- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 24, 2002

AUSTIN, Texas — When Sam Cooke heard "Blowin' in the Wind" by Bob Dylan in summer 1963, it was as if a whole new world of expression opened up. Mr. Cooke not only heard sweet poetry in the call for deliverance from struggle, he foresaw a shuffling of the status quo. The era of the individual was on the way.

There was only one drawback: He believed "Blowin' in the Wind" should have been written by a black American. A proud man in a segregated society, who had recently been arrested for trying to check into a "whites only" motel in Shreveport, La., Mr. Cooke thought he should have written "Blowin' in the Wind."

So he sat down to pen his own anthem of the times.

"I was born by the river, in a little tent/And just like the river I've been running ever since," he wrote, hearing a symphony in his mind.

"It's been a long time comin' but I know a change is gonna come." He knew that when he sang those words, he would stretch and emphasize "lo-o-o-ng" with his velvety vibrato.

"A Change Is Gonna Come," included on "Keep On Movin'" (ABKCO), a Sam Cooke release of tracks recorded in the last year of his life, went on to become a civil rights standard. Used in the opening scene of the recent "Ali" biopic, the song traced a growth in artistic vision for a singer who brought gospel spirit to the mainstream with such hits as "You Send Me," "Wonderful World," "Chain Gang," "Cupid" and "Twistin' the Night Away."

In summer 1963, Mr. Cooke, already the first R&B singer to write and publish his own hits, ached to make music that reflected the new day. The preacher's son, who was born in Mississippi and grew up in Chicago, was going to the mountaintop with his songs.

But then unspeakable tragedy came, first when his only son, 18-month-old Vincent, drowned in the family swimming pool in July 1963. Mr. Cooke told friends that he didn't want to go on living, and he buried himself in his work. At the end of the next year, the 33-year-old singer would also be dead, half-naked and bleeding on the floor of a $3-a-night motel lobby in Los Angeles. "Lady, you shot me," were his last words.


• • •

Mr. Cooke wanted to be the perfect person, according to his former manager Allen Klein. "He wanted to reach any group. He wanted to sing it any way. He wanted to be everything," Mr. Klein said in the recent "VH1 Legends" episode devoted to the first gospel superstar to switch to the R&B/pop field.

"He never lost the black audience, even after he'd crossed over to pop," says rock historian Peter Guralnick, who is researching a Cooke bio in his trademark exhaustive style. "His records always did as well, if not better, on the R&B charts."

He hated failure, and the one time that happened in his career, when his unrehearsed attempt at supper club soul bombed with the Myron Cohen crowd at the Copacabana, Mr. Cooke became obsessed with having a triumphant return. He went into training like his friend Muhammad Ali, who, as Cassius Clay, had the singer in the ring with him after he "shook up the world" by beating Sonny Liston in 1964. When Mr. Cooke headlined the Copa a few months later, his show was a knockout.

• • •

As a child, he stuck Popsicle sticks in the ground and sang to them, telling his brother he was learning how to perform in front of an audience. He vowed way back then to never have a job, but to be a singer instead. This drive spilled over, no, drenched, the business side.

"No artist back in the '50s had any idea what publishing mechanicals meant," singer Lloyd Price ("Lawdy Miss Clawdy") told VH1. "Whether or not you had a Cadillac and a silk suit to us that was royalties and payment."

Calling Mr. Cooke a pioneer, Dick Clark said, "He knew the business long before he was supposed to."

With former Pilgrim Travelers manager J.W. Alexander and S.R. Crain of the Soul Stirrers, Mr. Cooke established SAR Records in 1959. Though he was an RCA recording artist, he produced albums for SAR, including releases by Johnnie Taylor and R.H. Harris and the Gospel Paraders.

It's conceivable that if he didn't die in 1964, Mr. Cooke (who would have turned 71 Tuesday) could have been completely autonomous writing, producing, arranging, publishing and releasing all his music by the late 1960s.

"There's just no telling how far Sam Cooke would've gone," Mr. Guralnick says. "He was a genius at transforming individual experiences into universal themes."

With "Keep Movin' On," which contains several rarities and two never-before-released tracks, you can hear traces of a forward-facing Mr. Cooke, from the opening banjo riff on "Good News" to the "Do you like good music?" call and response of "Yeah man," which would be duplicated three years later on Arthur Conley's "Sweet Soul Music."

There was a mini-Cooke revival in the '70s when Rod Stewart and Southside Johnny both adopted Cooke numbers "Twistin' the Night Away" and "Havin' a Party," respectively, as their signature encore numbers.

Then in the late-'80s, critics rediscovered "the man who invented soul" with the reissue of 1963's scintillating "Live at the Harlem Square Club."

But appreciation of Mr. Cooke has only been a trickle compared with the nostalgic flood of worship for Buddy Holly, John Lennon, Hank Williams and other greats who passed before their time.

The story of Sam Cooke (to be played by Denzel Washington, just watch) is not one of the man who had it all and lost it all on one miserably stupid night.

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