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Feature Thu Feb 11 2010

Observing Change: Sam Cooke and the Civil Rights Movement

Observation: Over and over again, Sam Cooke would attribute his success to the art of observation. He wrote of what he saw and heard. He listened to it and spoke to it. Effortlessly and instinctively, he turned it into music. He sang the songs that brought relief to the civil rights movement. He sang the songs that formed a bridge. He sang the songs that healed. His furious will and feral tenor brought people to their knees, and lifted them to their feet. Then, at the height of his success, he was shot and killed. It was 1964. He was only 32.

The Spark:

Cooke was born to a preacher in Clarksdale, Mississippi on January 22, 1931. To make ends meet, his father Charles worked the fields and cared for the home of a cotton farmer. But he wanted a better life for his children. He would teach them never to accept the limitations set on them, from outside or within. That lesson began in 1934, when they boarded a Greyhound bus and moved north to Chicago.

Cooke was singing gospel professionally by the age of ten. He performed with his brothers and sisters in a group called The Singing Children. For practice, he would stick Popsicle sticks in the ground and perform for them. He earned money singing with his brother L.C. on the corner of 35th and Cottage Grove — the end of the streetcar line in their Bronzeville neighborhood.

Cooke began singing with the Highway Q.C.'s. at age 15, but left at 19 to join The Soul Stirrers — the number one gospel group in the country. He was loved by the old and young and became a gospel teen idol of sorts. He brought a sexual energy to the church that was known by all but spoken by none. The women started showing up early, and they filled the seats.

Amid The Soul Stirrers' success, racial tensions were mounting in the South and hitting close to home. On August 28, 1955, a black boy from Chicago was beaten and murdered after reportedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi. His name was Emmet Till, and he was only 14. Many felt this to be the spark that started the civil rights movement. A few months later in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks refused a bus driver's orders to give her seat up to a white passenger, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott followed. A fire was starting. People were aware, tired of the injustice. They were taking a stand and making a change.

It was around this time that Cooke began to outgrow the gospel circuit. He wanted to evolve, to infuse his gospel roots into R&B and pop music. He'd reached the black audience but wanted to reach a white one. He wanted to reach them all. He knew this sort of move would be met with a backlash from the gospel community, but it was a burden he was willing to bear. Determined to reach a wider audience and bring them together, he extended his arms.

In 1957 Cooke recorded "You Send Me." It was his first release under his own name. It sold almost 2 million copies and reached number one on both the R&B and pop charts. It began his mass appeal, and it spread far and wide.

The Raging Fire:

Just a few months after the release of "You Send Me" Cooke appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. The show's producers received many complaints after cutting his performance short, and he was asked back the following week. With the success of this performance and his first single, he began to tour the country.

Within six months he was booked to play the Copacabana: a prestigious and mostly white club in New York City. He knew that a successful performance at the Copa could solidify his success. He felt the pressure, and he bombed. Years later on The Mike Douglas Show, when asked about it, he answered "I know why I bombed. Because I wasn't ready." Still feeling the sting, he returned to the road.

Like all black artists at the time, Cooke and his band came face-to-face with the nightmarish prejudice and segregation of the South. Choices were limited. Restaurants wouldn't serve them. They made and ate sandwiches in their cars. They washed in rest-stop washrooms. They traveled hundreds of miles between shows to find boarding houses that would take them. All the while there were more and more whites in the audience. Cooke endured and observed, and he always took a stand.

In Memphis, police ordered him to push his car after it had run out of gas, but he refused. In Atlanta, he was scheduled to headline a concert broadcast on The Dick Clark Saturday Night Beech-Nut Show. When the KKK heard a black man would be performing with white men they tried to stop it, but Cooke played anyway. In Little Rock, he was told he'd be performing two shows for two audiences: one white, one black. He refused and played to a room split literally down the middle. He was one of the first performers to do so.

At segregated shows of this sort, police and police dogs walked the aisles on the black side of the audience. If the people enjoyed the show too much, the dogs would bite. The opposite ends of the leash must have twisted and blurred together, in such a dark and hellish scene.

In 1959, Cooke formed his own publishing company with partner J.W. Alexander. It was a bold move for any artist at that time, especially a black one, but Cooke didn't care. He saw then what other artists didn't. He saw the importance of learning the business and taking ownership of his songs, so that's what he did. Soon after, he would go on to form his own record label, SAR Records. The first SAR release came in 1960, and was by a gospel group from Chicago called The Soul Stirrers.

