It's one of pop music's great tragedies that silken-voiced soul singer Sam Cooke, a steadfast civil-rights campaigner and composer of some of the era's best love songs, died in a seedy motel with three bullets in his chest. To this day, his 1964 death at 33 remains clouded by controversy -- the motel manager who fired the gun claimed she was defending a woman Cooke had attacked.
Cooke's legacy will be celebrated by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this week at A Change Is Gonna Come: The Life and Music of Sam Cooke, part of the annual American Music Masters Series. Highlights include a conference, parties around town, and a closing-night concert Sunday at the State Theatre, featuring Elvis Costello, Aretha Franklin, and Solomon Burke, among others.
"Sam Cooke, with Ray Charles, was the foundation for gospel-based southern soul," says Peter Guralnick, author of the new book Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke and leader of Saturday's all-day conference at Case Western Reserve. "His ambition was so broad. He had a sense of black pride long before it became fashionable."
Cooke's influence can be heard in everyone from Kanye West disciple John Legend to Rod Stewart, who so wanted to be Cooke early on that he covered, nearly note-for-note, many of the soul man's classics, including "Twistin' the Night Away" and "Having a Party." "His music continues to have impact and reach people," says Guralnick. "He believed that every song should have a refrain that hit home for people."
Not surprisingly, both Dream Boogie and Saturday's conference go heavy on Cooke's social significance, but Guralnick is quick to reiterate the program's prime focus: "He inspired so much in mainstream music. He was a highly individuated person. There's no particular category that he falls into."