My history hero: Sam Cooke (1931–64)

"Sam Cooke's song 'A Change is Gonna Come' became an anthem, but he died too young to see just how big an impact he would make on the music scene and the civil rights movement": Beverley Knight tells York Membery why Sam Cooke is her history hero...

Soul singer Sam Cooke recording in the RCA Studios c1959 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jess Rand/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the October 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Samuel Cook, who performed professionally as Sam Cooke, was an American singer-songwriter and entrepreneur. Dubbed the ‘King of Soul’, and blessed with a distinctive vocal style, he notched up a string of hits with songs including ‘Wonderful World’ and ‘Twistin’ the Night Away’. He also founded a record label and publishing company, and was an influential figure in America’s civil rights movement. He was just 33 when he was shot and killed by a Los Angeles motel manageress, who claimed that she acted in self-defence.

When did you first hear about Cooke?

My parents would play his music in our house every Sunday, without fail – and I might have been only a few years old but I instantly fell in love with him and his music. I can still picture his old 33rpm discs going round on the turntable in our living room, and me being mesmerised. To me, he was just the man who would sing to me every Sunday.

What kind of person was he?

He was a charmer, and I know that Aretha Franklin had a real crush on him. He had a lot of other female admirers, too – but, let’s face it, he was a seriously good-looking man, with a real killer smile! He also had that heavenly voice, was a wonderful songwriter and arranger, and was a consummate performer. But what some people might not know is that he was also a pretty savvy businessman: he had his own publishing company, and set up his own recording label. He was absolutely nobody’s fool.

Why do you consider him a hero?

Firstly, because he was the father of soul – and if we hadn’t had Sam Cooke, we wouldn’t have had Bobby Womack, Marvin Gaye or Otis Redding. But also because he had that voice and idiosyncratic way of singing, and wrote his own songs. He was the first singer I ever heard as a child, though it was really only when I got older that I fully appreciated the impact he’d had on my own music and style of singing. He also wasn’t afraid to take on the music industry and, last but not least, he was a leading light in the civil rights movement. So, for all those reasons, he’s incredibly special to me.

What was Cooke’s finest hour?

In one sense, his song ‘A Change is Gonna Come’, which became a civil rights anthem. In another sense, though, I don’t think he got to see his finest hour – he died too young to see just how big an impact he would make on the music scene and the civil rights movement; nor did he see the revolution in attitudes that was about to transform American society. In his day, a black man just couldn’t eat in the same restaurant as a white man in large parts of the US.

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?

I wish he hadn’t been quite the ladies’ man he was – as much as that was a massive turn-on, in some respects. Had he not been like that, he might still be alive today – he died after an incident following an altercation in a motel with a girl who he alleged had robbed him.

What do you think he might have achieved if he had lived longer?

I think he would have become what Berry Gordy [founder of the Motown record label] became, and gone on to great success with a record label, signing up lots of artistes.

Can you see any parallels between Cooke’s life and your own?

Like him, I started off singing in the church. And like him, I also made the move from singing gospel to soul. So yes, I do see parallels…

If you could meet Sam Cooke, what would you ask him?

I’d probably be very tongue-tied. But if I could get the words out, I’d ask him what drove him to write the way he did, painting those little vignettes in his songs. I’ve always tried to do the same thing, but if I ever wrote a song as good as ‘A Change is Gonna Come’, I’d be a very happy woman!

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Beverley Knight’s album Soulsville is out now on East West Records. She is currently starring in The Bodyguard at the Dominion Theatre, London. Visit beverleyknight.com.