to me, bring your sweet lovin’, bring it on home to me…” Bring It On Home To Me – Sam Cooke

“Bring It On Home To Me” was released on May 8, 1962 and climbed up to Number 13 in the Billboard Pop chart and Number Two in the R&B chart. It’s one of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.


“Havin’ A Party” was the flip-side of “Bring It On Home To Me”. The recording had a party atmosphere because guests had been invited to the session to sing along. Liquor flowed freely. Both songs are accompanied by an 18 piece backing section comprised of violins, violas, cellos, a sax, percussionists, bassists, guitarists and a piano.

After its release, “Havin’ A Party” become the song Cooke would perform as his encore at each live performance, inviting people up on stage to sing along and urging his audience to continue the party.

“The cokes are in the icebox, popcorn’s on the table, me and my baby, we’re out here on the floor… so Mister Mister DJ, keep those records playing, ‘cause I’m having such a good time dancing with my baby…” Havin’ A Party – Sam Cooke

“Havin’ A Party” was a hit separate from “BIOHTM” despite being on the flip side. It went up to Number 17 on the Billboard Pop chart and Number Four on the R&B chart.


Sam Cooke’s next single, “Send Me Some Lovin’” charted exactly the same as “Bring It On Home To Me”, probably because of their slight melodic familiarity, proven when John Lennon recorded a medley of both those very songs for his own 1975 “Rock ‘n’ Roll” album.

Written by John Marascalso and Leo Price, “Send Me Some Lovin’” was making the rounds among artists in the late fifties and sixties, and was subsequently recorded by Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Stevie Wonder, Brenda Lee, Hank Williams, Jr. and Otis Redding.


“Another Saturday Night” was Sam Cooke’s last Top Ten single, and it just made it in at Number Ten in the Spring of 1963. It did, however make it to Number One in the R&B chart. This was another one of those songs that boasts The Wrecking Crew as session musicians, including perpetual Wrecking Crew member, drummer Hal Blaine.

It was a catchy song, with a quasi-Caribbean beat and witty lyrics about a young man with a cashed paycheck in his pocket but nobody to spend it on. The song continued to showcase Cooke’s vocal talents as more than just a soul balladeer.

“Another fella told me he had a sister that looked so fine, instead of being my deliverance, she had a strong resemblance to a cat named Frankenstein ohhhh…. Another Saturday night and I ain’t got nobody, I have some money ’cause I just got paid, how I wish I had someone to talk to, I’m in awful way…” Another Saturday Night – Sam Cooke

A Seventies soft-rock pioneer who you wouldn’t associate with dance songs, Cat Stevens (now named Yusuf Islam), also had an unlikely hit with this song in late 1974, reaching Number Six in the Hot 100.

Cooke followed up “Another Saturday Night” with two more singles in 1963, “Frankie & Johnny” and “Little Red Rooster”. The former is a song originating from 1899, about the murder of a man by his jealous girlfriend. The latter is a Willie Dixon blues standard. Both singles had reasonable success, flirting under the Pop Top Ten and making it into the R&B Top Ten, but ultimately both of Cooke’s versions of the songs aren’t particularly definitive to the compositions.

Tragedy marred Sam Cooke’s success throughout his career. He survived a car accident that killed his chauffeur and put Lou Rawls in a coma for five days. Two months later, Sam’s wife was killed in another car accident. But in the Summer of 1963, the unthinkable happened. His eighteenth month old son Vincent drowned in his swimming pool. Cooke was devastated and those close to him have said he seemed so despondent that he didn’t want to continue living. Despite his depression, or perhaps because of it, he buried himself back into work and recorded an album filled with positive messages.


Cooke released “Good News” on January 22nd, 1964, at the cusp of the musical revolution brought on by England’s Beatlemania. The first single off his thirteenth and final album was called “Ain’t That Good News”, and was released five weeks later on March 1st. Like many of his classic singles, it stalls just under the Top Ten at Number 11. “Good News” is a bouncy, catchy song with a gospel feel that Cooke delivers with his usual confidence and surprisingly strong voice.


By 1964, Sam Cooke had been a pop star for eight years, and his style was unique enough to run parallel to the changing musical styles heralded by the Beatles that year. Although he continued to release singles, he was becoming more interested in developing new talent through his label, SAR. One of the groups signed to his label was the Valentinos, comprised of brothers Cecil and Bobby Womack, who wrote a rock ‘n’ roll standard made popular by the Rolling Stones that same year called “It’s All Over Now”.

At first, Bobby Womack didn’t want to give the Rolling Stones permission to record the song because he had not heard of the new band from England before. Although the Beatles were a big hit by then, the Stones were still struggling to be heard in America. It was only the Stones’ third single release and it climbed to Number 26 on Billboard’s Pop chart, but made it to Number One in the UK.


One of Sam Cooke’s last singles is also another one of his most memorable. Once again, it just missed entering the Top Ten Pop, peaking at Number 11.

The flipside, “Tennessee Waltz” was a remake of the 1946 country standard, but played in double time. It made it to Number 35 Pop in the Fall 1964. He sang it live on “Shindig” along with Bob Dylan’s “Blowing In The Wind”, also sung in a faster tempo.


By 1964, Sam Cooke was deeply involved in the Civil Rights movement, having been an avid follower of black history all his life. “Blowing In The Wind” resonated with him strongly, and he had added it to his tour repertoire. As a response to “Blowing…”, Cooke wrote his most important and beautiful song. With the struggle of the civil rights movement at the forefront of the national eye as well as his own conscience, Sam Cooke recorded “A Change Is Gonna Come” on January 22nd . It was a powerful song and he knew it. Cooke never released it while he was alive.

