Sam Cooke in a recording studio on March 3, 1964. (Michael Ochs Archives )
Pop music has rarely sounded more elegantly silky than when Sam Cooke sang "You Send Me," the dreamily romantic 1957 hit that first put the Chicago singer and songwriter at the top of the national sales chart and primed him for a key role as African Americans started to assert real power in the music business.
That role was cut short when Cooke was shot and killed outside a Watts motel room in December 1964, a sad finale to a life that had been blessed with a remarkable musical gift.
FOR THE RECORD:
Sam Cooke: A review of the documentary "Sam Cooke: Crossing Over" in Monday's Calendar section referred to the singer's shooting death outside a Watts motel room in 1964. The motel was at 9137 S. Figueroa St. in South-Central Los Angeles. —
The circumstances of his life are given more weight than his artistry in "Sam Cooke: Crossing Over," a new one-hour documentary for PBS' "American Masters" series airing tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28 and on Jan. 26 on KOCE-TV Channel 50. Producer-director John Antonelli, co-producer D. Channsin Berry and writer Noland Walker deliver a solid primer on their subject, starting with his upbringing in the Windy City as one of eight children of a Pentecostal minister.
Among those weighing in about Cooke are Smokey Robinson, James Brown, Herb Alpert, Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay), Lou Rawls, Dick Clark, Billy Preston, Bobby Womack, Sam & Dave's Sam Moore, Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler and Mel Carter, as well as Cooke's sister and niece.
The program makes it sound as though Cooke were the first artist to successfully bring the energy and soul of gospel to the pop world, ignoring the huge strides Ray Charles was already making along the same line. It also gives short shrift to the breakthrough that pop-jazz singer Nat King Cole had made hosting his own TV shows in the mid-1950s.
After a serious car accident, Cooke started to look more closely at his life and the world, and from his experience driving through the South came up with the hit single "Chain Gang" about prisoners working on road crews. He also was profoundly influenced by the social commentary of Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind," and a highlight of this "American Masters" piece is the footage of him singing it, trading Dylan's folk arrangement for a rippling R&B groove.
He was so inspired about the role music could play in fomenting social change that he wrote "A Change Is Gonna Come," a song that fit hand in glove with both his efforts to empower himselfand other black musicians by creating his own small music publishing company and the record label SAR Records, and with the unfolding civil rights movement.
The major drama of Cooke's life story is that such nobler aspirations ran in tandem with the earthly temptations that ultimately led to his downfall. The show quickly relates the facts surrounding his death at age 33 -- his meeting with a woman who turned out to be a prostitute and their trek to a motel, where he was shot and killed by the manager after the woman fled with Cooke's pants, and money.
There are film snippets of testimony from the woman and the manager but nothing about the controversy that surrounded the investigation or the myriad theories that have proliferated over the years.
"American Masters" leaves that to the likes of biographer Peter Guralnick, who explored those details in much greater depth in his 2005 biography "Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke."
Absent the deeper examination of an extraordinary talent, we're left with a take on Cooke that's respectable and eminently respectful, but something short of masterful.