If you don’t know who Sam Cooke is, I almost don’t want to tell you. Or maybe it’s more like I can’t. Whatever I would try to say wouldn’t be enough.
I can say this: Music is, in many ways, my religion. And even though my first instinct after typing that is to qualify it because it must be some sort of exaggeration, after a few seconds I realize it’s not. Music–more importantly, my music–has informed my worldview, it has informed my values, and, it remains, my spiritual community.
Sam Cooke is one of the gods of my religion. In a pantheon of many gods, he is the sweetest. That position is framed by his multiple significances: his timing; his role in creating popular music; his beautiful voice; his political commitments; and his tragic story.
I can’t tell you what you need to know (to feel) about Sam Cooke. But I can share five of his best songs with you.
5. “Chain Gang” (1960)
One of his biggest chart hits, this song has so much going on. There is a soul and R&B foundation, where the gospel elements are clear, but so is the material need for salvation that is part of that genre. The workmen chorus part of the song is, I think, key to its success.
4. “(What a) Wonderful World” (1960)
A lovely pop hit, clearly intentionally crafted for a teen audience. And yet how far it rises above that commercial project! Few artists can do that. Sam Cooke almost always did.
3. “Cupid” (1961)
The arrangements on this song have always fascinated me. They seem to bring together the various genres that were popular at the time, for both blacks and whites as well as youth and adults. The rhythm of the guitar and drums also have a very characteristic sound that would form the base of many hits throughout the decade.
2. “You Send Me” (1957)
This song is one of the greatest songs ever written and recorded. It’s that simple.
1. “A Change Gonna Come” (1964)
As the story goes, Sam Cooke wrote this song after he heard Bob Dylan’s “Blowing’ in the Wind,” a song he heard as addressing the changing tide of race relations in the US. Cooke’s explicitly racially-conscious song is one of the greatest songs of the 20th century. From the heart-wrenching string arrangements, to the brass and percussion sections that are musically suggestive of a marching and emergence, there is a flawless background to his beautiful lyrics and stellar vocal performance. The song was recorded in 1963, but released as a single in ’64, just after Cooke’s untimely death. It’s proceeds went to Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.