Sam Cooke at 80

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Tomorrow would have been Sam Cooke’s 80th birthday. Remembering him is not as easy as it should be, simply because there are so many different Sam Cookes to remember. First, the teenager who took the gospel world by storm, then the young man who shocked the gospel world by moving to Keen Records to cut a string of teen hits, later the ambitious pop vocalist who worked with Hugo and Luigi at RCA. He tried acting, was a successful songwriter, and founded SAR Records in 1961 to provide an opportunity for African-American artists.

Near the end of his life, he wrote the classic A Change is Gonna Come, perhaps indicating a change in direction for his own ambitions as well. He recorded the song in December of 1963, less than a month after the JFK assassination and less than a year before the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The country was on the cusp of some big changes, and perhaps Sam Cooke’s music would have grown to include and even affect those changes.

He died, of course, before we got a chance to find any of that out, and one of the most tragic aspects of his death was how its circumstances overshadowed, for a time at least, some of the beauty of his music. No more.

Like so many white folks who grew up in the ’50s and ’60s, my first acquaintance with Sam Cooke’s music was hearing the hits: songs like You Send Me, Cupid, and Wonderful World built him a huge audience of mostly white teenagers, but never engaged even a small part of his great talent. I never realized how great he was until I discovered his early work with the Soul Stirrers, and the purity of his voice touched my soul from first note to last. Here is Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers singing The Last Mile of the Way. Sound quality, not so good; soul quality, off the charts. Please enjoy.

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