Songs of Freedom: the Selma playlist

Songs of Freedom: the <em>Selma</em> playlist

Watching Ava DuVernay’s film Selma which takes as its subject the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches brought back memories of how, as a teenager growing up in a Cheshire village at the time, the Civil Rights Movement and the music associated with it played a key part in the awakening of my political consciousness.  Reading or hearing on the radio about the marchers, their dignity and bravery, and the murders and brutality inflicted upon black Americans in the South, had a deeply radicalising effect on me.

The anthems sung by the likes of Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Joan Baez, and the electrifying assertions of black pride from soul artists such as Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke just added to the intensity of my feelings. And it wasn’t just me, of course; in the way of these things, the ideas and methods seeded in the civil rights movement spread on the wind – to the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, to South Africa, and to student activists throughout the world. Continue reading “Songs of Freedom: the Selma playlist”

A Change Is Gonna Come: 50 years after its release, black Americans still can’t breathe

A Change Is Gonna Come: 50 years after its release, black Americans still can’t breathe

Sam Cooke

Fifty years ago today, on 22 December 1964, Sam Cooke’s iconic ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ was released as a single. The song had been recorded in February 1964, and included on Cooke’s album Ain’t That Good News released a few months later. Perhaps more than any other song of its time, ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ now seems the quintessential song evoking the era of civil rights protest.

The Selma to Montgomery Civil Rights March 1965

The Selma to Montgomery Civil Rights March 1965

But, Cooke’s biographer Peter Guralnick has told of how, as well as being inspired by the political context of the times, the song also emerged from two specific experiences. One was Cooke hearing Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowing in the Wind’ and being both inspired by its ability to encapsulate America’s problem with racism, and frustrated that it should have been a white American who had composed the song. The second was an incident in late 1963 when Cooke and his bandmates had tried to check into a hotel in Shreveport, Louisiana and been refused – because they were black. Guralnick says:

He just went off. And became obstreperous to the point where his wife, Barbara, said, ‘Sam, we’d better get out of here. They’re going to kill you.’ And he says, ‘They’re not gonna kill me; I’m Sam Cooke.’ To which his wife said, ‘No, to them you’re just another …’ you know.

Cooke was arrested and jailed, along with several of his entourage, for disturbing the peace. ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ was written sometime in the next month, before being recorded in February 1964.  After the session, writes Guralnick, Cooke played the song for Bobby Womack:

When he first played it for Bobby Womack, who was his protégé, he said, ‘What’s it sound like?’ And Bobby said, ‘It sounds like death.’ Sam said, ‘Man, that’s kind of how it sounds like to me. That’s why I’m never going to play it in public.’ And Bobby sort of rethought it and said, ‘Well, it’s not like death, but it sounds kind of spooky.

You could call it that. When ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ was finally released as a single, it was eleven days after Cooke had been shot and killed at a Los Angeles motel, in what was later ruled a justifiable homicide.

The song wasn’t a big hit at the time, but it became an anthem of the Civil Rights movement and remains an enduring symbol of that era, an enduring cry of protest against injustice and inequality in a country that is still – as seen this year – wracked with both.

‘Each verse is a different movement: The strings have their movement, the horns have their movement. The timpani carries the bridge. It was like a movie score. He wanted it to have a grandeur to it,’ says Guralnick.  He says that ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ has become a universal message of hope, one that does not age:

Generation after generation has heard the promise of it. It continues to be a song of enormous impact,” he says. “We all feel in some way or another that a change is gonna come, and he found that lyric. It was the kind of hook that he always looked for: The phrase that was both familiar but was striking enough that it would have its own originality. And that makes it almost endlessly adaptable to whatever goal, whatever movement is of the moment.

It is, as Manjula Martin writes in an essay on the Aeon website, both prayer and warning.

