A Soul Stirrer’s Eternal Flame
Writer/Author Erik Greene, Great Nephew of Sam Cooke,
Responds to Our Time Press Article
First of all, I commend you for the article you wrote last week on Sam. Our Time Press seems to be a quality source of information, and I imagine you have a strong following.
Secondly, thanks for bringing light to Sam and the upcoming “Crossing Over” documentary. My book is cited in the credits and I had actually filmed a couple of segments for the piece, but my mom’s testimony was so compelling that the director ran extra footage of her and I ended up on the cutting room floor! I was proud of her performance and supported his decision 100%.
I noticed you referenced Peter Guralnick’s Dream Boogie. For the record, I wasn’t pleased with the dark nature in which he portrayed Sam. Think about the stark difference in the tone of his book vs. Etta James’ summation of Sam. Etta knew Sam personally; Guralnick got most of his information from Allen Klein at ABKCO Records, the company who controls the rights to most of Sam’s hits. Klein only knew Sam professionally, and even then only for the last year and a half of his life.
Best of luck to you and your publication in the future!
Author, Our Uncle Sam
Sam Cooke: LEGEND in SOUL
by Erik Greene
Exclusive to Our Time Press
It was November of 2002. I had just returned from a life-changing weekend in Atlanta, having attended the “Premier Tribute to Mr. Sam Cooke.” I left there filled with a sense of pride and fellowship, but I also knew I had a task to complete. I left Atlanta on a mission.
The “Tribute” was the culmination of Sam’s fans from around the world, fans who decided to meet face-to-face after chatting the previous few years on a Yahoo! message board. Sam’s youngest sister, my great-aunt Agnes, found out about the Tribute and a dozen or so family members joined the die-hard “Cookies,” some of whom came from as far as England and Canada to attend.
Until then, I was vaguely familiar with my uncle’s fame throughout the 50’s and 60’s. Stories of Sam came up regularly at family gatherings, and my mom played his music religiously as I was growing up. But it wasn’t until that Atlanta get-together did I understand how his music had touched lives around the world, and how “relevant” he still was even decades after his death. The knowledge shared between people who studied every aspect of Sam’s life from a distance and family who knew him intimately was profound. I knew my Uncle Sam was a wonderful singer and songwriter, but I had no idea how dynamic a person he really was. A fan club member from California suggested “a book from the family would be a wonderful gift.” Something inside compelled me to carry Sam’s torch.
Once I returned to Chicago, I sat down with members of my family who grew up around and lived with Sam-from his brothers and sister, to his children, nieces, and nephews-and I got a sense of just how incredible a person Sam Cooke really was. He gained his no-nonsense attitude from his father and my great-grandfather, the late Rev. Charles Cook, Sr., “Papa”, as he was affectionately called, didn’t take no mess, and Sam lived his life in much the same way. A lot of Sam’s monumental accomplishments were a result of the strong-willed spirit he inherited from Papa. Sam’s older brother Charles often said “You didn’t tell Sam what to do, and you damn sure didn’t tell him what he couldn’t do!”
Talking intimately with my family helped me get an appreciation of how routinely Sam Cooke broke down barriers in his 33 years of life. He first defied the odds at the tender age of 19 by becoming lead singer of the Soul Stirrers, the most popular gospel group of the day. From there, he made what could’ve been a career-ending move by relinquishing his throne as the marquee name in gospel music to venture into Pop-seen by many Bible-thumpers at the time as the “devil’s music.” Sam stumbled briefly out of the gate, but he landed on his feet in short order, selling 1.7 million records with his smash hit “You Send Me” in 1957. His gospel undertones bled through on the R&B single, creating what is widely recognized as the first “Soul” song. “You Send Me” reached #1 on both the Pop and R&B charts because Sam intentionally targeted the song for black and white audiences. Music had historically been divided along racial lines, but Sam saw that the line was becoming more and more blurred, and he struck at the opportune time.
Sam’s time with the Soul Stirrers also honed his business sense. The hard knocks of the music industry taught him that it was the record label owners who made the real money, mainly through ownership of their artists’ music publishing. In March of 1959, Sam incorporated SAR Records with the help of some of his old gospel partners, becoming the first black artist to own a record label. He had been told no other black artist had pulled off such a feat to which he responded, “I guess I’ll just have to be the first.” Sam Cooke recognized the talents of Bobby Womack and Billy Preston, signing both on SAR Records as teenagers. He signed ex-Soul Stirrer Johnnie Taylor on SAR as well.
In January of 1960, when Sam was looking for a new record company, he held steadfast to the demand he control ownership of his publishing rights. It was unheard of for an artist, especially an artist of color, to make such a demand. But RCA had only one Pop star in Elvis Presley, and they gave in to Sam’s unique request. Sam didn’t know it at the time, but his forward-thinking actions would empower artists’ royalty negotiations for generations to come.
Sam became a bigger star on RCA as an artist, arranger, producer and songwriter (in all, he wrote 25 of his 34 Top 40 R&B hits). His success as an artist, along with his lucrative publishing agreement and profitable record label, brought attention from unscrupulous figures who wanted a piece of the action. Sam more than once directed these characters to a certain part of his anatomy, but their threats became more frequent and more pronounced. In late 1963, Sam unofficially took on his accountant Allen Klein as manager. Klein had the reputation of being a hard-nosed negotiator who had the juice to keep the underworld characters off of Sam’s back, but it turned out to be a move Sam would regret.
In December of 1964, Sam Cooke was shot dead in a motel room in a seedy section of Los Angeles. The official story said he tried to take advantage of a woman who was a known Hollywood prostitute and the motel’s manager ended up shooting Sam in self-defense. The story was full of inconsistencies and actions that defied human logic, many of which I talk about in the biography written from my family’s perspective, Our Uncle Sam.
The pressure Sam Cooke was under was tremendous. Besides the threats, he discovered in his final days that the holding company for his businesses was actually incorporated in Allen Klein’s name. Klein’s ABKCO Records still holds the publishing rights for most of Cooke’s hit songs, and his brothers and sisters have never received direct royalties from his music sales-a fact that violated Sam’s vision of economic independence for his family. Cooke had begun establishing an empire built with his own grit, will.and talent, and his murder took from us one of the greatest pioneers of the 20th century.
Even still, the music he left behind has withstood the test of time. Sam Cooke’s is a story worth being told in its truth and its entirety, and his legacy is one worthy of recognition.
Erik Greene, based in Chicago, is the grandson of Sam’s oldest sister, Mary. His biography, Our Uncle Sam: The Sam Cooke Story From His Family’s Perspective, can be found on his www.OurUncleSam.com Website.
Publisher’s Note: Sam Cooke (January 22, 1931 – December 11, 1964) put the indomitable spirit of the Black Church into popular music, creating a new American sound and setting into motion a chain of events that forever altered the course of popular music and race relations in America.
This young gospel performer embraced secular music and almost singlehandedly proved with his pop/gospel hybrid, that it was, indeed, possible to win over the entire world and keep his faithful church followers intact. In 1957, Mr. Cooke became the first African American artist to reach #1 on both the R&B and the Pop charts. But he was a legend before then.
Narrated by Danny Glover, American Masters Sam Cooke: Crossing Over, a documentary exploration of the man and his music, premiers nationally this Monday, January 11, 2010 at 9:00 PM, ET on PBS (check local listings). We recommend it!
Erik Greene, the grandson of Cooke’s oldest sister, sends a message to Our Time Press readers, and in it, reveals that for his family, Mr. Cooke’s life-song has not ended. The melody lingers on.