After years as the reigning voice in gospel music, Sam Cooke burst onto the pop scene with the 1957 release of his million-selling single, “You Send Me.” The song's innovative blend of Gospel, Pop, and R&B earned him the title of "The Man Who Invented Soul.”
In addition to being an accomplished singer, songwriter and producer, Sam Cooke is remembered as the first artist to take a political stand and refuse to sing to segregated audiences. He also recognized the politics of the music industry early in life. At a time when record labels often left even the most talented and successful artist broke and penniless, Sam Cooke was one of the first artists, black or white, to buck the system and demand ownership of his career. He signed an unprecedented deal with RCA in 1960 after coming to the agreement they let him retain control of the copyrights to his music. Sam Cooke was one of the first artists to capitalize on the crossover appeal of popular music by intentionally recording songs that targeted both the black and white markets. He was the first African-American artist to own a record label, and he established his own management company and music publishing company as well. Even more remarkable, he did all of these things before his 34th birthday.
Overshadowing his photogenic smile and business acumen, however, were Cooke's distinctive tenor and his unique, shivery way of hitting the high notes; this style would later become a trademark of soul singers like Otis Redding and Al Green, but it was something he had perfected ages ago when singing lead in a gospel quartet that sometimes pitched their harmonies too high by habit. It was this borrowing from one African American musical genre to help create another that added to Cooke's achievement, and made his untimely death all the more tragic.
Cooke was born January 22, 1931, in Clarksdale, the heart of Mississippi's Delta country. His father, Charles Cook Sr. (the "e" was added later by his son) was a Pentecostal minister who also worked as a domestic servant. When economic repercussions from the Great Depression worsened the already-hardscrabble life in the Delta region, Charles Cook moved to Chicago and found work there as an assistant pastor, and soon sent for his family.
Cooke began singing in the church choir at age six. By the time he was in his teens, he and his siblings had formed a singing group that was actually earning them pocket money. In high school Cooke began singing with the Highway QCs, a gospel quartet and one of many in his hometown at the time. It was an extremely popular format: the quartets--with their tight vocal harmonies sung a cappella style-- were a near-secular version of gospel music that played to packed church audiences. Cooke's angelic lead voice, combined with his winning smile and onstage charm, made him a star from the start.