Crowds rally in New York City over Eric Garner indictment verdict

Crowds protest in New York City after the failure to indict in the case Eric Garner 

In A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race and the Soul of America, Craig Werner wrote:

The song expresses the soul of the freedom movement as clearly and powerfully as  Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.  The opening measures verge on melodrama: a searching French horn rises over a lush swell of symphonic strings accompanied by tympani.  But Cooke brings it back to earth, bearing witness to the restlessness that keeps him moving like the muddy river bordering the Delta where he was born.  Maintaining his belief in something up there beyond the sky, Cooke draws sustenance from his gospel roots.  He testifies that its been a long, long time – the second ‘long’ carries all the weight of a bone-deep gospel weariness.  Then he sings the midnight back toward dawn.  The hard-won hope that comes through in the way he uses his signature ‘whoa-whoa-whoa’ to emphasize the word ‘know’ in the climactic line – ‘I know that a change gonna come’ – feels as real as anything America has ever been able to imagine.

Peter Guralnick:

He grabbed it out of the air and it came to him whole, despite the fact that in many ways it’s probably the most complex song that he wrote. It was both singular – in the sense that you started out, ‘I was born by the river’ – but it also told the story both of a generation and of a people.

Fifty years later, following the non-indictments in the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, both unarmed black men killed by white police officers, Cooke’s lyrics remain stirringly relevant to the systematic problems faced by black Americans. According to the NAACP, police have killed at least 76 black men and women since 1999, 14 of them in 2014 alone. Racialized violence is still an institutionalized problem.

'I Can't Breathe',  Eric Garner's plea becomes a rallying cry for justice 'I Can't Breathe',  Eric Garner's plea becomes a rallying cry for justice 2

‘I Can’t Breathe’,  Eric Garner’s plea becomes a rallying cry for justice

Cooke sang of how black men and women were harassed for everyday activities:

I go to the movie and I go down town
Somebody keep telling me don’t hang around

Cooke sang of a climate of distrust – still there in a society where 70% of black Americans believe the country is doing a ‘poor’ job holding police officers accountable when misconduct occurs. That same 70% also believes the police forces are doing a ‘poor’ job treating ethnic groups equally.

Then I go to my brother
And I say, “Brother, help me please.”
But he winds up knockin’ me
Back down on my knees

Michael Brown's father holds a sign in protest of his son's killing

A few days ago, in the Guardian, Syreeta McFadden wrote:

It pains me that, in 2014, in America, we have to publicly affirm that black lives matter. And yet, in 2014, we’ve seen so many examples of when they didn’t.

In July … video quickly spread of Officer Daniel Pantaleo choking Garner to death on 17 July. The NYPD banned the manoeuvre in 1993, in the aftermath of the 1991 death of Federico Pereira. … I was miles away from Ferguson, Missouri, when I saw a photo of a grieved father with his handmade sign immediately after his stepson, Michael Brown, was killed by now-former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson and his body was left in the street for over four hours on 9 August. Months later, on 23 November, Cleveland police shot and killed 12 year old Tamir Rice within seconds of spotting him in a park. They waited four minutes before administering, or allowing anyone to administer, first aid to him. And there were others besides: John Crawford. Darrien Hunt. Vonderrit Myers. Yvette Smith. Pearlie Golden. The year blurs as we track the deaths of unarmed black civilians from police violence, whether they were captured on video or not.

Sam Cooke: A Change Is Gonna Come

Ferguson and Michael Brown: A Change Is Gonna Come

33 Revolutions: Dorian Lynskey’s homage to songs of protest

33 Revolutions: Dorian Lynskey’s homage to songs of protest

Billie Holiday

When I picked up Dorian Lynskey’s 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs I expected short essays on 33 selected songs.  What you get is a massive tome, clocking in at around 800 pages, that uses 33 songs – from Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ in 1939 to Green Day’s’ American Idiot’ in 2004 – as triggers for something more ambitious: nothing less than a social, political and cultural history of the times in which the song was born.

Lynskey is a music writer for the Guardian, whose name first came to my attention when he used to edit the weekly Readers Recommend playlist columns in that paper.  He makes a good job of weaving the stories of the songs into their wider historical and cultural contexts.  I thought I had read all there was to know about about the songs of protest that came out of the struggle for black civil rights in America or the movement against the Vietnam war, but Lynskey’s early chapters covering that period are engrossing, insightful and well-written.

