Sam Cooke facts: Songs, Civil Rights work and the tragic death of the King of Soul

22 March 2022, 11:41 | Updated: 14 February 2024, 14:06

Sam Cooke
Sam Cooke. Picture: Getty

By Mayer Nissim

From his days in the Soul Stirrers to his incredible solo career, Sam Cooke was the undisputed King of Soul.

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In the 1950s and '60s, pioneers of music began to fuse gospel, R&B and jazz into the righteous sound of soul.

Busting that sound into the mainstream were the likes of Etta James, Ray Charles, James Brown, and of course Sam Cooke.

As a musician, songwriter and significant figure in the Civil Rights movement, Sam Cooke did so much in his 33 years before his controversial death.

Here's a look back at his incredible life.

Where did Sam Cooke grow up?

Sam Cooke was born Samuel Cook on January 22, 1931, in Clarksdale, Mississippi as the fifth of eight children of the Reverend Charles Cook and Annie Mae.

The family moved to Chicago when Sam was just two, where he attended Doolittle Elementary and Wendell Phillips Academy High School.

How did Sam Cooke get into music?

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

Sam was a singer from an incredibly young age, joining up with his brothers and singers in the Singing Children.

Arranged by his dad, Sam had tenor vocal duties when he was just six years old. If you think that's an early start, his FOUR-year-old little brother LC was on bass.

The band fell apart after WWII when one of his sisters got married and one of his brothers joined the army, and Sam snuck off to busk solo, going on to join The Highway QCs when he was 14, becoming their lead singer.

Cooke left the QCs in 1950 when The Soul Stirrers were looking for a new singer (Lou Rawls took Cooke's place in his former band).

The Stirrers had a history dating back to the mid 1920s, and Cooke fronted the group from 1950 to 1956, recording gospel songs like 'Jesus Gave Me Water', 'Peace in the Valley', 'How Far Am I from Canaan?', 'Jesus Paid the Debt' and 'One More River' before deciding to strike out on his own.

What were Sam Cooke's biggest songs?

Sam Cooke - Twistin' The Night Away (Official Live Audio)

After his brush with success with the Stirrers, Cooke was absolutely ready to take the pop world by storm.

He shifted from gospel to the sound of secular soul had a massive 30 top 40 hits in the US between 1957 and 1964, plus three more after his death in 1964.

Cooke wrote many of his songs himself, and his biggest hits include:

  • You Send Me
  • I'll Come Running Back To You
  • I Love You' For Sentimental Reasons
  • Only Sixteen
  • Wonderful World
  • Chain Gang
  • Cupid
  • Twistin' the Night Away
  • Bring It On Home to Me
  • Having A Party
  • Nothing Can Change This Love
  • Send Me Some Lovin'
  • Another Saturday Night
  • Little Red Rooster
  • Good Times
  • Shake
  • A Change Is Gonna Come

How was Sam Cooke involved in the Civil Rights movement?

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

As well as being an incredible musician and songwriter, Sam Cooke was an active part of the Civil Rights movement.

He was friendly not only with Muhammad Ali and American Footballer Jim Brown, but also Malcolm X.

The 2020 biopic One Night in Miami... is a take on a meeting of Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and Cooke in a room at the Hampton House after Ali's shock win over Sonny Liston.

One Night in Miami... | Official Trailer

The movie takes some liberties with the facts and timeline, but still gives the flavour of Cooke's role in the movement.

After Cooke and his then-wife Barbara were denied a room at the Holiday Inn North on October 8, 1963 and with Bob Dylan's protest song 'Blowin' in the Wind' and Martin Luther King's 'I Have A Dream' speech ringing in his ears, he was inspired to write 'A Change Is Gonna Come'.

The song became an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement, and remains a clarion call for justice to this day.

Was Sam Cooke married, and how many children did he have?

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

Sam Cooke was married twice, the first time to singer/dancer Dolores 'Dee Dee Mohawk' Elizabeth Milligan Cook, from 1953 till they divorced in 1958. Dolores died in a car accident the following year.

Cooke married Barbara Campbell in 1958. She went on to marry Bobby Womack after Cooke's death.

Sam and Barbara had three children together: daughters Linda and Tracy, as well as a son Vincent, who tragically drowned in the family's swimming pool when he was just 18 months old.

He was also known to have fathered other children outside of his marriages, paying a settlement Philadelphia woman Connie Bolling who claimed that she had his son.

How did Sam Cooke die and how old was he?

Sam Cooke - Another Saturday Night (Official Lyric Video)

Cook was shot dead in controversial circumstances at the Hacienda Motel, in South Central Los Angeles, California on December 11, 1964. He was only 33.

The motel's manager Bertha Franklin claimed to have shot Cooke in self-defence.

Franklin told the authorities that he was banging on her door asking after Elisa Boyer, a woman who later claimed to have been taken to the motel by Cooke against her will and assaulted by him before escaping.

The motel manager claimed Cooke had forced himself into the office in a state of undress and grappled with her, prompting her to retrieve a gun and shot him in the chest.

However, some witnesses who saw Cooke and Boyer earlier in the evening claimed that she went willingly to the motel with Cooke, and others have suggested she had attempted to rob him prior to his shooting.

Sam Cooke - (Somebody) Ease My Troublin’ Mind (Official Lyric Video)

It is also claimed by some, including Etta James who saw Cooke's body before his funeral, that he had clearly been badly beaten by several assailants, rather than just the motel owner.

"[Sam's head was] practically disconnected from his shoulders," Etta said in her memoir.

"That's how badly he'd been beaten. His hands were broken and crushed.

"They tried to cover it up with makeup, but I could see massive bruises on his head. No woman with a broomstick could have inflicted that kind of beating against a strong, full-grown man."

The inquest jury returned a verdict of justifiable homicide, essentially accepting Franklin's version of events.

Others at the motel on that night didn't hear any sounds of a struggle or gunshots, prompting speculation and conspiracy theories that he had been murdered elsewhere before his body was taken to the motel.

Boyer herself was later found guilty in 1979 of second-degree murder of another man in a shooting, while it is claimed that the racist LAPD did little to properly investigate Cooke's death at the time.

Cooke's death and the mysterious circumstances surrounding it has been explored in several books, as well as the 2017 documentary film Lady You Shot Me: Life and Death of Sam Cooke.