“He played that song and he asked me what did I think about it. And I told him, I said, ‘Man that song feels eerie, feels like death.” – Bobby Womack



“Sam knew about every after-hour joint in town. I don’t care how big or how small the town was. He would know where to go.” – Leroy Crume, The Soul Stirrers, VH1 Behind The Music

Cooke was out on the evening of December 11th, 1964 in the company of a young lady. Elisa Boyer had accompanied him that night to a local Los Angeles nightclub. According to her testimony, she had repeatedly asked Cooke to take her home after the nightclub, but Cooke took her to a motel instead. Once alone in a room at La Hacienda Motel in Los Angeles, he forced her on the bed, then apparently stood up to go to the bathroom. It was at that moment when she escaped with his clothing and called the police from a telephone booth to accuse Cooke of kidnapping her.

Circumstantial evidence and other witnesses’ testimony have cast doubt over Boyer’s explanation of the evening. There is a plausibility that she could have willingly gone to the hotel with the intent of calling the police in order to frame him. But the subsequent events executed by Cooke as a reaction to being left in such a vulnerable situation makes him look responsible for his own unnecessary death.

Apparently under the influence of all the liquor he had consumed that night, Sam Cooke broke into hotel manager’s Bertha Franklin’s office-apartment in a rage once he discovered most of his clothes missing along with Boyer. According to Franklin, he was dressed in only a sports coat and one shoe. Cooke demanded to know where Boyer was, accusing Franklin to be in on the set-up. Franklin told him the girl wasn’t in the office and that she had no idea what he was talking about. Franklin had been on the phone with motel owner Evelyn Carr at the time. Carr confirmed the events as Franklin related it. Later on, Franklin and Carr were given a lie detector test and both passed.

Cooke didn’t accept her answer and assaulted her. Soon, a struggle ensued, with both of them falling to the floor. Freeing herself from his grip, Franklin scrambled for her gun and managed to shoot him in the torso. Cooke managed to say, “Lady, you shot me,” before collapsing. He was 33 years old.

One month after his death, “A Change Is Gonna Come” was released as a posthumous single and has since become the anthem of the Sixties’ Civil Rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr. There’s no telling how far Sam Cooke’s career would have brought him had he lived, but the direction he was taking as a songwriter, singer and record producer indicates that we lost an artist that had still not reached his peak. Sadly, we’ll never know the direction he would have taken pop, soul and rock ‘n’ roll had he lived.

“It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die, ’cause I don’t know what’s up there, beyond the sky, it’s been a long, a long time coming but I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will…” A Change Is Gonna Come – Sam Cooke

As of this writing, a film is being produced about the life of Sam Cooke based on Peter Guralnik’s book “Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke”.





With a high pitched “Come-a, come-a, come-a, come-a, come, come, come-a…”, James “Jimmy” Jones came and went, leaving us a bouncy, happy ditty in 1960 that’s been re-done enough times to warrant a nook in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. There is however, an uncertainty as to Jimmy Jones’ credit as co-writer.

Jones, a showman and performer who started his career tap dancing, is remembered primarily for this song. “Handy Man” made it to Number Three on the R&B Billboard chart and Number Two on the Pop chart in 1960, but other interpretations of this composition have been recorded. Critics and fans alike have argued over which is the best version of “Handy Man”.

The original “Handy Man”, released a year earlier in 1959, was quite different from Jimmy Jones’ pop version. Performed by a group called The Sparks of Rhythm, the record label credits the songwriting to Andrew Barksdale and Charles Merestein. Their version of “Handy Man” was a slow, bluesy tune with a sultry baritone delivery, with back up vocals that mimicked the protagonist’s moves as he describes himself in song. It sounds nothing like Jones’ version, but the lyrics are very similar and so is the structure of the composition.

“Well, hey girls why don’t you gather ‘round and pick up on what I’m putting down, I said hmm baby, can’t you understand, I’m your handy man…” “Handy Man” – The Sparks of Rhythm

Jimmy Jones was with The Sparks of Rhythm back in 1954 when they were still known as the Berliners. Supposedly, he co-wrote “Handy Man” in 1955, apparently with Barksdale and Merenstein although Jones’ name doesn’t appear in the credits. He left the group shortly thereafter. The re-named Sparks of Rhythm, recorded the song without Jones in 1956 and released it in 1959. Later that same year, Jones recorded his own version of the song with Otis Blackwell who reworked it and sped up the tempo, stripping it of its lurking sensuality and replacing it with a fast, bouncy beat that followed Jones’ falsetto, with intermittent whistles that sound like happy birds. Once released, Blackwell and Jones shared songwriting credits this time. The original composers, Barksdale and Merestein, were not given credit.

Del Shannon of “Runaway” fame made a feeble attempt at cashing in on Jimmy Jones’ version of “Handy Man” by recording an identical version of it in 1964, making it only to Number 22 in the Billboard pop chart.

The definitive version of “Handy Man” is believed to be James Taylor’s version, recorded in 1977 and released on his “JT” album. Taylor’s version is a laid back interpretation sung in the typical straightforward, clearly vocalized Taylor manner, and accompanied only by JT’s acoustic. It made it to Number Four in Billboard’s Pop chart and Number One in the Adult Contemporary Chart, earning Taylor his second Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance.

Jimmy Jones died at age 75 in 2012.