33 Revolutions cover

With a book like this, you can always cite omissions; Lynskey covers his back somewhat by complementing the 33 chosen songs with a phenomenal 30-page appendix listing other songs mentioned in the text – plus another list of 100 songs not mentioned.  manna from heaven for list fanatics and playlist-compilers like me!  But you can still question Lynskey’s decision to begin his survey with ‘Strange Fruit’, first sung by Holiday in 1939. So much came before. Lynskey argues that prior to ‘Strange Fruit’ protest songs ‘had nothing to do with mainstream popular music’ but ‘were designed for specific audiences — picket lines, folk schools, party meetings’.  Well, ‘Strange Fruit’ wasn’t exactly mainstream popular music, and what about (just off the top off my head) ‘How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times’ (1929) or Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime’ (1932) which, sung by Bing Crosby was about as mainstream as you can get?

Although Lynskey’s account of the development of black American music from the 1960s onwards is excellent – demonstrating how contrasts and contradictions in the music mirrored the emerging gulf between the non-violent tradition of the civil rights movement and more militant black power activism – he is strangely silent for the most part about the significant current of protest in the blues, a music which catered to a mass audience, even if it wasn’t mainstream.  Before Lynskey’s cut-off date this would give you, for example, Lead Belly’s ‘Bourgeois Blues’, Louis Armstrong singing Fats Waller’s ‘What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue?’ or Big Bill Broonzy’s ‘Black, Brown and White’, a song he’d been singing to black American audiences for years, but which every record company he had ever sung it for had turned down, finally being recorded on a trip to Paris in 1951.

This little song that I’m singin’ about
People you know it’s true
If you’re black and gotta work for a living
This is what they will say to you
They says if you was white, should be all right
If you was brown, stick around
But as you’s black, m-mm brother, git back git back git back

Nevertheless, Lynskey does a good job within his chosen period, covering often well-trodden ground in a fresh and engaging way.  The 33 chapters are organised into five sections, the early ones dealing with distinct and familiar issues: racial discrimination (‘Strange Fruit’, Nina Simone’s ‘Mississippi Goddam’, James Brown’s ‘Say It Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud’, Gil Scott-Heron’s ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’), poverty (Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land is Your Land’), war (Dylan’s ‘Masters of War’, Country Joe’s ‘Fixin’ To Die’, Plastic Ono Band’s ‘Give Peace a Chance’, Edwin Starr’s ‘War’, and Neil Young’s ‘Ohio’).

Lynskey has largely restricted his survey to American and British examples, though there are workmanlike chapters on Chile (Victor Jara), Nigeria (Fela Kuti) and Jamaican music. There’s nothing from anywhere else: whether the rest of Europe, Africa or the Arab world.  To a degree, I think that’s OK – after all, the book is already 800 pages long!

Where I felt the book began to lose its impetus was in its coverage of the period after the 1980s.  This may partly reflect my own age, experience and musical interests, though I think there are two additional factors.  One is that the later chapters seem to focus less on outstanding songs and more on the scene; they tend to become lists of artists and songs.  The other issue is whether there was, in fact, a golden age of protest songs that ended, say, with punk.

Indeed, Lynskey finished the first edition in 2010 with a rather wistful epilogue, in which he wrote:

I began this book intending to write a history of a still vital form of music. I finished by wondering if I had instead composed a eulogy.

In the 2012 paperback edition he’s qualified that sentiment somewhat, writing:

We have to concede that the era of the mainstream protest song, when it was such a natural part of the pop conversation that even the biggest artists in the world felt moved to write one or two, is over.  Protest music no longer has a clear and undeniable presence…

As he observes, this has a great deal to do with decline in traditional forms of political engagement that inspired the protest songs of the past, as well as the atomisation of music genres, listening habits and means of acquiring music. Despite this, he concludes his new epilogue by reminding us that ‘Pop music, like history, has a habit of springing surprises’.  Maybe it’s worth adding words spoken by Pete Seeger some sixty years ago:

We need thousands of new songs these days: humour, to poke fun at some of the damn foolishness going on in the world; songs of love and faith in mankind and the future; songs to needle our consciences and stir our indignation and anger.

Dorian Lynskey comes from a later generation than either Seeger or me: he was ten when Holly Johnson’s Frankie Goes to Hollywood released ‘Two Tribes’, a song that tapped into fears in the Thatcher-Reagan era of nuclear war. This may account for the attention that Lynskey (quite rightly) gives to Frankie’s disco hit, whose power was enormously enhanced by its accompanying video.

