Sam Cooke: Legend

Ali Sings with Sam!

 DATELINE:   MLK Day Special  

Putting over a song like Sinatra or Crosby was no mean feat for a young black singer in the 1950s. Graduating from gospel and soul music to mainstream, Sam Cooke wanted to be a crossover between white and black, between teeny-bopper and adult performances.

Had he lived a few more years, he would have left the concert trail for the world of movies. By 1964 he would have been a giant in music and film. Instead, he wound up a victim of violence.

The documentary Legend  will amaze you. Jeffrey Wright narrates the film.

His music was emboldened by personality and charm. He wrote his own tunes, from “You Send Me,” to “Chain Gang,” or “Wonderful World,” he was astounding in his ability to put over a song with nuance and flash. He wanted to own his own record company, publish his own music. It was unheard of in segregated 1950s Nashville music. He was a pioneer in equality for audiences with their stars.  He was an avid reader and intellectual, a well-rounded personable extrovert.

You might think the segregated audiences of the South were over, but the true Civil Rights movement was only starting to become a norm when Cooke was making inroads. He was gone before Martin Luther King, Jr., made Cooke’s dream a reality.

The biographical documentary features a few rare performances of Sam in the 1950s, but glosses over some other great songs with a teasing snippet. We would be thrilled to hear a potpourri of his TV show performances on Dick Clark, Ed Sullivan, and other variety shows.

Though his friendship with Aretha is known here, it is his connection to Muhammad Ali (singing together) that astounds. He said he should have written “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and came up with a Civil Rights song, “A Change is Gonna Come,” but he would not live to see it.

Sam’s death remains to this day an unfathomable act.

Many, including Elvis, believed he was murdered because he was becoming another Civil Right icon, like Malcolm X or Martin Luther King. Other movie stories have also raised this issue.