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Sam Cooke, Portrait of a Legend

Sam Cooke: Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964 is part of a series of newly remastered recordings by the legendary singer.
Sam Cooke: Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964 is part of a series of newly remastered recordings by the legendary singer.

Sam Cooke began his career as a gospel singer, becoming the lead vocalist for the Soul Stirrers, one of the nation's top gospel acts, at age 19. But six years later, Cooke left gospel for the world of pop music. With a string of hits, including "Cupid," "Wonderful World," "Chain Gang," and "Twistin' the Night Away," he bridged the gap between rock and soul and became a legend.

"His distinctive tenor soared on the high notes and glided over the lower ones, floating easily from soft to loud and smooth to rough," NPR's Bob Edwards says in a Morning Edition report on the famous singer.

Peter Guralnick wrote the script for the new biographical DVD, Sam Cooke: Legend and the liner notes for the accompanying CD, Sam Cooke: Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964. He says Cooke's handsome looks, confidence and poise on stage drove audiences wild. "Sam presented this easygoing, relaxed approach. It was almost a very sensual approach. But then he could lean into the song and just take the church out," Guralnick says.

In making the transition from gospel to pop, Cooke "had in mind a much greater crossover," Guralnick says. The singer blended distinctive black and white musical styles "to create a much broader-based sound," he says.

"His appeal was universal," says Lou Rawls, who sang with Cooke on 1962's "Bring it on Home to Me" and was a lifelong friend. "Color had no meaning because his music was universal."

Guralnick says Cooke tried to keep his songs simple and singable. "He felt that the song was a failure if on the chorus the audience didn't feel the impulse to sing along."

"Sam as a writer saw himself almost as a reporter," Guralnick says. It's best seen on "A Change is Gonna Come," the Cooke song that was adopted as a civil rights anthem. The song was based on the racism Cooke encountered while traveling through the segregated South. "He took all of those experiences," Guralnick says, "but he enlarged upon them and he broadened them to the point that the song... becomes a statement of what a generation had had to endure."

Cooke described his songwriting technique in an interview with Dick Clark: "I think the secret is really observation. Well, if you observe what's going on and try to figure out how people are thinking, I think you can always write something that people will understand."

Cooke died in a motel shooting on Dec. 11, 1964. He was 33.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.