Exhilarated by the record, Lynskey began tuning in to the news and politics, the stuff Holly Johnson was singing about: evidence that though protest songs may not bring about immediate change, they have the habit of seeping into a listener’s consciousness, incubating political and social attitudes for a lifetime.  From my own experience, I can vouch for that. I doubt there were many more significant factors determining my own politics than the anthems of the civil rights movement or Dylan’s early protest songs: they shaped my political consciousness, while later protest songs merely confirmed my views.

Dylan is the touchstone, still: if you ask most people, ‘Off the top of your head, name a protest singer’, most would probably answer, ‘Bob Dylan’.  But as Lynskey points out, all his protest songs were written in less than two years; after that, with a couple of (perhaps ill-chosen) exceptions he’s avoided the genre like the plague. But, man, was he good at it! Discussing ‘Masters of War’, Lynskey observes that the song’s ‘naked contempt’ sets it apart from the ‘sweet reason’ of folk at the time. As Dylan explained decades later, ‘It’s not an anti-war song. It’s speaking against what Eisenhower was calling a military-industrial complex.’ For Lynskey, ‘Masters of War’ is ‘the most evil-sounding protest song Dylan ever recorded’.

‘You’ – yew – he sneers at the warmongers, bringing to bear all of his poisonous rage, ‘you ain’t worth the blood that runs in your veins.’ In the final verse, Dylan tracks his quarry’s coffin to its resting place and stands over it ’till I’m sure that you’re dead’. You imagine that he might clamber down into the grave, crack open the casket and give the corpse a good kick just to be sure. He turns the topic of the military-industrial complex into an ancient horror story in which a wrongdoer is pursued by a vengeful spirit. It is also a form of generational warfare. … He admits he is young, and that there’s a lot he doesn’t know, but he knows enough to damn his targets to hell. ‘I’ve never really written anything like that before,’ said Dylan in the liner notes to The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. ‘I don’t sing songs which hope people will die, but I couldn’t help it with this one. The song is a sort of striking out, a reaction to the last straw, a feeling of what can you do?’

Lynskey’s observations here are about more than the lyrics; he’s suggesting that the form and the sound of the song can be part of the message, too. Discussing Jimi Hendrix’s spine-tingling rendition of The Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock, he quotes the Rolling Stone journalist Jon Landau who said that the music should convey the brunt of the meaning. Lynskey points to cases where the form and sound of a song made its meaning ambiguous.  Regarding the Stones’ ‘Street Fighting Man’ he writes, ‘Jagger’s lyrical reservations were obliterated by the music’s exultant menace.  It sounded like revolution, and that was what mattered’.

He makes a similarly acute observation about Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’, refusing to ‘smirk at the knuckleheads’ who didn’t get it.  The official version of ‘Born in the USA’ was misunderstood so widely, Lanskey argues, that Springsteen has to take some of the blame. ‘A song’s meaning does not just reside in its lyrics, but in its melody, its production, its tone of voice’, Lynskey writes.  He brilliantly explains how the original recording of the song was more true to its meaning:

During the Nebraska sessions, Springsteen demoed a song called ‘Born in the USA’, narrated by a maimed and unemployed Vietnam veteran who has ‘nowhere to run’. Alone with his guitar,  Springsteen sings like a man who has nothing, and reiterates the title like it’s a curse rather than a blessing. [Springsteen’s producer] Landau called the acoustic version ‘a dead song’ but what would happen to it later would add more layers of irony to the title than it could bear: it would be murdered by irony. … The words of ‘Born in the USA’ needed to be handled with more care. On the demo, you feel like you’re leaning in to the life story of a broken man; on the single, he’s hollering it at you while riding in a tank. …You don’t hear bleakness and betrayal: you hear a battle cry. Landau thought the original version was too small, but this one is far too big. It is a Trojan horse with the door jammed shut. The subversive lyric cannot get out.

