The tragic death of Sam Cooke remains one of rock and roll’s great mysteries. Cooke was shot in the wee hours of December 10, 1964, by a Los Angeles hotel manager named Bertha Franklin. He had checked into a room with 22-year-old Elisa Boyer, allegedly against Boyer’s wishes, and when she grabbed his clothes and fled, he gave chase dressed in only a sport coat and shoes. While Boyer called police from a phone booth, Cooke pounded on Franklin’s door so hard that it broke open. As he charged in, Franklin shot him three times with a .22 pistol and clubbed him. Cooke was dead when police arrived, so his version of what occurred is forever lost.
It’s hard to buy into conspiracy theories, though several swirl around this incident that paint Cooke as the victim of a plot by white supremacists to silence the country’s most popular self-empowered black man. Indeed, he was one of the brightest symbols of rising black America during the last few years of his life, a man in full control of his artistic vision and his business affairs.
It’s the sound of Cooke in 1963 and 1964 that’s presented in the new collection Keep Movin’ On (abkco). The 23 songs on this one-disc set are notable not only for the beauty of his vocal performances — which distinguish all his music — but for the inclusion of the previously unreleased title track, the original singles "Shake" and "Another Saturday Night" (unavailable on CD in recent years), and his triumphant civil-rights anthem "A Change Is Gonna Come," which his manager Allen Klein refused to make available to RCA’s four-disc Sam Cooke: The Man Who Invented Soul back in 2000.
Cooke’s graceful voice and rakish good looks had already made him a star by the time he left the popular gospel group the Soul Stirrers in 1956. His crossover dreams became real the next year, when his first pop hit, "You Send Me," sold 1.7 million copies. He had more smashes for RCA, including "Chain Gang," "Only Sixteen," "Bring It On Home to Me," and "Twisting the Night Away."
RCA’s producers used sugary strings and white back-up singers to move Cooke’s R&B-and-gospel-steeped singing across the color line. By the time he recorded the material on Keep Movin’ On, he had wrested complete artistic control from RCA, thanks to the relationship he had forged with Klein, who was an accountant when he met Cooke in early 1963. Within months, Klein was able to get Cooke $119,000 in back royalties, a $50,000 advance from BMI, and a new contract with RCA that paid him $450,000 over five years. Cooke and Klein formed their own publishing and management company and leased the master tapes Cooke had recorded to RCA. Cooke also became one of the first popular black performers to have his own imprint, SAR/Derby Records.
So the recordings on Keep Movin’ On are the sound of Cooke under his own steam. And they are blacker than much of his RCA-guided material. The sound of the supper clubs where he made his mark on white audiences is tempered by an overt return to his roots in gospel and in the R&B of New Orleans and his native Clarksdale, Mississippi. The disc opens with "Good News," a love-song rewrite of the spiritual of the same name that’s distinguished by Cooke’s use of banjo as its lead instrument. He had a penchant for unexpected instrumental voices; he employs flute and vibraphone on the title track, which draws on a Biblical proverb to preach social justice to a jaunty, lightly swinging beat, and mixes drums to the fore in "Sugar Dumpling." Despite the strings on the latter, which are more slashing and propulsive than on hits like "Only Sixteen," he delivers a soaring vocal performance, stretching his phrases into classic examples of early rock singing.
On "Yeah Man," Cooke enlists producer/arranger Harold Battiste’s Crescent City band to mint a piece of primal funk that would become the basis of Arthur Conley’s more familiar hit "Sweet Soul Music." "That’s Where It’s At," featuring young Bobby Womack on guitar, is a shot of pure blues, with Cooke flattening his throat into its dirtiest growl.
Cooke felt he was aiming his music toward the future, toward something big. His associates, who are cited in journalist Peter Guralnick’s liner notes for Keep Movin’ On, keep underlining this point. Perhaps what he foresaw was the arrival of soul music as the goliath it would become in the late ’60s and early ’70s. If not for his senseless death, at age 29, Cooke would certainly have been part of that musical movement. And maybe its leader.