If really, truly forced to pick my favorite singer of all time under penalty of castration or death or something, I suppose I would pick Sam Cooke (not that I have any hesitancy about Cooke, I just hate to be pinned down). His floating, creamy, earthy, stirring soulful marvelousness is the magical sweet spot on a continuum between Nat King Cole and Otis Redding.
Cooke began singing in his father’s Baptist church and became gospel’s biggest star of the ’50s, yet he was restless.
Soon after joining the Specialty label as A&R man and producer, Bumps Blackwell attended a rousing gospel show at the L.A.’s Shrine Auditorium starring Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers.
“My initial impression was ‘This cat should be pop’ … That was just too much voice to be in such a limited market,” Blackwell told author Daniel Wolff in his biography of Cooke. Blackwell met Cooke at a party that Specialty owner Art Rupe threw after the show and discussed a turn to pop. Cooke was afraid of losing his religious market.
Bumps prodded Cooke along economic lines, and eventually he responded. “I wanted to do things for my family, and I wanted nice things for my own,” Cooke reasoned. “Making a living was good enough, but what’s wrong with doing better than that?”
Blackwell produced Cooke’s first pop session (as Dale Cook) at J&M studio in New Orleans in December 1956, the same studio and players that Bumps had used to record Little Richard, but the results were less felicitous and the resulting single died.
Blackwell, who was black, knew what he wanted for Cooke. “We would like pop tunes with a blues chord structure which lend themselves to blues backgrounds. In writing the lyrics try to write white for the teenage purchaser rather than race lyrics,” Blackwell advised. “It seems the white girls are buying records these days.”
Blackwell intended to break Cooke directly into the mainstream pop market, instead of following the traditional route through R&B. He tried this approach at Cooke’s next pop session in L.A. in 1957.
“With Sam, being that his voice was so fluid and much different than the other singers – and he sang so far off the melody, which was like a jazz singer – I had to get the melody of the song back in. So, I had [white vocal trio] the Pied Pipers on the melody. I used them like a string concept.”
Rupe, who was white, was suspicious of the move to pop and wanted things heavier and less “white.” Cooke threatened to quit. Rupe blamed his A&R man for Cooke’s turn to pop, and it’s always easier to fire the manager than a player, so Rupe fired Blackwell instead.
Somehow the session continued and “You Send Me” was recorded. The simple, lilting melody, dreamy arrangement, and Cooke’s buttery, soulful vocals made “You Send Me” an instant classic. Bumps admitted that the song sounded kind of dumb to him at the time.
The argument resumed a week later as the men negotiated Blackwell’s departure from the label. As the discussion turned ugly, they accused each other of not having ears for a hit. Rupe made Bumps an offer.
“Just forget what you got coming in royalties with Little Richard, and you take Sam. And you can have the masters.” Bumps figured it was a $50,000 gamble. The divorce was signed June 17.
Bumps had been negotiating with a brand new label, Keen, since May. Along with Sam Cooke, whom he also managed, Bumps brought the gospel group Pilgrim Travelers and their young lead singer Lou Rawls with him to Keen.
Keen released “Summertime/You Send Me” in September 1957. “You Send Me” was an immediate hit at Dolphins Record shop, the R&B record shop in L.A. Next, sales took off in Chicago, Cooke’s hometown. Casey Kasem helped break the song in Detroit. It rose to No. 3 in two weeks, hit No. 1 and eventually sold
1.7 million copies.
Blackwell then got carried away with Cooke’s crossover potential. He had the singer record a collection of insipid ballads for his first album, and perform literally in tails for a disastrous Copacabana appearance with a full orchestra. After that, and an appearance at the first integrated show at the Southeastern Fairgrounds in Atlanta, Cooke made a decision.
“When the whites are through with Sammy Davis Jr., he won’t have anywhere to play. I’ll always be able to go back to my people cause I’m never gonna stop singing to them,” Wolff quotes Cooke.
Cooke stopped straightening his hair and returned to the black nightclub circuit. Ironically, as his social consciousness became more black, Cooke became convinced that the only way for him to make it to the next level was to have a white manager. He had been stewing since the Copa affair, and in the fall of 1959, Cooke and Blackwell went to a restaurant in Santa Barbara where Cooke broke the news. They shook hands and departed as gentlemen.
The famed production team of cousins Hugo (Peretti) and Luigi (Creatore) took over and brought Cooke to RCA, where together they had twelve Top 20 hits, including indispensable classics “Chain Gang,” “Cupid,” “Twistin’ the Night Away,” “Bring It On Home To Me” and “Another Saturday Night.”
Their initial meeting at RCA in New York was a bit itchy – Cooke was used to working with a black producer and pretty much calling the shots – but when Cooke’s voice cracked on the first run-through of a song, Creatore announced “Shit, they sent us the wrong guy,” cracking everyone up and breaking the ice.
Attitude is everything according to Creatore, “Our career is based on somebody else’s talent. The thing is to get it out of them, and to get it out of them you have to be friendly. You gotta show them you’re on their side; your only purpose in life is to make a hit for them. We were good friends with Sam and he was a magical talent. For the most part, he would write songs and we would pick the ones to record.”
Their first hit together was “Chain Gang,” an oddly cheerful song given the topic, with grunting “ooh, aah” background vocals, spare electric guitar, the soul that was Sam Cooke, and some odd percussion. After casting about the studio for an extended period of time, Cooke found the rhythmic oomph he was looking for, when, according to Wolff, one percussionist pounded on his leather stool seat and another beat the base of a mic stand with a piece of hollow metal, both in time with the grunter’s “ooh’s and aah’s.”
“Cupid” is floating butterfly perfection with just the right orchestration (especially the French horn) from Hugo and Luigi, the sonic and psychic opposite of the equally great southern grit of the bluesy “Bring It On Home To Me” (with Lou Rawls’ bottomy dueting).
Cooke was tragically shot and killed in December of 1964 by a motel manager in Los Angeles under suspicious circumstances.