Sam Cooke was born one of eight children in Chicago on 22 January 1931, into a strong church-going family. His father was a local minister.
His early musical influences (like many of his contemporaries) was gospel music, and with his siblings he was featured singing in a church group at the age of nine, under the collective name of The Singing Children.
As a teenager, he sang with another gospel group, called The Highway QC’s, and in 1950 he joined The Soul Stirrers, with whom he sang and recorded for six years.
Being the focal point of the group, it was inevitable that he would strike out on his own solo career, although his initial solo recordings for Specialty Records were released under the pseudonym Dale Cooke.
The Soul Stirrers soon worked out the real identity of ‘Dale’ Cooke, and Sam was asked to leave the group.
In 1956, Sam’s solo career was guided by Little Richard‘s manager Bumps Blackwell, who bought out his contract from Specialty and signed him to the Keen label.
During this time, Cooke recorded the single You Send Me (1957), written by his brother Charles. It went on to sell over two million copies and top the national Hit Parade. It also provided his first British hit. Sam Cooke was launched on the road to superstardom.
Cooke remained with Keen Records for four years and in that time he enjoyed several more hit singles including Wonderful World and Only Sixteen.
He joined RCA Victor in 1960 and also formed his own record company in association with one J Alexander, called Sar Records.
It was one of the first black-owned record labels and recorded such gospel artists as The Valentinos, Johnny Taylor (a former member of The Highway QC’s) and The Sims Twins.
It was as a recording artist for RCA that Sam Cooke established himself as one of the major soul singers in the world. In four years he sold nearly 20 million records with a barrage of international hits.
Chain Gang, Cupid, Twistin’ The Night Away, Ain’t That Good News, Bring It On Home To Me, Tennessee Waltz, Another Saturday Night and Shake were amongst the best-sellers.
He also combined his time touring in concerts and appearing in the nightclubs of Las Vegas, where he was constantly in great demand.
On 11 December 1964, he was shot three times at close range by Bertha Lee Franklin – the manager of the Hacienda Motel in Los Angeles – who claimed that Cooke was trying to rape a Eurasian prostitute. Cooke’s final words to Franklin were, “Lady, you shot me”.
The court later returned a verdict of ‘justifiable homicide’ claiming the woman shot in self-defence. Cooke was just 33.