Black History Month: Nicole Cooke-Johnson on the Legacy of Soul Legend Sam Cooke

Above photo courtesy of ABKCO Music and Records


Before Sam Cooke – one of the most influential soul artists of all time – was crowned the “King of Soul,” he was a change maker. Born the son of a Baptist minister, he began singing at a very young age. At nineteen, he replaced legendary tenor R. H. Harris as lead singer of the Soul Stirrers, a pioneering gospel group which was a major influence on soul, Doo-wop, and Motown.

During his seven years with the Soul Stirrers, Cooke established a new standard for gospel music, with hit singles like ‘Jesus Gave Me Water’ and ‘Touch The Hem Of His Garment,’ and is credited with elevating the genre’s popularity with a younger audience. But he recognized that despite gospel’s popularity, its reach was limited and, at the height of his fame, walked away from it all to write and record  ‘You Send Me,’ a massive – and groundbreaking – R&B/pop crossover hit. 

Cooke’s unique voice and style – a blend of spirituality, sensuality, sophistication and soulfulness – hit a popular nerve. Between 1957 and his tragic death in 1964 (his murder in an LA hotel was never solved), he had an astounding thirty U.S. Top 40 hits, and then three posthumous ones. Timeless tracks like ‘Twistin’ the Night Away,’ ‘Chain Gang,’ ‘(What A) Wonderful World,’ and ‘Cupid’ have become indelible to the American soundtrack, paving the way for hugely influential artists like Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, and Michael Jackson. 

In 1960, Cooke became the first major black artist to sign with RCA Records. He went on to start his own independent record label (SAR Records), publishing imprint, and management company (Kags Music, now ABKCO), and helped to launch the careers of such greats as Billy Preston, Bobby Womack and Lou Rawls. But his influence extended beyond the music. As a black business owner in a segregated America, he was a much-needed inspiration to others. As an activist, he penned the powerful civil rights anthem ‘A Change Is Gonna Come,’ in direct response to Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ – but also to an incident in Shreveport, Louisiana where he and his entourage were refused hotel rooms despite having reservations…and, of course, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have A Dream” speech.

His legacy will be forever woven into the fabric of American culture. His body of work stands the test of time, and more than 50 years after his death, he continues to inspire artists and activists alike. His longevity undisputed, Cooke’s catalog topped 185M Spotify streams in 2020, and new generations continue to discover his music – even little kids (check out this video of DC elementary school students singing ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’). 

In honor of his 90th birthday, Cooke’s granddaughter Nicole Cooke-Johnson has kicked off Sam Cooke Change Makers, a year-long celebration of her grandfather’s extraordinary contributions to music and culture. We engaged her on what it all means.

Your grandfather was a trailblazer and a change maker. His refusal to sing at segregated concerts is regarded by many as one of the first real efforts in civil disobedience during the early days of the Civil Rights movement. With that in mind, can you tell us about the idea behind Sam Cooke Change Makers?

Change is the only constant in our ever-changing world. Every single contribution to change, no matter the size, is invaluable. We look to the talented to spearhead courageous models of change. Often, it is a challenging and daunting task to use your platform to speak or motivate change while excelling in your craft. While it does not begin or end with the gifted and talented, their voices inspire the masses. 

The program was created to support and encourage those extraordinary “change agents” who like Sam Cooke constantly push themselves to use their platforms in various ways, both big and small. With that example, we can all find ways to “Be the change.”

Do you think Sam had any idea of the long term cultural impact he would have when he penned hits like ‘Twistin the Night Away,’ ‘Chain Gang’ and, of course, ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’? 

I believe he knew he was born with a gift, he knew the powers of that gift, and was committed to use his voice and his music to touch souls. In an interview my grandfather once said:

“I think the secret really is observation. If you observe what’s going on and try to figure out how people are thinking, you can always write something that they will understand.” 

I don’t know if he knew of the cultural impact he would have, but he did believe that once you touch a soul you have a spot there forever. 

