COLUMN ONE : The Soulful Legacy of Sam Cooke : The charismatic minister’s son became a Top 40 sensation who inspired generations of singers. His explosive rise was cut short when he was slain at a motel 30 years ago.
His body was found slumped in the doorway of a sleazy tryst stop, his back resting against a desk--no pants, one shoe--a bullet through his heart. He had gone to the motel in his new red Ferrari with a woman he had picked up in a Hollywood restaurant.
She later told police he had abducted her and tried to rape her before she managed to flee with his trousers. When he broke down the door to the manager’s office searching for her, there was a struggle.
The manager, a 55-year-old woman, fired three shots. And Sam Cooke--the soulful singer poised at 33 to ascend to a level of stardom few black American entertainers had been allowed to reach--lay dead on the floor.
Some who followed his career are convinced that a conspiracy was behind the killing. Others reject such theories but say they will never believe that he would abduct and try to rape a woman. Allan Klein, Cooke’s manager at the time, maintains that the full story has yet to be told.
Whatever the truth, those who knew him say, the singer’s musical legacy is far more significant than the way he died 30 years ago this month.
The shooting stilled a voice whose phrases could fall prettily like a cascade of polished pebbles or well up roughly from an emotional core, seizing the spirit and shaping it to its will.
“Sam was the best singer who ever lived, no contest,” record producer Jerry Wexler once said. Rod Stewart described Cooke’s influence on him as being so profound he spent two years listening only to his music.
Cooke’s musical roots lay in gospel where he rose to the first rank, making a magnificently joyful noise as lead singer of the legendary Soul Stirrers. He was one of the earliest artists to bring gospel influences to pop, producing a seductive sound that appealed across racial lines.
This year alone, James Taylor sang “Everybody Likes to Cha Cha Cha.” Jimmy Buffett cut “Another Saturday Night.” Michael Bolton included “You Send Me” and “Bring It on Home to Me” on his album of classic songs. And Stewart’s version of Cooke’s “Having A Party” became a Top 10 pop hit.
“Sam Cooke’s SAR Records Story,” a double disc of his work with other performers when he was head of his own label, was released to critical acclaim in September.
Upcoming is a long-delayed film on Cooke, Klein said. In February, William Morrow & Co. plans to publish a new biography, “You Send Me,” named for his biggest pop hit. A Cooke blues album will be re-released in the spring.
Some of his lyrics already are staples of popular culture. People who may not know who he was have found themselves idly singing these lines from “Wonderful World”:
Don’t know much about history
Don’t know much biology . . .
In just over six years in pop music, Cooke recorded or wrote 29 Top 40 singles--more than Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard combined. He established SAR, an independent record label in 1959 with J.W. Alexander and S.R. Crain, and launched the careers of artists such as Bobby Womack, Billy Preston and Mel Carter. In 1986, he was one of the first 10 inductees into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
To teen-age girls he was a fantasy made flesh--a charismatic sex symbol whose flashy smile and matinee idol looks were exceptionally easy on the eyes. Just months before he died, he had made a triumphant return to New York’s Copacabana Club, and he had screen-tested for a movie role.
Police investigating Cooke’s shooting “underestimated his stature,” recalled Alexander, his former business partner--some say his right hand. “The head of the 77th Street Division said he didn’t realize Sam was that big until he started getting calls from Europe.”
Cooke’s career in gospel and pop also spanned an era when African Americans found their political voice. Beneath all of that sex appeal lay an evolving political consciousness that began surfacing in his moving civil rights anthem, “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
His younger brother L.C. cannot recall a time when Cooke even considered anything other than singing. When they were growing up in Chicago, Sam once lined up rows of Popsicle sticks, explaining to L.C. that they were his audience.
“I’m singing to them, preparing myself for the future,” L.C. recalled Cooke saying. “I’m never going to work a 9 to 5 job. You can never achieve anything and get ahead working 9 to 5. All you can do is survive from payday to payday.”
L.C. was totally confused.
“I was 7 years old,” he said. “Sam was 9. I didn’t know what he was talking about. My father worked. I was wondering how the hell you make it if you don’t work.”
