A soulful tribute to Sam Cooke

Associated Press

More than 40 years after his violent death, Sam Cooke is still known as the legendary soul and gospel singer who penned “A Change Is Gonna Come,” which found a new audience with the election of America’s first black president.

But Cooke’s brother, L.C. Cooke, says the late singer should also be known for his pioneering business acumen that put him years ahead of his time in the music industry.

Cooke was among the first black performers to own the rights to his music and to form his own recording and publishing company. That’s what L.C. Cooke will remind fans about when he attends a Mississippi music festival this weekend dedicated to the 1950s and ‘60s singer.

“If they look at it, Sam was first in everything,” L.C. Cooke said in a telephone interview from his home in Chicago. “All his masters belong to Sam, and that was unheard of. He was Motown before Motown was even invented.”


The Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival begins Friday in Clarksdale, a sleepy town in the impoverished Delta region -- the musical breeding ground that produced the likes of B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters.

During the weekend-long tribute, a blues marker in Cooke’s honor will be unveiled Friday at the New Roxy Theater. At Ground Zero, a blues club owned by actor and Mississippi native Morgan Freeman, a forum on Cooke’s life will be held Saturday.

The son of a Baptist minister, Cooke began his writing and recording career with the “Soul Stirrers” in 1951, making albums at Specialty Records.

After six years, he made the leap to secular music with a sound that melded blues and gospel. He co-founded his own record label, SAR Records, in 1961, signing such artists as Bobby Womack, Johnnie Taylor and Billy Preston.

At age 33, Cooke was shot to death on Dec. 11, 1964, at a motel in Los Angeles.

An abbreviated life and the circumstances surrounding his death have not diminished his legacy. Last year, Rolling Stone ranked Cooke No. 4 on its list of the 100 greatest singers of all time, and he’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.