It’s been 50 years since the death of Sam Cooke. The Wall Street Journal summarizes his groundbreaking career here.
In the late 1950s, Cooke was the first black singer-songwriter to figure out how to parlay male vulnerability into sweet pleas that resonated with integrated teen audiences. Watching his TV appearances on YouTube, it is easy to see how his caressing voice, sharp looks and easy manner touched blacks and whites alike, landing many of his songs on Billboard’s pop chart.
Between 1957 and 1966—two years after his death—Cooke had multiple hits on the pop chart each year, with 17 of his 43 hits rising into the top 20. Three of them later made it into the Grammy Hall of Fame, including “(What a) Wonderful World” earlier this year. In the decades that followed his death, dozens of leading black singers would be influenced by Cooke’s yearning voice and polished style—from Smokey Robinson to Pharrell Williams.
But in the late 1950s, Cooke’s style was all but impossible to duplicate or emulate. His approach wasn’t built on the high-voltage blues of Little Richard, the bump-and-grind of Ray Charles or the exciting choreography of Jackie Wilson. Instead, Cooke was something new—a singing conversationalist whose hits relied on simple lyrics and a catchy melody hitched to a rhythmic musical arrangement and a vocal style that had all the appeal of ice cream and cake.