He chuckled, remembering his brother’s childhood determination: “He never did work 9 to 5.”
Cooke shaped his style in the church--the crucible of black music--singing gospel with two of his four brothers and two of his three sisters in a family group before joining the Soul Stirrers.
“At 18, he was the leading gospel performer in the world,” Klein said.
Still, Cooke was worried that gospel fans would think he “was forsaking them and the Lord” if he went pop, L.C. said. But their father, a minister, sealed the issue. “Sam, the Lord gave you a voice to make people happy,” L.C. recalls his father saying. “Go ahead and sing.”
“You Send Me,” Cooke’s first pop release for Keen Records, soared to No. 1 on the charts in 1957, selling more than a million records. “Man, this is gold,” he told his arranger Rene Hall. “I can write a lot of these things.”
Alexander marveled at Cooke’s facility to spin out hits nonstop.
“He wrote ‘Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha’ at a Christmas party at Lou Rawls’ stepfather’s house,” Alexander said. “He just watched what everybody was doing and wrote the song in a matter of minutes.”
For a man with practically no formal music training, he had a remarkable ear for every element in a recording. Cliff White, who played guitar on practically all of Cooke’s recording and concert dates, recalled that Cooke “heard the whole thing, the music, the background, and how they worked together. He had no regard for the rules and regulations of music. He thought as a performer--not as a musician. He wanted a particular sound. Nothing else would do.”
He had impressive record sales among white audiences. But “if you’ve never seen him live in a black club, then you’re missing something,” Klein said.
“You must make your audience feel what you feel,” Cooke once told an interviewer. “If you have ever attended Baptist services, you’ll know what I mean. You have to stir up the emotions of the congregation and literally lift them from their chairs.”
Through all of the success, he never lost the common touch, said singer Womack, who played guitar in Cooke’s band. Cooke would tell Womack to stop the car when he spotted crapshooters arguing on the street in a tough neighborhood. Cooke would walk over and announce: “I’m in this game. Here, I’m giving you $50, you $50 and you $100 because you got the biggest mouth,” Womack said. “Then he would shoot out, win his money back and get back in the car laughing.”
Womack also recalls watching Cooke’s consciousness change. “I saw him start reading about black history,” Womack said. “He was so into it that he would read in the wings. I wondered what’s in that book because I never wanted to read. He said, ‘Malcolm, man. You gotta read Malcolm.’ ”
At segregated auditoriums in the South, Womack recalled, police would patrol the black side with dogs to keep the youngsters in their seats. But whites were allowed to stand and cheer.
Cooked vowed to stop playing in segregated houses. He told Womack, “If we stop doing this, the other young guys will be afraid not to stop. I’m responsible if I let that (expletive) happen.”
Cooke’s widow, Barbara, who met him when she was 13, recalls how as teen-agers they dreamed of fancy cars and big houses. “We used to imagine those things because that was all we had,” said Cooke, 59. “We had nothing. I told Sam that you have to see the future before you can get there.”
The future was a fairy tale that came true, she said, only to tragically unravel. Memories of Dec. 11, 1964, are still painful for Cooke, who had not publicly discussed her feelings until now.
Her marriage had its share of tension, she said, adding that Cooke was addicted to celebrity and had an “insatiable” need for attention from women. As painful as the circumstances of his death were, she said, she was not surprised because he had devised a strategy to avoid paternity suits by sleeping with prostitutes rather than fans.
“I didn’t accept what he did, but I supported him,” she said.
Detectives pieced together what allegedly happened at the Hacienda Motel--now renamed the Star--on South Figueroa Avenue primarily from the accounts of two women: Lisa Boyer (no relation to this writer), then a 22-year-old described in media reports as a “Eurasian singer,” and Bertha Lee Franklin, the motel manager.
Boyer told investigators and a coroner’s inquest that Cooke had offered her a ride from Martino’s, a celebrity hangout, to the Hollywood motel where she lived.
