Early life and career
Cooke was born Samuel Cook in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in 1931. In 1957 he added an "e" at the end of his name to signify a new start to his life. He was the fifth of eight children of the Rev. Charles Cook, a minister in the Church of Christ (Holiness), and his wife, Annie Mae. One of his younger brothers, L.C. (1932–2017), later became a member of the doo-wop band Johnny Keyes and the Magnificents.
The family moved to Chicago in 1933. Cooke attended Doolittle Elementary and Wendell Phillips Academy High School in Chicago, the same school that Nat "King" Cole had attended a few years earlier. Sam Cooke began his career with his siblings in a group called the Singing Children when he was six years old. He first became known as lead singer with the Highway QC's when he was a teenager, having joined the group at the age of 14. During this time, Cooke befriended fellow gospel singer and neighbor Lou Rawls, who sang in a rival gospel group.
The Soul Stirrers
In 1950, Cooke replaced gospel tenor R. H. Harris as lead singer of the gospel group the Soul Stirrers, founded by Harris, who had signed with Specialty Records on behalf of the group. Their first recording under Cooke's leadership was the song "Jesus Gave Me Water" in 1951. They also recorded the gospel songs "Peace in the Valley", "How Far Am I from Canaan?", "Jesus Paid the Debt" and "One More River", among many others, some of which he wrote. Cooke was often credited for bringing gospel music to the attention of a younger crowd of listeners, mainly girls who would rush to the stage when the Soul Stirrers hit the stage just to get a glimpse of Cooke.
Crossover pop success
Cooke had 30 U.S. top 40 hits between 1957 and 1964, plus three more posthumously. Major hits like "You Send Me", "A Change Is Gonna Come", "Cupid", "Chain Gang", "Wonderful World", "Another Saturday Night", and "Twistin' the Night Away" are some of his most popular songs. Twistin' the Night Away was one of his biggest selling albums. Cooke was also among the first modern black performers and composers to attend to the business side of his musical career. He founded both a record label and a publishing company as an extension of his careers as a singer and composer. He also took an active part in the Civil Rights Movement.
Cooke in Billboard
His first pop/soul single was "Lovable" (1956), a remake of the gospel song "Wonderful". It was released under the alias "Dale Cook" in order not to alienate his gospel fan base; there was a considerable stigma against gospel singers performing secular music. However, it fooled no one—Cooke's unique and distinctive vocals were easily recognized. Art Rupe, head of Specialty Records, the label of the Soul Stirrers, gave his blessing for Cooke to record secular music under his real name, but he was unhappy about the type of music Cooke and producer Bumps Blackwell were making. Rupe expected Cooke's secular music to be similar to that of another Specialty Records artist, Little Richard. When Rupe walked in on a recording session and heard Cooke covering Gershwin, he was quite upset. After an argument between Rupe and Blackwell, Cooke and Blackwell left the label.
In 1957, Cooke appeared on ABC's The Guy Mitchell Show. That same year, he signed with Keen Records. His first hit, "You Send Me," released as the B-side of "Summertime," spent six weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard R&B chart. The song also had mainstream success, spending three weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard pop chart.
In 1961, Cooke started his own record label, SAR Records, with J. W. Alexander and his manager, Roy Crain. The label soon included the Simms Twins, the Valentinos (who were Bobby Womack and his brothers), Bobby Womack and Johnnie Taylor. Cooke then created a publishing imprint and management firm named Kags before leaving Keen to sign with RCA Victor. One of his first RCA Victor singles was "Chain Gang", which reached No. 2 on the Billboard pop chart. It was followed by more hits, including "Sad Mood", "Cupid", "Bring it on Home to Me" (with Lou Rawls on backing vocals), "Another Saturday Night", and "Twistin' the Night Away".
Like most R&B artists of his time, Cooke focused on singles; in all, he had 29 top 40 hits on the pop charts and more on the R&B charts. He was a prolific songwriter and wrote most of the songs he recorded. He also had a hand in overseeing some of the song arrangements. In spite of releasing mostly singles, he released a well-received blues-inflected LP in 1963, Night Beat, and his most critically acclaimed studio album, Ain't That Good News, which featured five singles, in 1964.
In 1963 Cooke signed a five-year contract for Allen Klein to manage Kags Music and SAR Records and made him his manager. Klein negotiated a five-year deal (three years plus two option years) with RCA Victor in which a holding company, Tracey, Ltd, named after Cooke's daughter, owned by Klein and managed by J. W. Alexander, would produce and own Cooke's recordings. RCA Victor would get exclusive distribution rights in exchange for 6 percent royalty payments and payments for the recording sessions. For tax reasons, Cooke would receive preferred stock in Tracey instead of an initial cash advance of $100,000. Cooke would receive cash advances of $100,000 for the next two years, followed by an additional $75,000 for each of the two option years if the deal went to term.