Sam Cooke

 Sam Cooke is back in the spotlight with the release One Night in Miami, a feature film set during in the wake of Cassius Clay’s victory over Sonny Liston. That heavyweight fight brought Cooke together with Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Clay, on the eve of latter becoming Muhammad Ali. There’s more to see of the real-life but seldom-filmed Cooke in an expanded cut of the acclaimed documentary Sam Cooke: Legend being released this week on DVD. PKM’s Benito Vila looked at both films and spoke to Legend director Mary Wharton to reveal what keeps Cooke so current and why his story matters.

There are plenty of reasons Sam Cooke is called “The Architect of Soul”, “The King of Soul”, and, most simply, “Mr. Soul”. His songs brought together gospel, R&B, jazz, blues and doo-wop to create a new cadence, and the way he wrote, the way he sang, the way he performed––and the way he took ownership of his career––led Cooke to be among the first set of artists inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. His selection recognized Cooke’s place among his contemporaries and fellow honorees: Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, Fats Domino, the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley and Little Richard.

With the exception of Buddy Holly and Cooke, that original class had long and storied musical lives. A famous plane crash on tour took Holly in February 1959 and a nearly forgotten late night bullet killed Cooke in December 1964, the morning newspapers reporting he was shot nearly naked in a motel office. It turns out a woman Cooke had brought to that motel ran off with his money and clothes, sending him to the front office enraged, wearing only shoes and a sport coat. His look and hostility frightened the desk clerk and she fired a gun at him at close range, hitting him in the chest, prompting Cooke to say, “Lady, you shot me.” He kept coming towards her and she whacked him across the face with a broomstick. It broke in two and Cooke dropped dead.

Photo courtesy ABKCO Music & Records

No one could have imagined this sort of ending for Cooke. He was one of America’s favorite entertainers, topping the R&B and pop charts and finding fans of all ages. His voice, songwriting and arrangements had produced some of AM radio’s biggest hits––“You Send Me”, “Wonderful World”, “Cupid”, “Bring It on Home” and “Twisting the Night Away”––songs much of America knew all the words to.

“Bring It on Home”-Sam Cooke, live, 1963:

His sense of style led Cooke and his family to Los Angeles’ urbane Los Feliz neighborhood, to an ivy-covered fairy-tale hideaway, complete with a recording studio, a library, a swimming pool, a collection of cars that included a Jaguar XKE and a Ferrari and the elegant home furnishings to match. He was known to be smooth, in-charge and cool, even in dealing with the No-Coloreds-Jim-Crow practices of his day.

As 1959 touring partner Dion DiMucci recalls, “He was a guy I admired. He was a preacher’s kid and I was guy from the Bronx, about 19 or 20 years old, and rough around the edges. I saw him in a lot of weird situations, some very ugly. He was headlining the tour and he couldn’t eat with us in the diners and the restaurants. I heard some things said to him and one time I said to him, ‘Why don’t you throw that guy a right hook.’ He said, ‘Dion, I wouldn’t lower myself to where that guy is. That’s a peculiar way to become a man. If race matters to you, if it’s significant to you, you’re a racist. It doesn’t matter to us; it’s like shoe color, eye color.’”

“Song for Sam Cooke”-Dion (with Paul Simon):

By then, at age 28, Cooke had already been on stage for more than two decades, first as a gospel singer and then as a pop star, and he knew the ins-and-outs of show business and staying out of harm’s way. At six years old, Cooke started singing in Chicago churches with his siblings, took the lead singer role as a teenager, joining a local gospel group known as the Highway Q.C.’s. In 1951, he replaced gospel legend R.H. Harris as the lead singer of the nationally acclaimed Soul Stirrers, leading the group to a level of new success by bringing his voice to traditional songs like “Jesus Gave Me Water” and “Peace in the Valley”.

I heard some things said to him and one time I said to him, ‘Why don’t you throw that guy a right hook.’ He said, ‘Dion, I wouldn’t lower myself to where that guy is. That’s a peculiar way to become a man. If race matters to you, if it’s significant to you, you’re a racist. It doesn’t matter to us; it’s like shoe color, eye color.’”