Rather than take her home, Cooke took her on a high-speed ride through the early morning streets. They wound up at the motel on Figueroa where he registered under his own name and dragged her into the room, she said.
Cooke pinned her to the bed and ripped off her dress, Boyer said. She escaped when he went into the bathroom, scooping up her clothes and inadvertently grabbing his pants. She said she knocked at the manager’s office, got no response, then ran off.
A few doors away, she stopped to dress, then called police from a phone booth.
Meanwhile, Cooke had gone to the manager’s office, demanding to be let in to look for Boyer, Franklin told investigators. When she refused to open the door, he broke it down and began searching the office apartment, she said.
He grabbed her wrists and they struggled to the floor, Franklin said, adding that she managed to grab a .22-caliber pistol from the top of her TV and start shooting.
“Lady, you shot me,” she said Cooke told her before charging her again. She picked up a stick and began hitting him, she said. He fell back against the desk where homicide investigators found him.
The coroner’s inquest determined that the shooting was justifiable homicide.
“Had he called me and told me he was in a hotel without any clothes--to bring him something to wear . . . “ said Barbara Cooke, her voice trailing off. After reflecting for a long moment, she said: “I’m his wife. No matter how it might sound, I would have done that.”
Thousands gathered outside the Los Angeles church where Ray Charles, Lou Rawls and Bobby (Blue) Bland sang at Cooke’s funeral. Even larger crowds converged on the Chicago church where a second service was held.
Just over a month after the shooting, Boyer was arrested in a prostitution raid in Hollywood. Three months later, Barbara Cooke married Womack. They divorced six years later. She has moved to northern Louisiana where she lives in affluence on her share of royalties from Cooke’s songs.
In May, 1967, Franklin was awarded $30,000 in damages from Cooke’s estate for battery.
Cooke’s fans were sure that there was more to their idol’s death than met the eye. The killing was a mob hit, went one theory. He had been killed at a prominent entertainment executive’s mansion and taken to South-Central to avoid a scandal, others theorized. There were also whispers about drugs.
The headline in one Los Angeles weekly newspaper read: “Blackmail Seen As Motive for Sam Cooke Murder.”
A group of black disc jockeys demanded an investigation, and the Los Angeles Herald Dispatch published a front-page satire of the coroner’s inquest--suggesting that the proceeding was racially biased.
Klein, Cooke’s manager, hired private detectives who concluded that the shooting was justifiable. But Klein has never accepted Boyer’s account.
“I was prepared to fight and asked Barbara if she would like me to keep going on it,” Klein said. “She asked: ‘Will it bring him back? Will it get him out of the room with that woman?’ I told her no. She said: ‘I have two children, and I don’t want to put them through this.’ So the investigation was stopped.”
Klein, who later managed the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, said he will reveal his theory of how Cooke was killed in the movie that he plans to produce.
Because Barbara Cooke and Womack married so soon after Cooke’s death, one rumor speculated that they were involved in his killing.
“I certainly didn’t kill him . . . unless it was killing him with love,” Barbara Cooke said. “I married that man to stay with him for the rest of my life.”
Carol Woods, who was once married to Alexander, said persistent talk that Cooke was killed because he had Mafia associations come “from disturbed people. There was no Mafia hit. No threat. No nothing.”
It was difficult for black entertainers to work in clubs without mob connections in the 1960s, she said, “but if Sam worked in a place affiliated with the Mafia, he was received with respect. They did not want to see Sam dirtied.”
There were also those who saw his death as divine retribution for his having left gospel singing, Womack recalled.
Other singers watched Cooke for years, “waiting for something to happen to him,” said Womack, who began his career singing in a family gospel group.
Tragedy had stalked Cooke long before his death. His first wife died in an auto accident. His driver was killed and he was injured in a 1958 accident that left Lou Rawls, who was in the car, in a coma for several days. In 1963, Cooke’s infant son Vincent--one of his three children--drowned in the family pool.
“When Sam was killed, there were those who said: ‘He thought he got away, but God waited on him,’ ” Womack said. “I said, ‘Man, God don’t do people like that--not this kind of God I know. They do it to themselves.’ ”
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