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.

Instead of the soft, homogenized nature of the semi-novelty hits associated with his pop side, there is all the sensual heat, rich self-confidence and gritty humor of Cooke’s soul experience. Side 2, which includes the bluesy “Somebody Have Mercy” and the landmark “Bring It on Home to Me,” is one of the most joyful celebrations of original artistic vision that you can find on record.

Gregg Geller, an RCA artists-and-repertoire executive who spearheaded the Cooke revitalization campaign for the label, has been a Cooke fan for years, but said the “Harlem Square” was even an “eye-opener” for him.

“My first impression of Sam Cooke was through ‘You Send Me,’ and it just sounded like one of the most romantic things this 10-year-old had ever heard,” Geller said, smiling now at his early enthusiasm for the record.

“But I don’t think Cooke was as appreciated in the white community that knew him only by the pop records as he was in the black music world where he also was known for his gospel music and for his live shows.

“In my case, I had never been exposed to that (intense, soulful) side of Sam Cooke until I heard the ‘Harlem Square’ album. All of a sudden you are hearing an artist you felt you were familiar were and you’re hearing him in a whole different light and it was amazing.”


Still, the “Harlem Square” album tells only part of Cooke’s musical story.

RCA’s just-released “Sam Cooke: The Man and His Music” is an essential step two that both underscores Cooke’s gifts as a gospel singer and his stature as a songwriter. Cooke had as playful a sense of rhyme as Chuck Berry, and an uncommonly strong feel for putting complex emotions into simple, eloquent Everyman terms.

About the new collection, Geller added, “In focusing on his body of work and how it evolved, you see how Sam Cooke--along with Ray Charles and Jackie Wilson--was inventing something new . . . soul music. And he wasn’t just singing these songs, he was writing them . . . going from gospel music to pop music to his own music.”

Born in 1931, Cooke was one of seven children of a Chicago-based minister. While still in his teens, Cooke joined the Highway QC’s gospel group, doing so well he was invited in 1950 to join the more famous Soul Stirrers, who recorded for Speciality, an L.A.-based label whose roster included both gospel and pop-rock artists (among the latter: Little Richard and Larry Williams).

Bumps Blackwell, a record producer and songwriter, saw the impact this handsome young man had on audiences and he started imagining Cooke’s potential as a pop star. Blackwell cut some pop sides with Cooke, though Speciality owner Art Rupe objected to the move from gospel.

So, Blackwell and Cooke took the pop selections to another company, Keen Records, which released “You Send Me” in September, 1957. The record went to No. 1 on Dec. 2, wrestling Elvis’ “Jailhouse Rock” from the top spot.

“You Send Me” was such a sensation that Cooke was booked onto the Ed Sullivan TV show and into the classy Copacabana nightclub in New York City, but the engagement--according to Allen Klein--was such a bomb that Cooke turned his back on the white club world and even TV for years.

“Sam was just destroyed at the Copa,” Klein said. “He just was not prepared. He tried to go in with this ‘white’ act . . . with a cane and top hat, doing songs like ‘Mona Lisa’ and ‘Hey There.’ Remember, the only pop songs he had at the time were ‘You Send Me’ and ‘For Sentimental Reasons.’ ”


About the same time, one of Cooke’s best friend was killed in one car accident, and his first wife died in another.

Continued Klein, “With this tragedy, the rejection from the white clubs and financial frustrations with Keen Records, Sam just withdrew. That’s why you’ll find from ’59 on, he just played Henry Wynn’s chitlin’ circuit with people like Jackie Wilson and James Brown. He continued to make records, but he often didn’t even do most of those songs in the shows. It was two different worlds.”

Klein first met Cooke at an R&B; show in Philadelphia early in 1963. By this time, Cooke had moved to RCA, where he had begun a string of hits that included “Chain Gang”--a veiled piece of social commentary--and “Cupid.” He wa also putting more of his soulful side into his recordings and mapping a campaign to increase his visibility in the pop world.

“When he had the rejection from the white audience, he just stayed away,” Klein added. “All you heard were his songs. You didn’t see his picture and for a long time Sam didn’t care. But then he went to England in 1962 with Little Richard and it was like culture shock. The audiences were 90% white and they knew him and they loved him. It was like a rejuvenation.”

Klein worked out a new contract with RCA that gave Cooke total control over his recordings. Shortly after, Cooke recorded “Nightbeat,” a blues-oriented album that remains a favorite of Klein’s and may be re-released later this year by RCA. That same period also produced some of Cooke’s most substantial recordings, including the soul-focused “Ain’t That Good News,” “Shake” and “That’s Where It’s At.”

However, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” a posthumous hit, remains his most compelling tune. A statement of immense ambition and heart, the song’s prayer-like expression of longing for a better time was ideally suited to the civil rights currents in the land.


Said Klein, “When Sam did ‘The Tonight Show’ in 1964, he sang ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ because he was mindful of what was occuring in the country. If you listen to the (live) Copa album, you’ll also see there is a section devoted to social protest . . . ‘If I Had a Hammer,’ ‘Blowin in the Wind.’ . . . He loved ‘Blowin’ in the Wind.’ ”

That Copa album--which is also scheduled to be reissued by RCA--was recorded during a triumphant return in June of 1964 to the room where he had once failed. “Sam had bad memories of the Copa and he was scared to go back,” Klein recalled.

“But I took him there to see Nat Cole and he saw things were different from what he remembered. Sam was a smash and we booked him on TV and booked him into Vegas and into Miami. He even did a screen test for 20th Century. All these things coming to fruition. . . . The world was catching up with Sam Cooke and his music. Everything was in place. . . .”

Klein stopped in the narration--almost as suddenly as he must have the morning in December of 1964 that he got the news. Sam Cooke was dead at 33.

“The thousands and thousands of people--almost all black--who turned out to his funerals in Chicago and L.A. were a tribute to the impact and love that Sam generated among the black audience,” Klein recalled.

“But Sam, because he had been out of sight for so long, still hadn’t fully connected with the pop audience, who knew his songs--which were being redone by all the English acts--and his records, but didn’t realize they were all coming from this one man.”

“For a while, the rest of the world just seemed to forget about Sam Cooke. The people who made it real for me--and made me realize I wasn’t crazy thinking Sam was such (a great) talent--were the English acts . . . the Stones, the Beatles, the Animals. I mean, Lennon loved Sam Cooke. . . . They all were doing his songs.”


The circumstances of Cooke’s death are still cloudy, but there is agreement on the fact that Cooke was at the motel with a woman and was shot by the motel manager during a struggle.

Klein’s version--which is based on his own investigation--will be outlined in the film, which is still being researched. He expects to produce the film himself and begin principal photography next year.

“It’s not going to be just the Sam Cooke story,” Klein insisted. “That would be interesting, but I really want to do a movie of the period, sort of like ‘The Cotton Club’ of the middle ‘50s and early ‘60s. . . . The unbuttoned reality of Sam Cooke and every other R&B; singer.”

Lou Adler, who was later instrumental in the careers of the Mamas and the Papas and Carole King, and Herb Alpert, the recording artist and co-owner of A&M; Records, are among those gratified by the attention Cooke is getting once more.

“He was a great, great, great artist and it’s wonderful to see him get his due,” said Alpert, who, like Adler, worked as apprentice artists and repertoire men at Keen. “I remember he used to come in with lyrics in a loose-leaf folder that looked a little suspicious, like they’d never work in a song . . . things like ‘The Cokes are in the ice box . . . let’s have a party.’ But when he picked up his guitar and played, it was like a whole other piece of music because of his timing and the melody he put to it . . . the silence between the notes. He was a genius in the studio.”

Added Adler, who shared an apartment with Cooke for several months while they were both at Keen, “I think it’s a bit misleading to say Sam spent all that time avoiding television and white clubs. In those days, they were avoiding black artists. He had to battle against the realities of the business in those days.


About Cooke, Adler continued, “Sam was neither black nor white . . . the warmest human being I’ve ever met. If you walked into a room and spoke to him, he was someone you immediately liked and admired. In a way, his voice was an extension of that. You heard that voice and you felt you knew him.”


A list of Sam Cooke’s Top 20 singles , including the year the record entered Billboard magazine’s sales chart and the highest position achieved on the chart:

“You Send Me” 1957 1 “I’ll Come Running Back to You” 1957 18 “For Sentimental Reasons” 1958 17 “Wonderful World” 1960 12 “Chain Gang” 1960 2 “Cupid” 1961 17 “Twistin’ the Night Away” 1962 9 “Having a Party” 1962 17 “Bring It on Home to Me” 1962 13 “Nothing Can Change This Love” 1962 12 “Send Me Some Lovin’ ” 1963 13 “Another Saturday Night” 1963 10 “Frankie and Johnny” 1963 14 “Little Red Rooster” 1963 11 “Good News” 1964 11 “Good Times” 1964 11 “Shake” 1965 7