Sam Cooke had it all. He was a teen idol whose pop records had sold in the millions. Vegas and Hollywood were beating a path to his door. But in the small hours of Dec. 11, 1964, a casual tryst brought his dazzling career, and his life, to an abrupt end.
Earlier that night, the married singer had checked into a cheap L.A. motel with a 22-year-old woman he had picked up at a restaurant. When his companion panicked—she later alleged he was trying to rape her—and ran from their room, Cooke went looking for her. Dressed only in a jacket and shoes, he was in such a mad rage that he broke down the door of the motel manager’s office. Fearing for her own safety, the manager shot Cooke three times, then beat him with a stick after he lunged at her. The 33-year-old singer’s last words: ”Lady, you shot me.” Less than a week later, the shooting was ruled a ”justifiable homicide.”
Cooke’s lurid death contrasted with the clean-cut image of the popular performer, who had started out as a gospel singer. As one of the Soul Stirrers from 1951-57, the Mississippi-born Cooke thrilled church audiences with his expressive tenor and good looks. Persuaded to abandon gospel for pop, he topped the charts in 1957 with ”You Send Me.”
Over the next eight years, Cooke had 16 top 20 singles—which sold a total of some 20 million copies—including 1960’s ”Chain Gang” and 1962’s ”Twistin’ the Night Away.” As a songwriter and vocal stylist, he fused gospel, blues, and pop in a synthesis that became known as soul music—and influenced the likes of Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, and Rod Stewart. He set a new style in business as well: Unlike most black performers at the time, Cooke, with partner J.W. Alexander, had his own publishing and management companies and even created a label to record other black artists.
Since his death, Cooke’s stature has only grown. In 1986 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and posthumous releases round out his recording career: A live 1963 performance at the Harlem Square Club in Miami reveals a gutsier talent than his pop hits allow, while newly remastered CDs by the Soul Stirrers show the full glory of his voice.
”Man, I got a big ego,” Cooke once said. ”I want to reach all the people. I think I got something to tell them all.” And he did. Sadly, though, there was much more he didn’t get to tell.