One of the best examples of how Lynskey probes the relationship between the words and the sound, and relates the music to the politcs, can be found in his discussion of Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ and Nina Simone’s ‘Mississippi Goddam’ – the two defining black protest songs of 1963. Simone’s song was written in a murderous rage after she heard the news that four black children had been killed when a white racist detonated a bomb that destroyed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Cooke’s song was his response to the murderous response of southern white racists to the Freedom Rides, a wave of violence that began to crack apart the unity of the civil rights movement. All across black America in 1964, patience was wearing thin, as one small incident revealed.  At the end of Martin Luther King’s historic speech to the vast crowds at the Lincoln Memorial, a furious voice from the crowd had yelled: ‘Fuck that dream, Martin! Now, Goddam it, now’

Lynskey puts it in a nutshell:

Simone’s song was ‘Now, Goddam it, now!’ set to music: Cooke’s was ‘I have a a dream’. Gospel preached patience and endurance: keep on. To a Forman or a Carmichael, that kind of faith in the face of lead pipes. and fire hoses made you a sucker.To King and the believers, it represented a quiet strength which refused to be distorted by rage and hatred.

‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ united the pain and loneliness of blues with the redemptive promise of gospel. In Lynskey’s words, ‘It is a statement of faith under almost unendurable pressure. Tellingly, Lynskey notes how Cooke

Sings the title four  times during the song, his conviction increasing each time, like someone testing a rope to see how much weight it can bear. And so he is bruised and battered and brought to his knees but finally, in the last verse, he can sing, ‘I think I’m able to carry on.’ Cooke renders the civil rights struggle as one man’s vacillation between despair and hope, the two emotions doing battle most fiercely in just one word: the extended, wavering long in the final refrain, of ‘it’s been a long, a long time coming’.

‘Mississippi Goddam’ was never recorded in a studio, so the best-known version, recorded on 21 March 1964, allows you to hear the song punctuated by the (mostly white) audience’s reaction. They’ve never heard this song before and they think it’s funny and she tricks them into thinking it’s going to be quite lighthearted.  She gets angrier and angrier, and the chorus becomes more and more hair-raising.  You can just hear the audience freeze; they just don’t know what to do.  They’ve just been hit by something they’ve never heard before.  This is how Lynskey describes it:

‘The name of this tune is ‘Mississippi Goddam,’ said Nina Simone in her unmistakably regal tones, seated at her piano on the stage of Carnegie Hall. ‘And I mean every word of it.’  Simone strikes up a muscular vamp on the piano’ somewhere between jauntiness and hysteria. She announces the title to gales of cosy laughter. She sings the first verse with lusty vigour, then says, ‘This is a show tune but the show hasn’t been written for it yet.’ More laughter, but this time tense and muted. In the next verse, her performance becomes more threatening as she conjures up bad omens of black cats and hound dogs on her trail. You can sense the mirth freezing in the audience’s throats as she climbs the rungs of her disquiet, from personal confusion to religious doubt to volcanic rage. ‘Don’t tell me, I’ll tell you,’ she snaps, and every white person in Carnegie Hall is implicated in that you. ‘Me and my people are just about due’. Her band members chime in as the voice of the establishment -‘Do it slow’ – as her impatience builds and builds, and the song snaps in two. ‘I bet you thought I was kiddin’, didn’t you?’ she says teasingly, and now there is no laughter at all because she is singing of picket lines and school boycotts and segregation and centuries of racist deceit, and her anger is magnificent and shocking:

‘This whole country is full of lies

You’re all gonna die and die like flies
I don’t trust you anymore.’

Even at a distance of over four decades you can almost taste the tension in the air, metallic like electricity or blood.  She smacks the piano keys, extrudes from her mouth a long, ragged Goooodddaaaaaamm, and whoops a final ‘That’s it!’

Fine writing; but to my mind, it’s hard to find the equivalent in the last half of the book.  And the reason for that has to be that the story Lynskey has to tell becomes less heroic: great songs like these just aren’t there.

Lynskey singles out Neil Young’s ‘Ohio’ as doing all the things a topical song should do.  It responds with precision, and is a brilliant, memorable piece of music.  It captures the intense emotion of the moment – you can tell it was written hours after he had read the May 1970 issue of Life magazine that contained a vivid account and shocking photos of of the killing of four students by the Ohio  National Guard during an anti-war demonstration at Kent State University.  The song was rush-released so that it came out while people were still feeling the rawness of that emotion.  Says Lynskey: ‘It’s one of those protest songs that whichever way you measure it, it’s not found wanting.  Ohio sets itself a task and executes it perfectly’.

