With Nat King Cole preceding the idiom and Ray Charles transcending it, Sam Cooke stands as the originator of soul music, and remains virtually incontestably the master. An influence on singers ranging from Otis Redding to Smokey Robinson to Rod Stewart and Mick Jagger, he is one of the first wave of performers inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 1987.
Sam Cook (he'd add the "e" later) was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and grew up in Chicago, where his father was minister of the Christ Holiness Church. Singing in church as a youngster, Sam joined professional gospel groups the Pilgrim Travelers, the Highway QC's, and - most importantly - the Soul Stirrers, where he replaced the legendary R.H. Harris. After six years with that group, who were signed to Los Angeles-based Specialty Records, Cook left the group to sing secular music. In an effort to escape condemnation by his gospel fans, he recorded his first single, Lovable, as "Dale Cook." All subsequent singles, including the Specialty hit I'll Come Running Back to You, were released as by "Sam Cooke."
Within a year, he'd moved to Keen Records. His original composition, You Send Me, became a national hit and remains a standard, though his is virtually the only version anybody knows. After hits including Only Sixteen and Everybody Likes to Cha Cha Cha, Cooke signed to RCA, a major pop label. Before his first RCA hit, Chain Gang, he hit again on Keen with Only Sixteen, but with the RCA contract came a move to (for the most part) more adult subject matter for his singles. A string of hits on RCA followed, among them Cupid, Twistin' the Night Away, Bring It On Home to Me, Havin' a Party, and updates of the old folk song Frankie and Johnny, and Willie Dixon's Little Red Rooster.
In 1961, Cooke and his manager, J.W. Alexander, started the SAR label, largely as a vehicle for Sam's discoveries and productions. Among the acts signed to SAR were the Soul Stirrers (with Johnnie Taylor in Cooke's old spot); Johnny Morisette; the Sims Twins; and The Valentinos, featuring Bobby and Cecil Womack, whose original versions of Lookin' For a Love and It's All Over Now were released on the label.
In a bid for an adult audience, he recorded an album at New York's Copacabana nightclub; that 1964 album included the version of Try a Little Tenderness that inspired Otis Redding (a huge Cooke fan) to record the song.
On December 11, 1964, Sam Cooke was shot to death in a cheap Los Angeles motel, by the manager. Earlier, he'd been dining in Hollywood with some friends, and was reportedly on his way to meet with the musical director of his upcoming Florida concert. The exact circumstances of the shooting remain mysterious and with rather sinister implications, though the manager reported having thought of Cooke -- who supposedly kicked in the door to her office -- as an intruder. Cooke's Ferrari was parked outside the motel; the girl with whom he had been conversing at the restaurant was nowhere to be found.
A posthumous release, A Change is Gonna Come, is generally regarded as Cooke's most significant composition and greatest record; it's a ballad indicating a social consciousness theretofore (other than a "hootenanny" version of Blowin' in the Wind on the Copa album) unexplored by Cooke, and in all soul music.