A pivotal scene in the recent film One Night In Miami is the debate between Malcolm X and Sam. Malcolm berates him, accusing him of not using his platform to help the black cause and of pandering to a white audience. Can you talk about your grandfather’s relationship with Malcolm X? And how do you think he would have felt about the way he and his music were portrayed in that scene?

Well, first let me say what an amazing job I think both Kemp Powers (writer) and Regina King (director) did with One Night in Miami. 

While the facts that put the four men in the room that night are undeniable, the film is a dramatization of what their conversation might have been. It is a love letter to Black men and the bond that encouraged, challenged and honed the beacon that these men became. It is the jewel of fellowship that bonded those men during some of their most trying times. The authentically replicated banter between Sam and Malcolm is a true reflection of that bond and the idea that steel sharpens steel. 

In addition, Sam, like many, had doubts and insecurities, something that being uber-talented doesn’t negate. I think it is important to highlight those challenges. While that conversation may not be the reason Sam wrote ‘A Change is Gonna Come,’ it may have been one of the factors that brought it to life. We will never know, but it’s a healthy place to start.

Although ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ wasn’t your grandfather’s biggest hit, it is widely regarded as his best song. It has been ranked on numerous “Greatest Songs of All Time” lists and is one of only twenty-five songs inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry. How does it feel to know that over a half-century after it was written it continues to resonate so deeply with so many? 

I think it’s safe to say that it’s my grandfather’s most important song. Sam constantly spoke about touching souls through music, and ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ is a prime example of that. I often talk about the many stories I have heard about that song over the years: what it has done for people, what it has brought them through, how it was a soundtrack of hope during dark times. Those stories fill me with pride and honor and are the motivation I use as the steward of the Sam Cooke legacy.

Music is the soundtrack of our experience and ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ has become the song of the oppressed. It is included on the soundtrack of the history of struggle in America, and it is my hope that through music we can heal, teach and inspire.

It was actually released as a single in December 1964, two weeks after your grandfather died, and was almost immediately adopted by the Civil Rights movement. Do you think he would have been surprised this the song has become widely regarded as the definitive Civil Rights anthem?

I was once told by the late Congressman John Lewis that after being arrested for protesting and spending a long night in jail, once released, he and his fellow activists would head to the nearest jukebox, put in a nickel and play ‘A Change is Gonna Come.’ By the end of the song they would go right back out there and do it all over again.

I sincerely believe that was what my grandfather hoped it would be when he wrote it.

You recently spearheaded a Toast to Sam Cooke social media event to celebrate his 90th birthday. Afterwards, we noticed a “stay tuned” message posted in conjunction with the #SamCooke90 hashtag. Do you have anything else planned? We’d love to see a tribute concert with some of the Toast participants.

Originally, there were many plans to commemorate Sam’s 90th year, but due to the uncertainty of the times, we considered postponing. However, because so many people admire and have been influenced by him, we decided to pivot, have fun with music, and inspire change throughout the entire year. We kicked it off with the toast, and it was amazing to see so many people familiar with him and his music.  

Amazon Music has partnered with us during Black History Month to help us explore and rediscover Sam’s vast catalog of music along with his history as a businessman and entrepreneur. We launched Sam Cooke Change Makers with “90 ways to make a change,” and in March we will be announcing our 2021 Change Makers selections. There have been some amazing musical surprises for Black Music Month. Have fun chasing our hashtag #SamCooke90 or visit OfficialSamCooke.com for updates.

And finally, the Black Lives Matter movement has also adopted ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ as its anthem. On the one hand, it’s shameful that more than fifty years later Black people are still fighting for equality; but on the other, it’s a testament to your grandfather’s legacy. How do you think he would want to be remembered?

I think that my grandfather’s hope was that “change” would be pursued until it comes. Although we are still fighting for change, we have made many strides since he penned those words in 1964 – and the idea is that we won’t stop, we can’t stop until change comes.

Image by Wally Seawell

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