Over the next few years, Cooke’s appeal to young women, and the Soul Stirrers adding instrumental arrangements to their songs, created an uproar amongst gospel traditionalists. In the summer of 1957, Cooke, tired of dealing with the constraints of gospel culture, moved to Los Angeles, added an e to his last name and launched a solo career. His first release from Keen Records featured George Gershwin’s “Summertime” on the A-side, and his original “You Send Me” on the B-side. By the fall, disk jockeys across the country had played “You Send Me” to number one on both the R&B and pop charts. He was booked on the Ed Sullivan Show and when his first appearance there was cut-off, Cooke was quickly rescheduled and on the return date Ed Sullivan apologized to Sam on-air, adding, “I never received so much mail in my life!”

“(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons”-Sam Cooke on The Ed Sullivan Show:

That first hit opened the way to 29 more Top 40 singles in the next six years. Songs like “Chain Gang”, “Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha”, “Only Sixteen”, “Having a Party”, “Frankie and Johnny”, “It’s All Right” and “Good Times” gained national prominence, while “Another Saturday Night” and “Twisting the Night Away” topped the R&B charts. His success eventually led Cooke to sign with RCA in 1960, where he became the company’s number two seller, trailing only Elvis Presley. His last RCA album, Ain’t That Good News, released in February 1964, was recorded shortly after the drowning of Cooke’s infant son, Vincent. It offers two different musical sides. One showcases the party melodies Cooke was known for and the other features a set of more reflective tracks, including “The Riddle Song”, an Old English ballad, and “A Change is Gonna Come”. The latter was motivated by years of racist treatment, and inspired by Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and by Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind”.

“A Change Is Gonna Come”-Sam Cooke:

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After Cooke’s death, “A Change is Gonna Come” became an anthem of the civil right movement, but due to the complexity of its arrangement, Cooke sang the song live only once, on The Tonight Show, Starring Johnny Carson, on February 7, 1964.

Ain’t That Good News album cover

Nearly six decades later, Cooke is still in the spotlight. His music can still be found on radio and it often pops up in party mixes and on soundtracks. Cooke’s influence on the modern music business is undeniable: he created a working model for future singer/songwriters in negotiating contracts with RCA which secured his song publishing rights and allowed him to develop his own label, SAR Records. At SAR, Cooke signed the gospel-based Womack Brothers, five brothers from Cleveland he’d met while touring, and encouraged them to record more secular music. The Womacks released “It’s All Over Now” on SAR as The Valentinos, the song reaching the Billboard R&B 100 in June 1964, and then became the Rolling Stones’ first number one hit later that summer.

His success eventually led Cooke to sign with RCA in 1960, where he became the company’s number two seller, trailing only Elvis Presley.

The Cooke-as-an-astute-record-mogul storyline plays out in the recent Regina King-directed, Amazon Studios-distributed film One Night in Miami, a fictional account of Malcolm X, Cassius Clay, Jim Brown and Cooke meeting in a hotel room immediately after Clay beat Sonny Liston for the World Heavyweight boxing title in 1964. [The next day Clay would introduce himself as a Muslim, a follower of Elijah Muhammad, and would later change his name to Muhammad Ali]. One Night in Miami portrays Cooke as a kind party-boy, caring for his wife at the posh Fontainbleau Hotel on Miami Beach before the fight and later pulling up to Malcolm X’s Overtown Hampton House Motel in his Ferrari, flask in his guitar case, to join the celebration. Played by Leslie Odom Jr., [a Grammy and Tony winner for his role as Aaron Burr in Hamilton] the Cooke character is sensitive to the criticisms of Malcolm X in his not producing a protest song like “Blowing in the Wind”. Before the film ends, Odom Jr. sings “A Change is Gonna Come”, re-creating Cooke’s The Tonight Show performance for which there is no existing footage. NBC never saved the tape.

