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Sam Cooke--our Father Of Soul

February 16, 1986|ROBERT HILBURN

It's been too hard living, but I'm afraid to die. I don't know what's up there beyond the sky. --Sam Cooke, "A Change Is Gonna Come"

Sam Cooke's story is a screenwriter's dream, so it's not surprising that a film is planned. The question is why it's taken more than 20 years for someone to get going on it.

The delay is tied in large part to the timing and circumstances of Cooke's death (he was killed in 1964 in a Los Angeles motel), but also to the strange duality of Cooke's career.

Imagine a painter who spent his days turning out commendable work in the commercial style of the day to keep the casual buyer satisfied, while he devoted his nights to work that would eventually define a whole new school of painting. In many ways, that is what Cooke did in his music.

While he produced crossover pop hits like "Cupid" and "Only Sixteen" for the mass (i.e., white) radio audience, he was playing black clubs in the South, laying the blueprint for modern soul music with a grittier and more distinctive style..

Just when he was beginning to be recognized for his artistry and was about to unveil his soul side for TV and white club audiences, Cooke was shot to death by a motel manager under somewhat sordid and controversial circumstances.

The shooting was ruled self-defense, but Allen Klein, Cooke's manager at the time, objected strenuously to that decision. He launched his own investigation, but Cooke's widow, Barbara, requested that the matter be dropped, and Klein refused for years to discuss Cooke's life with the press.

Explained Klein recently, "I remained silent because the only thing people wanted to write about (in the beginning) was quote--the manner in which he died--unquote, and we didn't want to comment on it because, as Barbara Cooke said at the time, 'Will it bring Sam back?'

"We had undertaken an investigation at the inquest to find out what really happened, but she said, 'Look, I've got two little kids. It's going to be painful for them, why don't we forget it.' So from then until early last year, in deference to Barbara and the children, we decided to say nothing."

In early '84, however, Klein--who later managed the Rolling Stones and Beatles--saw a small theater production in Chicago about Cooke. "It wasn't bad. It got me to thinking. Maybe it was the time to start talking about Sam again. I called Barbara again and she said, 'Look, it has been 22 years, it is enough time.' "

A black man with movie-star good looks, Cooke wrote and/or recorded more Top 40 singles--29--than Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis or Little Richard. In fact, Cooke was responsible for more hits than the three combined.

Still, many pop fans were probably surprised last month when Cooke was one of the first 10 artists to be inducted into the new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Of the 10, Cooke is most certainly the singer least known to contemporary audiences. (There has been so little reporting on Cooke over the years that Rolling Stone magazine, in its recent cover salute to the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, incorrectly said he was born in 1935 (it was 1931) in Illinois (it was Mississippi). Even those who listened to Cooke's string of pop hits in the late '50s and early '60s were no doubt puzzled to see the singer elevated in the Hall of Fame to the level of such consensus rock giants as Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and James Brown.

Sure, Cooke had a lovely voice, with an almost choir-boy purity that was honed during his early days as the lead singer of the highly regarded Soul Stirrers gospel group. And he made some wonderfully appealing records, including "You Send Me," "Another Saturday Night" and "Bring It on Home to Me."

But most of Cooke's hits were tame by early rock standards, and that great voice was frequently surrounded by hokey arrangements. "Everybody Wants to Cha Cha Cha" was as far from the energy and heart of real rock as Elvis' "Do the Clam" and his other flimsy mid-'60s sound-track excursions.

So what's Cooke doing in the Hall of Fame? And what's all this talk about him being the "father of soul music"--the singer that Al Green, Rod Stewart and Smokey Robinson idolize?

The best introduction to Cooke is "Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963."

Though recorded almost two years before Cooke's death, the album was a startling eye-opener when it was released last year. Just as you can almost hear rock being born on Elvis Presley's "Sun Sessions" album (a collection of the material Presley recorded before "Heartbreak Hotel"), Cooke's live album allows you to see his contributions to the passionate and soulful gospel-pop synthesis that was later reflected in the works of such admired vocalists as Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Al Green.

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