‘If any protest song can be said to have had a tangible effect on its subject matter’, asserts Lynskey, ‘it is ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ by the Special AKA’. It was written to raise awareness of Nelson Mandela’s incarceration, and by raising awareness of him, it raised awareness of the anti-apartheid cause in general. The song’s composer, Jerry Dammers, went on to found the lobby group Artists Against Apartheid, while the song (which entered the UK top ten in March 1984) became a part of the revival of the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s which led to sanctions, boycotts and, ultimately, to Mandela’s release.  The song was adopted by the ANC and Mandela later told Dammers that it was very important to him.

Dorian Lynskey’s book is a great read, narrating even those parts of the story with you may already be familiar with verve and insight.  The copious lists at the back of the book will keep mixtape compilers happy for hours and hours.  But when you’ve done with book and playlists, you’re left with the question: has the golden age of protest song passed?

The 33 Songs

1. Billie Holiday Strange Fruit
2. Woody Guthrie This Land is Your Land
3. Pete Seeger We Shall Overcome
4. Bob Dylan Masters of War
5. Nina Simone Mississippi Goddam
6. Country Joe and The Fish Feel Like I’m Fixin to Die Rag
7. James Brown Say It Loud I’m Black and Proud
8. Plastic Ono Band Give Peace a Chance
9. Edwin Starr War
10. Crosby Stills Nash and Young Ohio
11. Gil Scot-Heron The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
12. Stevie Wonder Living For The City
13. Victor Jara Manifesto
14. Fela Kuti and Afrika 70 Zombie
15. Max Romeo and The Upsetters War Ina Babylon
16. The Clash White Riot
17. Carl Bean I Was Born This Way
18. Linton Kwesi Johnson Sonny’s Letter
19. The Dead Kennedys Holiday in Cambodia
20. Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five The Message
21. Crass How Does It Feel
22. Frankie Goes to Hollywood Two Tribes
23. U2 Pride (In The Name of Love)
24. The Special AKA Nelson Mandela
25. Billy Bragg Between the Wars
26. R.E.M. Exhuming McCarthy
27. Public Enemy Fight The Power
28. Huggy Bear Her Jazz
29. The Prodigy Their Law
30. Manic Street Preachers Of Walking Abortion
31. Rage Against The Machine Sleep Now in The Fire
32. Steve Earle John Walkers Blues
33. Green Day American Idiot

See also

Sam Cooke: an appreciation

Don’t know much about geography
Don’t know much trigonometry
Don’t know much about algebra
Don’t know what a slide rule is for
But I do know one and one is two
And if this one could be with you
What a wonderful world this would be

In a previous post I recalled listening on Radio Luxembourg in the late 50s/early 60s to the beautiful, spine-tingling, magical sounds that poured from the radio in those days – the Drifters, the Phil Spector-produced singles, Freddy Cannon, Ben E King and Gary US Bonds.  I could have added Sam Cooke, because this was the era when his mellifluous tones ruled the airwaves with songs like ‘Wonderful World’, ‘Twistin’ The Night Away’, Chain Gang’, ‘You Send Me’, ‘Only Sixteen’ and ‘Cupid’.  If he had lived he would have been 80 today.

Cooke was a pioneer of the transition from gospel to commercialised soul music – like others such as Aretha Franklin, Bobby Womack, Marvin Gaye, and Otis Redding, he began singing in gospel choirs in his childhood and gained fame in the early 1950s when he became lead singer with the the popular and influential gospel group, The Soul Stirrers.

He became a teen idol in the late 1950s with huge hits like ‘Cupid’, ‘Only Sixteen’, ‘You Send Me’ and  ‘Twistin’ the Night Away’ – smooth and commercial music, certainly, but unusual because this was a teen idol who really could sing and write his own songs; and because at that time it was pretty much unheard of for a black man to break through to the white teen audience, who usually heard pretty white boys such as Frankie Avalon and Fabian cover hits that black artists had on the ‘race’ charts. The comment has been made that for Sam Cooke, going commercial was a demand for equal opportunity.

