A Sam Cooke Playlist

There’s the voice. In its 2008 survey of the greatest singers of all time, Rolling Stone placed Sam Cooke (born January 22, 1931) at number four.

There are the songs. “You Send Me,” “Wonderful World,” “Cupid,” and many others are classics, known to generations. Cooke not only sang these songs; he composed them as well. I think that when you listen to the Sam Cooke playlist below, you’ll recognize a lot more songs of his than you realized.

There’s the business acumen. Cooke was among the first African American entrepreneurs in the music business, starting his own record label, SAR Records, in 1961. Artists signed to the label included Bobby Womack, Johnnie Taylor and Mel Carter. He founded a song publishing imprint. He created a management firm.

There’s the civil rights activist. Cooke took an active role in the civil rights movement. Inspired by Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Cooke composed and recorded “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Released as a single in December 1964, less than two weeks after he was shot to death at age 33, the recording is considered by many to be his finest work and a classic protest song.

There’s the legacy. Sam Cooke was among the charter inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He’s actually in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice – once as a solo artist and once as a member of the gospel group The Soul Stirrers. He’s in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He’s a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winner. He has a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. In addition to his ranking on their Greatest Singers survey, Rolling Stone also placed him at number sixteen on their Greatest Artists of All Time list.

Today’s playlist pays tribute to the great Sam Cooke, with two dozen of his best recordings plus covers of a few of his hits.

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Winston + Sam Cooke

Sam Cooke’s Wonderful World

Winston + Sam Cooke

I started getting into Sam Cooke in 1978. That year, Art Garfunkel had a hit with his version of “Wonderful World,” while Sam Cooke’s original version appeared on the soundtrack to the movie National Lampoon’s Animal House. I was familiar with Cat Stevens’ hit version of “Another Saturday Night” and Dr. Hook’s hit version of “Only Sixteen.” I bought Sam Cooke’s Greatest Hits to hear the original versions of these songs.

Starting his career by singing gospel music, Cooke moved into the secular market in 1956. The Soul Stirrers, the gospel group for which Cooke was singing lead, were signed to Specialty Records. The label’s head, Art Rupe, didn’t like the secular music Cooke was recording, so in 1957 Cooke left for Keen Records, where his first single was the classic “You Send Me.” It went to #1 on the pop and r&b charts. Cashing in on this success, Specialty released a single of one of the Cooke recordings they had in their vault, “I’ll Come Running Back to You.” It also went to #1 on the r&b chart and went top 20 pop.

In 1960 Cooke moved to RCA Records. As Specialty did before them, Keen looked through their vaults to find a Cooke recording to release as a single. They found “Wonderful World.” Like many of his hits, Cooke wrote the song, this one with Lou Adler and Herb Alpert. The composition initially was credited to Barbara Campbell, Cooke’s fiancée, as Cooke was engaged in a dispute with Art Rupe about publishing royalties.

The song wasn’t recorded to be a single. It was done at an impromptu session. Cooke’s regular drummer wasn’t there, so he recruited the sixteen year-old nephew of one of the other musicians to play on the track. Lou Rawls was in the studio with Sam, singing the last word of each line with Cooke in the same mic.

“Wonderful World” became another hit for Cooke on the pop and r&b charts. In all, he had 29 top 40 pop hits and 34 top 40 r&b hits. In addition to singing and writing hit songs, he started SAR Records in 1960, producing recordings for Billy Preston, Bobby Womack and Johnny Taylor, in the process becoming one of the first African-American entrepreneurs in the music business.

Sam Cooke died on December 11, 1964, from a gunshot wound. He was 33.

Today Tunes du Jour remembers the great Sam Cooke on what would have been his 83rd birthday.