In 1961, Cooke signed with RCA and continued to tour relentlessly. He returned to Memphis, and another segregated audience at Ellis Auditorium. He refused to play unless the audience members were seated together. His requests were denied and he was met with threats, but he didn't back down. Two hours before the show was scheduled to start, Cooke cancelled it. Around the same time, Ray Charles took a similar stand in Augusta. By the time Charles' tour reached the Ellis Auditorium, his audience sat as one.

By the beginning of 1962, Cooke was the best-selling singles artist on RCA behind Elvis Presley. By the end of that same year, he was touring England with Little Richard. During this tour, he realized that seeking white or mainstream audiences had become unnecessary. They were coming to him. He began to focus less on winning them over and more on knocking them over. He began to further embrace the gospel fervor of his roots. This transition can be heard like a loud and crushing thunder on the song that invented soul — "Bring It On Home To Me."

On the heels of this transition, Cooke joined The Soul Stirrers onstage for a New Year's Eve 1962 show. Cooke's agent Jerry Brandt recalls the show in the Sam Cooke: Legend documentary — "All these women were going up, throwing their arms in the air, shivering, and passing out. Just fainting. Everyone was fainting. That's all I remember, the whole place was fainting. Mostly women. And it was probably the best show I ever saw in my life."

Twelve days later Cooke would debut his new act at the Harlem Square Club in Miami. It was recorded for what would later become the Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 live album. Listening to that album, it becomes impossible not to feel the fires raging, as the walls crumble, and the people melt together in one glorious night of song.

The Swan Song & The Eternal Flame:

In May of 1963, Cooke heard Bob Dylan's "Blowin' In The Wind" and was overwhelmed. He couldn't believe it wasn't written by a black man, and he couldn't believe it wasn't written by him. That same month, Cooke spent a great deal of time talking with students at sit-ins in North Carolina. He was inspired by what he heard.

On October 8, 1963, a harsher inspiration came when Cooke attempted to check into a hotel in Shreveport. After his reservation was taken by phone, he was turned away in person. When he refused to walk away, he was arrested. This experience was the catalyst that ripped open the others. It opened the floodgates for a deep and rushing song.

"A Change Is Gonna Come" came to Cooke in a dream. It's the only song that ever did, and it frightened him. He knew he risked alienating his audience but he also knew it was the greatest thing he'd ever written. He would spend nearly a month perfecting it before finally recording it on January 30, 1964.

Cooke wasn't the only one frightened by the song. Drummer John Boudreaux was so intimidated by it's orchestration that he refused to leave the studio's control room. Earl Palmer eventually stepped in to record the drum tracks. Friends told Cooke the song felt eerie, foreboding, like a premonition. As he recalls in the Sam Cooke: Legend documentary, friend and musician Bobby Womack told him it felt " death."

The song was not immediately released as a single and it was almost never performed live. One exception came during a February 7, 1964 appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, when Cooke reluctantly agreed to perform it. The tapes of that performance are lost.

By it's own might, "A Change Is Gonna Come" reached the people. It was almost instantly adopted as an anthem of the civil rights movement.

Cooke was becoming a prominent figure in the movement. On February 25, 1964 he came together with friends Malcolm X and Cassius Clay in Miami, where Clay was set to fight heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. Before the fight, Cooke met with Malcolm X to discuss politics and religion. After Clay dropped Liston in eight, Cooke stood by his side in the ring, as Clay sang his praises.

In the summer of 1964, Cooke donated "A Change Is Gonna Come" to the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) for the album, The Stars Salute Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King would later ask him to participate in a civil rights benefit concert, a request reserved for the artists having the greatest impact on the people.

The summer of 1964 also marked Cooke's return to the Copa. He was no longer trying to win the audience, but he was determined to awe them. He rehearsed endlessly. In the Sam Cooke: Legend documentary, Bobby Womack recalls "he rehearsed, and he rehearsed, until he knew the songs backwards...and he said, 'I'm gonna get them fuckers this time.'" And on July 7-8, he got them. He took it a step further when he sang the song heard at sit-ins and marches all over the country, "This Little Light Of Mine." He sang it to the audience that, perhaps, needed to hear it most.