Unseen footage of Sam Cooke, and interviews with the people in his life, will become available on April 30th, when ABKCO Films releases an expanded version of Sam Cooke: Legend on DVD. The original 66-minute documentary earned a Grammy in 2003, in the Best Long Form Music Video Category, and features interviews with Aretha Franklin, Lou Rawls, Bobby Womack and Dick Clark. It also gives voice to Cooke’s family, his siblings and his daughter, Linda, who describe his presence and determination. Cooke collaborators Lloyd Price, LeRoy Crume, Jerry Brandt, Luigi Creatore and radio personality Magnificent Montague temper the “good-guy” talk with stories from the road and the studio.

Before the film ends, Odom Jr. sings “A Change is Gonna Come”, re-creating Cooke’s The Tonight Show performance for which there is no existing footage. NBC never saved the tape.

But it’s the music and Cooke himself that stand out. Director Mary Wharton mixes in lesser-known Cooke tracks––like “Lost and Lookin’” and “(Somebody) Ease My Troublin’ Mind”––to convey the power of his voice.

“(Somebody) Ease My Troublin’ Mind”-Sam Cooke:

She also makes use of clips that reveal how hypnotic a performer he was––it’s hard to take your eyes off him. Sam Cooke: Legend was Wharton’s first feature, and her two most recent films, Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President and Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free, capture cultural shifts of the mid-1970s and early-1990s that are easy to overlook. By email, Wharton described the new Legend DVD footage as “painting an even bigger portrait of Sam Cooke”. When we got on the phone, Wharton went right to what made him “the epitome of cool.”

PKM: When do you first remember hearing Sam Cooke?

Mary Wharton: I think I knew his music before I knew his name, from when I was a kid dancing along to “Chain Gang”. His music came into my consciousness before I was old enough to put together, “Oh, this is sung by a man named Sam Cooke.” My father is a musician; he’s well versed in R&B and blues and gospel, and that kind of music was around me as a child. I absorbed it all without really knowing what it was.

“Chain Gang”-Sam Cooke:

PKM: Do you have a favorite Sam Cooke record?

Mary Wharton: I have two. One is Live at Harlem Square. It’s an amazing live recording and it’s hard to find anything from any artist, as a live recording, that can top that record. The other is an album called Night Beat. It has a song called “Lost and Lookin’” that kills me every time I hear it. There’s something so deeply sad about that song, something intense, that I really connect with.

“Lost and Lookin'”-Sam Cooke:

PKM: What made you want to do this film, as your first feature?

Mary Wharton: I had done a lot of television work, mostly at VH-1, where I did a bunch of episodes for a series called Legends. Bill Flanagan, the executive producer of Legends, put this film project together. He was the one who convinced Allen Klein at ABKCO records to make this Sam Cooke film. Bill asked me if I was interested and I leapt at the chance. I knew it would be challenging because there’s not a ton of footage of Sam, but I knew that ABKCO, and Allen Klein in particular, had always been protective of the Sam Cooke legacy. A number of other people had tried to make a documentary about Sam Cooke and had failed.

PKM: Why Sam Cooke for you?

Mary Wharton: One of the things that’s so great about Sam Cooke for me is that I’d connected to his music as a child. It speaks to the simplicity of his music. It’s kind of that keep-it-simple-stupid thing, that the best ideas are the simplest ideas. Sam had this amazing ability to boil things down to their absolute essence and he was able to tell a story in a direct way, with an economy of language. He had this gift as a songwriter that was just so…[Trails off]. I guess I can admit it: I was just a huge fan. Still, I thought it was important to tell Sam’s story because he was so groundbreaking in terms of understanding that he should own his music at a time when no other artists in the music business understood that. The Beatles didn’t own their music at that time. The Beatles weren’t even around when Sam Cooke first started. He didn’t own his music at the beginning, but he figured out that he needed to own his own music. His brother, L.C., told us a story about Sam telling Fats Domino, “Hey man, you’ve got to own your own publishing.” Fats Domino just laughed at Sam. He thought Sam was crazy. Sam accomplished so much in such a short life. There’s always been a certain amount of debate about who was the first artist to really marry gospel rhythms and gospel melodies with secular lyrics. Ray Charles is talked about in that way, and it’s possible that Sam Cooke and Ray Charles were doing it at the same time. There’s an argument to be made that Sam was the first, but either way, Sam was one of a few people who invented a new genre of music and created the mold that so many artists would follow. I’ve always been fascinated in the way that music morphs through time and through history, and how genres blend together and split apart. Sam––he’s like the supernova in R&B. That’s fascinating to me.