He didn’t stop there. In 1961, Cooke started his own record label, SAR Records, a move unprecedented for a black artist. He wanted to expand his artistic abilities as a writer and producer, as well as providing other African-American artists with a place where they could record and get a fair deal, free of discrimination, in the racially-segregated 1960’s.  This grew from Cooke’s deep commitment to the civil right movement, as reflected in his song ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’.

Cooke was born in Mississippi, on 22 January1931, one of eight children of a Baptist minister and his wife. Even as a young boy, he showed an extraordinary voice and frequently sang in the choir in his father’s church.  Later, the Cook family moved to Chicago, where the Reverend Charles Cook quickly established himself as a major figure in the religious community. Sam and three of his siblings formed a group of their own, the Singing Children, in the 1930s. Although his own singing was confined to gospel music, he was appreciative of the popular music of the period, particularly the melodious, harmony-based sounds of the Ink Spots, whose influence can be heard in songs such as ‘You Send Me’.

In 1950 he joined the Soul Stirrers and, even if he had never recorded anything else, his work with the top gospel group through his performances on songs like ‘Touch the Hem of His Garment’ would be regarded as a towering achievement.

In 1956 he recorded a pop single, ‘Lovable’, that led to him being dismissed from the Soul Stirrers.  Now free to record under his own name, he released the own-penned song ‘You Send Me’, which sold over two million copies on an obscure record label and hit number one on both the pop and R&B charts.

He stayed with the label for the next two years, during which he made the most extraordinarily beautiful romantic ballads and teen pop singles of the era, including ‘Only Sixteen’, and ‘Wonderful World’. Then he signed with RCA, one of the three biggest labels in the world at the time.  The hits kept coming – ‘Chain Gang’,’ Sad Mood’, ‘Cupid’ and ‘Twistin’ The Night Away’.  His work in this period – particularly the albums he recorded for RCA – has been criticised for its bland commercialism.  But in 1963,  Cooke  recorded a show at Miami’s Harlem Square Club in front of a black audience and doing his ‘real’ show he delivered a sweaty, spellbinding performance combining the  achingly beautiful melodies of the singles with a gritty soul sensibility. The album Live At The Harlem Square Club is another landmark in the Sam Cooke story.

Cooke was keenly aware of the music around him, and was particularly impressed by how Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, a big chart hit for Peter Paul and Mary, combined melody with social commentary on the position of black Americans and other oppressed minorities.  This inspired him to write ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’, one of the greatest song to come out of the civil rights struggle.  At the same time, he had also devised a newer, dance-oriented soul sound in the song ‘Shake’.  These two recordings held out great promise for Cooke: he seemed poised to move on to even greater things.

But, on 11 December 1964, at the age of 33, Cooke became involved in an altercation at a seedy Los Angeles motel, with a woman guest and the night manager, and was shot dead by the manager. The case is still shrouded in doubt and mystery, and was never investigated.

The Allmusic site sums up Sam Cooke’s achievement in these words:

Sam Cooke was the most important soul singer in history — he was also the inventor of soul music, and its most popular and beloved performer in both the black and white communities. Equally important, he was among the first modern black performers and composers to attend to the business side of the music business, and founded both a record label and a publishing company as an extension of his careers as a singer and composer. Yet, those business interests didn’t prevent him from being engaged in topical issues, including the struggle over civil rights, the pitch and intensity of which followed an arc that paralleled Cooke’s emergence as a star – his own career bridged gaps between black and white audiences that few had tried to surmount, much less succeeded at doing

While Jacob Ganz on The Record at NPR writes:

No one else does so much with so little. Again, I know that sounds strange — Cooke had an enormous natural talent — but he mined a narrow vein, one in which restraint was prized over embellishment. So Cooke sang direct and clean lines, never pushing or straining his voice, always perfectly in time and tone with thoughtfully arranged instrumentals. No flailing, cathartic vocal runs, no bursts of horns, just precision filigreed with the occasional, sighing “whoa-oh-oh-oh” like the one that punctuates the chorus of ‘You Send Me’.

He left a rich body of music, including his work with the Soul Stirrers, his fine pop records and couple of strong live albums, including one recorded at the Copacabana nightclub in New York.  One of the high points of that show is this  soulful interpretation of  ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’.