In the 1991 hit film “The Commitments”, the Dublin band’s ambitious impresario Jimmy Rabbitte (portrayed by Robert Arkins) explains to his suspicious proteges that they must play only soul music, because it is simple, basic, and honest:
‘[Soul] sticks its neck out and says it straight from the heart. Sure, there’s a lot of different music you can get off on, but soul is more than that. It takes you somewhere else.‘
The man who played a crucial role in helping to inspire the fictional Jimmy Rabbitte and millions of others through such a powerful musical genre would have been 83 this year, had he not been cut down in his prime. Sam Cooke died fifty years ago today, in circumstances that remain mysterious, but his musical and political legacies are as strong as ever.
Cooke has often been called the King of Soul; indeed, the blurb on one biography even goes as far as to dub him The Man Who Invented Soul Music – though the title has also been bestowed on other artists such as Ray Charles and James Brown. What is beyond dispute is that Cooke was one of the foremost artists in popularizing soul music, particularly among white audiences, in the United States and beyond. It is easy to forget just how revolutionary the new music crazes at this time actually were. Breaking down racial and other barriers was not (and is not), after all, just a matter of passing laws.
The simple, basic, honest, saying-it-straight-from-the-heart criteria that Jimmy Rabbitte claims for soul music can be heard in all of Cooke’s classic works – from touching ballads like “Cupid” and “You Send Me” to stirring dance numbers like “Twistin’ the Night Away” and “Another Saturday Night”.
Sam even recorded Irish songs. contributing classy renditions of “Danny Boy” for his debut album “Songs By Sam Cooke”, and “Galway Bay” for his first RCA album “Cooke’s Tour”. The latter recording is slightly marred by his mispronunciation of “Galway” (he rhymes the first syllable with “pal”), but both are fine examples of his powerfully emotive vocal skills.
Cooke’s music could also have a political edge. His 1960 international hit “Chain Gang” is one of the first examples of a popular musician expressing sympathy with convicted felons. It was another milestone, in that it was the first single that he released on the SAR label – the label that Sam himself co-founded with his manager. He was thus one of the first African-American singers to take charge of his career’s business affairs.
Even more noteworthy, of course, is the song considered by many to be his masterpiece: 1964’s “A Change is Gonna Come”. It is at once a plea for justice and a confident prediction of better times ahead. It was inspired in part by an incident in which he and his band took part in a Civil Rights protest at Shreveport, Louisiana, the previous year. They called a whites-only hotel to book a room, and were assured that it was available – before turning up to the lobby of the hotel in question, and thereupon being informed that all the rooms had been taken. When the band inevitably protested, they were arrested by the police on a charge of breaching the peace.
Cooke was certainly active in the Civil Rights movement. He refused to perform to segregated audiences, and also to travel on segregated transport. In an interview he gave in 1960 to the “New York Journal” he stated:
‘I have always detested people of any color, religion or nationality who have lacked courage to stand up and be counted.‘
Stand up and be counted Cooke most certainly did, and in so many ways throughout his career. The extent to which he got on the American establishment’s nerves has fuelled ongoing speculation about the truth of his violent death. The official coroner’s verdict after he was fatally shot in the Hacienda Motel in Los Angeles in the early hours of 11 December 1964 was one of “justifiable homicide”: according to the evidence heard at the inquest Cooke, who had been drinking that night, had apparently tried to rape a girl he’d picked up at an Italian restaurant. When she had managed to get away from the motel room with most of his clothes he then roughly confronted the desk clerk as to the girl’s whereabouts – who then shot him and hit him over the head with a broom handle in self-defence after they had grappled in her office. As far as LA officialdom was concerned, the Case was Closed.
Not everybody, however, was prepared to accept that the Case was Closed – then or now. The coroner’s inquest in LA certainly seemed like a rushed affair to many: Lydia Hutchinson of performingsongwriter.com has called it ‘a hasty proceeding that barely allowed Sam’s lawyer one question‘, while biographer Daniel Wolff describes the official story as being ‘full of gaps, contradictions and unlikelihoods‘ and that ‘[t]he jury bought the portrait of a rampaging, drunken Negro [sic] without needing any further explanation.‘ Singer Etta James, who viewed the body at his home before the funeral, was another one unprepared to buy the official version of events. In her autobiography she described Sam’s death as “brutal murder”, and wrote that the injuries on his face and hands were so severe that ‘[n]o woman with a broomstick could have inflicted that kind of beating against a strong, full-grown man.‘
As Hutchinson notes, ‘with most of the principle [sic] players dead and gone‘ it is unlikely that the full story of exactly what happened at the Hacienda Motel fifty years ago will ever be known. Whatever the truth of Sam Cooke’s shocking demise, though, his music remains immortal and inspiring to many. His artistic background on entering a recording career in the 1950s was one of gospel music, but the words from his 1964 magnum opus – in one of the last recordings that he ever made – are powerful and timeless enough to touch a chord with all listeners, whether religious or not:
‘It’s been too hard living,
And I’m afraid to die,
‘Cos I don’t know what’s up there
Beyond the sky.
It’s been a long, long time coming,
But I know a change is gonna come.‘
Based in Birmingham, Dan is a journalist, broadcaster and actor.