PKM: Why do you think so many people failed at making a Sam Cooke feature?

Mary Wharton: Allen Klein was a tough cookie. He had an imposing reputation for being, like, “It’s my way or the highway”. For me, the challenge was to tell the story I wanted to tell without Allen Klein getting me fired. [Chuckles]

PKM: What’s the ABKCO–Sam Cooke connection?

Mary Wharton: Allen Klein was Sam Cooke’s manager. He made a name for himself by being Bobby Darin’s manager and being one of the first artist-management people to go to the record label and demand a proper accounting. The record companies were notoriously shady about their accounting practices and were not necessarily paying their artists the proper royalties that they had earned. Allen went through their books because he had an accounting background, and found all this money that the label owed Bobby Darin. When he met Sam, Sam wanted Allen to do the same thing for him. Sam was like, “I don’t believe that I’ve been paid fairly. I want you to go have a look and see what you can find.” He became Sam’s manager and negotiated a new deal for Sam with RCA. Sam was able to start his own label and after Sam died, Allen wound up being the gatekeeper for all things Sam Cooke. Later on, Allen set up ABKCO, which now controls all of the labels that Sam was a partner in and released his music on. And basically anyone that wanted to license Sam Cooke music or name or likeness or anything like that had to go through ABKCO.

At Keen Records by William Claxton courtesy of ABKCO Music & Records, Inc.

PKM: Did Sam introduce Allen Klein to the Rolling Stones?

Mary Wharton: I don’t think Sam introduced Allen to the Rolling Stones, but I think the Rolling Stones, from my memory of it, wanted to work with Allen because he was Sam Cooke’s manager.

PKM: ABKCO has put out the new movie, One Night In Miami. Have you seen it?

Mary Wharton: I haven’t seen it yet.

PKM: Your film, which I saw before seeing One Night In Miami, has two stories that surprised me. One was how the Stones came to use the Womack Brothers’ “It’s All Over Now” and the other one was how Sam felt that Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” was a song he should have written. Both of those stories materialize in the new movie.

I don’t think Sam introduced Allen to the Rolling Stones, but I think the Rolling Stones, from my memory of it, wanted to work with Allen because he was Sam Cooke’s manager.

Mary Wharton:
Oh, interesting. Very cool.

PKM: How much of the One Night In Miami story is true? The storyline of Jim Brown, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and Sam Cooke coming together.

“The Gang’s All Here”-Sam Cooke & Muhammad Ali (rare and amazing footage):

Mary Wharton: As far as I know, it is true. I don’t think there are photographs of all of them together, but in the footage we used in the film, you see and hear Muhammad Ali call Sam up into the ring after he wins the fight against Sonny Liston. There are photographs of Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X and Sam Cooke together from that night. And Jim Brown was ringside at that fight, I think.

PKM: There’s a scene in your film––one that has a still image, a photograph, at a lunch counter or bar, shot from the side––and in that you can see Malcolm X on one side with a camera around his neck, while Muhammad Ali and Sam Cooke are in the center of the counter facing him. That also plays out in One Night in Miami. There’s a scene where the Malcolm X character is taking pictures of everyone with his new camera in a sort of diner/bar. Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali and Sam Cooke are in the middle of the pictures he takes.

Mary Wharton: I don’t recall what our source of information on all that was, but we had the most amazing writer, Peter Guralnick, who had been researching Sam Cooke for at least five years at the point when we did the film. That probably came through him. He would know for sure.

PKM: How sexy is Sam Cooke?

Mary Wharton: Oh, my God. The guy just exuded sex appeal. As you saw in my film, Andrew Loog Oldham tells the story of watching a woman having an orgasm, standing there, just watching Sam Cooke on stage. [Chuckles] I can’t even imagine what it must have been like for people who got to see him in person and meet him. We licensed a little bit of a Mike Douglas Show where Sam was a guest. To me, old TV talk shows from that era are so great because of the way that it wasn’t just about a star making a promotional appearance, coming on and being interviewed so they could plug their product. It was more like a sort of roundtable, where a random collection of people would be on and have a conversation. In that Mike Douglas footage, Sam is so natural and easygoing and charming.