On December 11, 1964 Cooke walked into the home of friend and musician Lou Rawls, where Rawls was sitting in a room with his baby and dog. When Cooke walked in, the baby started crying, the dog walked out. It was as though they sensed the tragedy that was about to come. Hours later, in the middle of the night, Rawls received a phone call. Cooke had been shot. He was dead.

The stories surrounding Cooke's death travel in many poisonous directions. At it's core, however, the story is as simple as it is devastating. Cooke went to a motel with a woman named Elisa Boyer. At some point during the night, Boyer ran off with his clothes and money. He went looking for her. Believing she went into motel manager Bertha Franklin's office, he looked for her there. When Franklin refused to let him in, Cooke broke the door down, and Franklin shot him three times. That simply, that foolishly, he was gone.

The things that make great legends, are often the same things that make great, great tragedies.

Cooke's funeral in Chicago was immense. Fans stood outside the AR Leak & Sons Funeral Home on Cottage Grove Ave for hours, in below zero temperatures. There were an estimated 10,000 of them. Cooke's brother and father were turned away at first amid the chaos, and they had to fight their way in. When Cooke's wife and daughter met similar difficulties, they were lifted over the crowd.

The legacy that Sam Cooke leaves behind is large and towering. He helped to shape music, a movement and a culture. He leaves behind a golden voice, and an ocean of songs. He leaves behind a lesson in the art of observation, and the power of action. He leaves behind an epic, and a swan song. "A Change Is Gonna Come" is said to have been played at the funeral of Malcolm X, and at the home of Rosa Parks upon the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. More recently, it was played at the inaugural celebration in Washington, when we elected our first black president.

Audio & images © ABKCO Music & Records, Inc. Sam on stool photo © ABKCO Music & Records, Inc. Billboard photo © ABKCO Music & Records, Inc.

This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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Dan Kugler / February 11, 2010 12:46 PM

Thank you for writing and posting such a beautiful article.

David / February 12, 2010 9:08 AM

Mr. Cooke is one of those unique people who come around only very rarely.

He wasn't showy like James Brown; he didn't need to be. When he went on tour with Jackie Wilson in the late fifties, the two men had a friendly rivalry over who would close the show. Jackie was a showman, and he'd jump and kick and shout and really get the crowd going.

But by the end of the tour, Sam was ending every show. He could just stand there and sing and the crowd (especially the women) would go NUTS. His gospel training and confidence came across strong and clear.

If you want proof, go listen to the "Live at the Harlem Club" album. There's a part where he's singing "For Sentimental Reasons" and you can hear a girl (who I'd like to imagine had just gotten into the club) goes absolutely fucking BONKERS screaming.

Sam was the man. Beautiful voice, impeccable dresser, smarter than hell, a great businessman, and a true pioneer in the civil rights movement.

Even though I was born fifteen years after he died, I still miss him.

LaShawn Williams / February 13, 2010 8:45 PM


nongpla / February 15, 2010 1:19 PM

he is not here but his legacy will remain...

SamsNeph / February 19, 2010 3:18 PM

Thanks for remembering Sam Cooke here. He's not portrayed in the most accurate light in "Dream Boogie," but I appreciate the article in his honor.

Erik Greene
Author, "Our Uncle Sam: The Sam Cooke Story From His Family's Perspective"

Glenn Davis / August 19, 2010 3:44 AM

Mr. Green I want to buy your book, I have a p.o. box address is this alright. Please let me know at my e-mail address. Thank-you

Glenn Davis / August 19, 2010 3:47 AM

e-mail is

L.Harry / November 6, 2010 11:42 AM

I am happy to learn that Sam Cooke attributed his success to the art of observation, after I'll search for pictures of the cuisinart griddler that I am thinking about ever since I read a review on a major news website.

Sam Bigby / December 28, 2010 3:13 PM

Just like so many others, I have a love for Sam Cooke that is deep in my heart. When I sing in church, Everybody tells me I sound like Sam Cooke. May be its just what thay won't to hear because WE ALL love him so much. You can go to youtube and see for your self. I'm singing one of his songs in church. (God is so Wonderful)

lester jordan jr / July 2, 2013 8:55 AM

Sam Cooke is the greatest singer ever.To bad we didnt see him in movies. What a entertainer.

Megan / May 1, 2014 2:37 AM

If this doesn't inspire you to vote during elections then ou're lost and confused!

casey grimes / July 9, 2014 2:32 PM

it one thing to be good-looking almost anyone can achieve that,but to be both good-looking and very talented may have been a cross to bear!

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

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