Sam Cooke's 10 best songs ever, ranked

14 February 2024, 14:04

Sam Cooke in 1960
Sam Cooke in 1960. Picture: Getty

By Tom Eames

Sam Cooke was one of the greatest singers of all time.

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With a voice that transcended generations and a knack for crafting melodies that linger in the heart long after the music fades, Cooke's legacy endures as a cornerstone of rhythm and blues, gospel, and soul.

From the fervent gospel hymns of his youth to the silky-smooth ballads that defined an era, each of Sam Cooke's songs tells a story, evoking emotions that are both universal and deeply personal.

Here we list some of the greatest musical offerings from the incomparable Sam Cooke, a journey that traverses love, loss, and the complexities of the human experience.

  1. Shake

    Sam Cooke - Shake (Official Lyric Video)

    This soul tune was released in December 1964, with ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ on its B-side. The song was recorded at the last session Cooke had before his tragic death on December 11, 1964.

    The song is a lively and upbeat tune that invites the listener to dance and have fun. The lyrics are simple and catchy, with Cooke repeating the word ‘shake’ throughout the chorus.

    The song was later recorded by King Curtis, The Animals, Rod Stewart and Otis Redding among others.

    It was a posthumous hit for Cooke, reaching number seven on the Billboard Hot 100 and number two on the Cashbox R&B charts in 1965.

  2. Another Saturday Night

    Sam Cooke - Another Saturday Night (Official Lyric Video)

    'Another Saturday Night' sums up the experience of loneliness and longing for companionship. Released in 1963, the song quickly became a chart-topping hit, reaching number ten on the Billboard Hot 100.

    It was inspired by Cooke's own experiences on the road as a touring musician, where he often found himself alone on weekends while away from home. Despite its upbeat tempo, the song resonates with a sense of melancholy, portraying the singer's yearning for love and connection.

    Cat Stevens later scored a hit with a cover version in 1974.

  3. Only Sixteen

    Only Sixteen

    'Only Sixteen' was released in May 1959, and was inspired by the 16th birthday of Lou Rawls's stepsister, Eunice. Cooke originally wrote the song for actor Steve Rowland, but his manager disliked it, so Cooke recorded it himself.

    It was credited to Barbara Campbell, a pseudonym used for Cooke, Lou Adler and Herb Alpert. Cooke married Campbell in October 1959.

    'Only Sixteen' expresses his love for a girl who is too young for him, and has a doo-wop style. The song has been covered by many artists, such as The Supremes, Dr Hook, and Craig Douglas, who took it to number one in the UK in 1959.

  4. Bring it on Home to Me

    Sam Cooke - Bring It On Home to Me (Official Audio)

    'Bring it on Home to Me' is a soulful and catchy song released in 1962 as the B-side to 'Having a Party'. The song was inspired by a 1959 single by Charles Brown and Amos Milburn, called 'I Want to Go Home', but Cooke added his own gospel flavour and secular lyrics to it.

    The song features a call-and-response format, with Lou Rawls echoing Cooke's pleas for his lover to come back to him. The song was a hit, reaching number two on the R&B chart and number 13 on the pop chart.

  5. Twistin' the Night Away

    Twistin' the Night Away

    'Twistin' the Night Away' is a classic rhythm and blues song written and recorded by Sam Cooke in 1961. It was released as a single in 1962 and became very popular, reaching the top ten of both the Billboard Hot 100 and the R&B chart. The song also had success in the UK, where it peaked at number six on the singles chart.

    The song is about the twist dance craze that swept the nation in the early 1960s. Cooke describes the scene of a lively party where people of different backgrounds and social classes are having fun and dancing the twist.

    It showcases Cooke's smooth and soulful voice, as well as his ability to blend gospel, pop, and blues influences. The song features a catchy saxophone riff and a driving rhythm section, with some of the best session musicians of the time, such as Earl Palmer, Red Callender, and Tommy Tedesco.

  6. Chain Gang

    Chain Gang

    This song was inspired by a real-life encounter that Cooke had with a group of prisoners working on a highway, while he was on tour. Cooke felt sympathy for their plight and decided to write a song that captured their pain and struggle.

    The verses describe the harsh conditions of the chain gang, such as the heat, the dust, the heavy load, and the longing for freedom and love. The chorus is a catchy and rhythmic repetition of the word "chain", followed by the sound of a hammer hitting a metal spike.

    It has been covered by many artists, such as Jackie Wilson, Jim Croce, and The Pretenders.

  7. You Send Me

    Sam Cooke - Sam Cooke – You Send Me (Official Lyric Video)

    'You Send Me' was recorded in 1957, and was his debut single as a secular artist, after leaving his gospel group The Soul Stirrers.

    The song was a huge success, reaching No.1 on both the R&B and pop charts, and selling over a million copies.

    It perfectly showcases Cooke's smooth voice, and conveys his feelings of being utterly smitten with his partner.

    Cooke wrote 'You Send Me' but gave the writing credit to his younger brother LC (who used the original family spelling Cook) because he did not want his own publisher to profit from the song.

  8. Cupid


    'Cupid' was released in 1961 and is a plea to the Roman god of love, Cupid, to help Sam find his true love.

    It is considered one of Cooke's signature songs and one of the most popular love songs of all time. It has been covered by many artists, such as Johnny Nash, Tony Orlando and Dawn, The Spinners, and Amy Winehouse.

    The song was inspired by a girl that Cooke's producers had seen on a Perry Como TV show, but they decided to keep the song for Cooke himself after hearing her sing.

  9. A Change is Gonna Come

    Sam Cooke - A Change Is Gonna Come (Official Lyric Video)

    'A Change is Gonna Come' is a soulful and powerful song, released as a single in 1964, a few months after Cooke’s tragic death at the age of 33.

    The song is widely regarded as one of his best and most influential works, and as an anthem for the civil rights movement in America.

    The song was inspired by various events in Cooke’s life, such as the discrimination he faced as a black man in the segregated South, the death of his infant son in 1963, and his admiration for Bob Dylan’s 'Blowin’ in the Wind'.

    Cooke wanted to write a song that spoke to his struggle and of those around him, and that expressed his hope for a better future.

    The song has a gospel-like structure, with a slow and dramatic orchestration, and a stirring vocal performance by Cooke. The lyrics describe the hardships and challenges that Cooke and his people have endured, but also affirm his faith and optimism that “a change is gonna come”.

  10. (What a) Wonderful World

    Sam Cooke - What A Wonderful World (Official Lyric Video)

    'Wonderful World' was released in 1960, and was composed by Lou Adler and Herb Alpert, with some revisions by Cooke, who wanted to emphasize the theme of education and love.

    It expresses Sam's optimism and joy despite his lack of academic knowledge, as he believes that love can make the world a wonderful place.

    The song was recorded in 1959, during Cooke's last session at Keen, before he signed with RCA Victor. The song was issued as a single in competition with his new label, and became one of his biggest hits.

    The song gained more popularity in the UK in 1986, when it was featured in the film Witness and a Levi's 501 commercial. It peaked at number two on the UK Singles Chart, and was certified gold.