The Mike Douglas Show, Feb. 11, 1964-Sam Cooke, guest performer:

That’s the best example I can think of of how Sam’s the guy that you want to have around at a party, or to have dinner with. He looks like he could fit into any situation and make it seem totally natural. I find that extraordinary. Sam was just the epitome of cool.

PKM: How is it that Sam Cooke remains relevant today?

Mary Wharton: That’s one of the beautiful things about music: a good song will stick around forever. A lot of the messages in Sam’s music are still relevant. A change is gonna come. You would think it would have come by now, but here we are still dealing with the same issues he was writing and singing about. Musically, the sound of Sam’s music is so timeless. It’s easy to say a song like “Chain Gang” places him in that sock-hop vibe. But at the same time, there’s so much of his music that you could play and you just wouldn’t even know what decade it was recorded in. His voice was that special. There are certain voices––Aretha Franklin is certainly one of them and Sam Cooke is another one of them––they cut right through everything and hit you in your soul. It’s otherworldly. When we were in the edit room, my editor got tired of me saying, “Listen to the way he sounds in this verse. His voice is like an angel. He sounds like an angel.” He’d say back, “What are you talking about? Angels sound like high choir voices.” And I kept saying, “No, this is the voice of an angel.” [Laughs]

courtesy Patti Perret / Amazon Studios


The last chapter of Dream Boogie, Peter Guralnick’s book, reveals the hell set off by Cooke’s death, talk of conspiracy, cover-up, drugs, booze and pimps feeding into the incredulity of a huge 33-year-old pop star being suddenly gone. Cooke’s 30-year-old widow, Barbara, seemed level-headed in asking Allen Klein to drop an official investigation. Guralnick quotes her as saying, “Allen, I have two kids. There are two questions I’d like to ask you. Can you get Sam out of the room with that woman? Can you bring him back? I just don’t want to put my children through this.” But within weeks she was seen escorted by Bobby Womack, Cooke’s 20-year-old guitarist and back-up singer, and within three months the two were married. That set off a storm within the Cook family, with Womack taking a beating when he attended a family wedding in Chicago. Barbara Womack pulled a gun to protect her new husband from her former in-laws, but within five years she was firing it at him when she discovered that Womack had been molesting Linda, who was then a teenager. Dream Boogie closes in 1966 and that discovery is not in the book, nor is the fact that years later, Linda married Bobby’s brother, Cecil, who divorced Mary Wells when he discovered she was having an affair with his other brother, Curtis. Linda and Cecil became the performing and songwriting duo Womack and Womack, and had seven children. As twisted up as that all might be, Guralnick gives Barbara Cooke, one of Sam’s childhood sweethearts, the last word in his book, writing:

there’s so much of his music that you could play and you just wouldn’t even know what decade it was recorded in. His voice was that special. There are certain voices––Aretha Franklin is certainly one of them and Sam Cooke is another one of them––they cut right through everything and hit you in your soul.

“For Barbara, after all the bitterness and recriminations, even today in the midst of her ongoing argument with Sam, it is the beginning that she always returns to, when snowflakes fell like crystals and diamonds as the two of them huddled together in Ellis Park. ‘That was our spot. It was so quiet and serene, with those beautiful lights [shining] on all that clean, soft snow. We’d walk around the park for hours and fantasize. We didn’t have a dime between us, but you’d have thought I was the princess, and he was the prince. Every time a Cadillac went by, I’d say, ‘That’s our chauffeur. He’s coming to take us [home] to our mansion.’ Sam said, ‘You’re my love. I’ll always love you––forever.’ And I believed that till he died. Do you know that’s everybody’s ending? Everybody wants a happy ending. That’s the way I see it’.”

Sam Cooke: Legend-Official trailer:

Mary Wharton by Eva Mueller