A new documentary on Netflix takes a look at the death and music of Sam Cooke. His death sparked outrage at the time among fans and celebrities. The way that he died seemed at odds with the singer’s persona. The film explores Cooke’s life through archival footage, including interviews with Cooke and people who knew him and critics who are familiar with Cooke’s contradictory relationship with white audiences and black audiences.
Sam Cooke’s early days
Like a number of black singers, Cooke’s singing begins at church. His father is a preacher in Chicago, and Cooke and his siblings would go around and sing at different churches. As a teen, Cooke is selected to replace an adult member of The Soul Stirrers. Luminaries such as Dionne Warwick and Smokey Robinson recall that when Cooke joined The Soul Stirrers, “women who had no interest in church wanted to go to church,” and “women lined up four deep to see Sam Cooke.” Warwick recalled that she was in love at age 13.
As Cooke tours the US’s “Chitlin’ Circuit” he is exposed to the racism that was still virulent in the American South. The iconic Quincy Jones was also a performer during the time period and in the film, Jones recalls sleeping in mortuaries, where several bodies awaited burial because there were no lodging areas. The experience of separate lodging, dining areas, and drinking fountains seemed not to sit well with Cooke, who liked to move freely, according to those who knew him. The death of Emmitt Till also served as a catalyst for Cooke to sing politicized Gospel songs. Songs that were primarily reserved for when he was to perform for black audiences.
Sam Cooke: after The Soul Stirrers
Lured by the creative openness of rock ‘n’ roll, Cooke explored his options. His first secular recording was a song called “Lovable.” The song was a version of the Gospel song “Wonderful.” He recorded it under the pseudonym Dale Cooke. His next single, “You Send Me” went gold and reached No.2, kept from the top by Elvis Presley’s “Teddy Bear.”
Sam Cooke: the adult years
The 1960s found Cooke interacting with Cassius Clay (before he would change his name to Muhammad Ali), Malcolm X and others. The film reveals some dark truths about Cooke’s life: items in his FBI file, the reason he attracted the mob, his drinking and potential womanizing and the drowning death of his toddler son, Vincent.
The attitudes surrounding Cooke’s death foreshadow those that would surround the deaths of Biggie and Tupac. And even Jam Master Jay. The police regarded him, according to witnesses, as “just another n-word” who had gotten shot in Watts. They seemed not to understand the calls from around the country and the world wanting to confirm the singer’s death.
There are multiple accounts of who was responsible for Cooke’s death. The women who were tried failed to be seen as credible witnesses by those in the black community. Viewers will see that the testimony of the woman who did the shooting was hardly credible. Cooke’s death is ruled a justifiable homicide, a verdict that sat well with almost no one.
Cooke’s song “A Change Is Gonna Come” is released posthumously, adding to the sadness of the track.
The film allows audiences to watch those invested in Cooke’s story as they listen to the singer’s music. The solemn looks and appreciative nods only begin to clue viewers in to the meaning Cooke had to the black community and the music industry.
Throughout the film the loss of Cooke is felt. It is a film that people must see if they are interested in the truth as opposed to rumor and innuendo. The film also allows audiences the opportunity to appreciate Cooke’s music, even if they were not around to hear it in context.