On December 14th, 1964, Sam Cooke’s family was making arrangements for his funeral. It was originally supposed to be held in Los Angeles, but his father said, “I would much rather have them funeralize him here at home in Chicago.” The date of the funeral was set for Thursday, December 17th. When the family first viewed the body, they were shocked at the condition of the corpse. He looked like he had been severely beaten, with bruises on his face, and it even looked like the bones in his hand had been broken. Plus, his hair was so messy that his brother, LC, fixed it up himself.
This was certainly not a fitting end to such a promising life and career. Sam Cooke was, in my opinion, the greatest singer that ever lived. His voice was always velvety smooth, and very versatile. Whether he was singing a gospel classic or a pop hit, he sounded very at ease with his voice…like it was just a natural thing.
Sam grew up in the churches of Chicago, and made his mark as a gospel singer throughout the 1950’s. In 1957, he decided he was going to turn to secular music. Most of his friends said that Sam was so afraid of what his father, the Reverend Charles Cooke, would think of Sam turning his back on gospel music. According to a 1962 tour program, his father told him, “It isn’t what you sing that is so important, but rather the fact that God gave you a good voice to use. He must want you to make people happy by singing, so go ahead and do so.”
Sam started with the small Keen Records label in Los Angeles, then signed with RCA in 1960. The hits kept on coming… “Chain Gang”, “Twistin’ the Night Away,” “Cupid”, “Another Saturday Night” and many others. Along with the hits came fame, money, a beautiful wife, a mansion in California, nice cars for him and his family in Chicago, and nights out on the town.
It wasn’t just the records and touring that made Sam a wealthy man. He also had a keen sense of business, starting his own record company, SAR, and a management company. He had a sharp ear for new talent, not only in the pop market, but he stayed active in the gospel market as well.
Sam also had an eye for women, a characteristic that eventually led to his mysterious death. On Thursday, December 10th, it was business as usual for Sam. He had worked on material for an upcoming show in Miami, then decided he wanted to do some shopping. He left his business partner, Jess Rand, and stopped by the Union Savings Bank to withdraw $5000 from a safety deposit box that he kept there. He stopped his home for a few minutes, then left to meet some friends for dinner. While they were waiting for a table, Cooke had a couple of martinis at the bar and started talking to a friend who had a Eurasian woman with him. When Cooke paid for his drinks, he flashed the wad of cash he was carrying, and went to sit down for dinner. After the appetizer, he excused himself and went back to the bar. When the main course came, one of his friends went to get him, and came back from the bar saying, “He’s talking to some chick out there. He’ll be here in awhile.” When they left, Sam was sitting in a booth at the bar with the woman.
Most people know how the story turns out. Sam took the woman in his Ferrari to a seedy motel in Watts, where she reported that he tried to rape her. While he was in the bathroom, she grabbed her clothes, and most of his clothes, and ran out the door. With Sam’s clothes was most of the $5000 he had withdrawn earlier.
The girl ran to a phone booth to call the police. Sam figured he had been robbed by the girl, so he put on his sport coat and one shoe, which was all that was left in the room, and went to the manager’s office. He figured the woman was hiding in there, so he pounded on the door, demanding to see the girl who had run off with his clothes and money. He finally broke down the door. The shouting frightened the manager, who kept a gun nearby. She shot Sam as he came toward her, his last words being, “Lady, you shot me.” A struggle ensued with what little strength he had left, and the manager ended up hitting him over the head with a piece of wood from the shattered doorframe. He was dead before the police arrived.
Sam Cooke’s voice has often moved me to tears. I’m not sure if it’s because it was so beautiful, or because I always think of the tragic way that he died. Maybe it’s both.