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Sam Cooke & the Launch of his Career in Pine Bluff

Legendary soul artist Sam Cooke got his start performing with the Soul Stirrers in Pine Bluff.

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Samuel Cook was born on January 22, 1931 in Clarksdale, Mississippi to Baptist minister Reverend Charles Cook and Annie Mae Cook. He was the fifth of eight children. In 1933, Cook’s family moved to Chicago, Illinois. Cook found his voice while singing in the choir at his father’s church. At six years old, he began his singing career by performing with his siblings in a group called the Singing Children.

In 1945, Cook became the lead singer of a teenage quintet called the Highway QCs. During this time, his singing style mirrored the Soul Stirrers, a popular gospel group of which Cook was a huge fan. 

In 1950, Cook got the chance of  a lifetime when Roy Crain, the Soul Stirrers manager, handpicked him to replace lead singer R.H. Harris. After a single rehearsal with the group and a dress rehearsal at his old high school, the Soul Stirrers brought Cook to Pine Bluff, Arkansas in early December for his first performance at either the Pine Bluff  Singing Center or the Merrill High School Gym, according to an interview by Jimmy Cunningham, Jr. with the late Ruth Rice. The Soul Stirrers were booked alongside other top gospel acts like the Fairfield Four, the Pilgrim Travelers, and the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, all known for “bringing the house down.” After Cook finished his first performance, he had neither impressed his competitors or embarrassed his bandmates, but had won over the audience. During intermission, Cook was surrounded by the new fans his good looks, perfect pitch, and effortless charm had won over. Soon after the Soul Stirrers reformed their identity around Cook, and wrote new songs. From 1952 to 1956, the Soul Stirrers were at the height of their success with Cook at the helm. 

During this time the Soul Stirrers were signed to Specialty Records where they recorded hits like “Jesus Gave Me Water”, “Peace in the Valley”, “How Far Am I from Canaan?”, Jesus Paid the Debt”, and “One More River”, some of which Cook wrote. 

In 1957,Cook recorded his first secular single “Lovable” under the pseudonym “Dale Cooke” in an effort not to alienate his gospel fanbase. Cook’s pseudonym fooled no one because his distinctive voice and style were instantly recognizable. Cook disappeared for a few months then added an e to his last name to signal his commitment to beginning anew as a secular music artist. At the end of the year, he released his first number one hit, a love song entitled “You Send Me.” A song fans loved so much it replaced Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock” at the top of the pop charts. Between 1957 and 1964, he topped the charts with hits like, “Cupid”, “Chain Gang”, “Wonderful World”, “Another Saturday Night”, and “Twistin’ the Night Away.” Cooke penned many of these hits himself. In addition to his talents as a singer and songwriter, Cooke was also a shrewd businessman. In 1959, he established his own publishing company to ensure he had control of his music rights. In 1960, he negotiated an impressive contract with RCA where he was offered $100,000 advance, equivalent to $1,036,304.05 today. The deal also ensured that Cooke owned his master recordings after 30 years. In 1961, he started his own record label, SAR Records, alongside his manager, Roy Crain and record producer J. W. Alexander. Cooke helped to mentor and develop artists like Billy Preston, Mel Carter, Johnnie Taylor, the Simms Twins, and his protege Bobby Womack. 

From 1953 to 1958, Cook was married to singer-dancer Dolores Elizabeth Milligan Cook, whose stage name "Dee Dee Mohawk.” In 1958, he married Barbara Campbell in Chicago. They had three children together, Linda, Tracy, and Vincent, who drowned in the family swimming pool at 18 months in 1963. 

Cooke was a central part of the Civil Rights Movement, using his influence and popularity with Black and White fans to help the cause. He campaigned for racial equality alongside his friends Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, and Jim Brown.

On December 11, 1964, Cooke was killed after sustaining a gunshot wound to the chest at the Hacienda Motel at 91st in South Central Los Angeles. After having an altercation with Elisa Boyer whom he met earlier that evening Cooke ended up in the motel's office. He reportedly clashed with the motel's manager, and the manager shot Cooke. The manager claimed that it was inflicted in self-defense and Cooke’s death was later ruled justifiable homicide. Cooke’s death remains shrouded in mystery as there were conflicting details in both women’s stories, and no one knows for certain what transpired the night of Cooke’s death. 20,000 fans showed up at Cooke’s first funeral in Chicago, while Ray Charles and Bessie Franklin performed at his star-studded funeral in California. 

In 1965, Cooke’s record company released the song “A Change Is Gonna Come", a protest song often regarded as his greatest composition. Cooke left behind a prolific musical legacy influencing artists like Curtis Mayfield, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Al Greene, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, and Bobby Womack. Cooke was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 and was a 1999 recipient of the Grammy Award for lifetime achievement.


Kempton, A. (2005). Boogaloo: The Quintessence of American Popular Music. United States: University of Michigan Press. pgs. 79-83. 

Guralnick, P. (2014). Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke. United States: Little, Brown. pg. 68. 

Written by: Ninfa O. Barnard

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