Lady, you shot me

Those were the final words of Sam Cooke, who was shot and killed on this day in 1964. 

That brutal end stood in stark contrast to the joyous nature of his music. Blessed with one of the most sublime voices in pop history, equally capable of smooth balladry and raw power, he found favour with white and black audiences in a segregated America. 

Bridging the gap between gospel and secular, Cooke is a key figure in the story of soul music.

Covered by dozens of artists from Aretha Franklin to Van Morrison, he was praised in 2021 by Rod Stewart, who called him “my one and only influence” and added: “How many thousands of hours I spent trying to sound like you and never came close.”

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In his 33 years, Cooke made a profound impact and left behind a catalogue full of classics, none more significant than 1964’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’. That’s one of 10 songs, along with five bonus tracks, that tell the story of a man who once said: “Voices ought not to be measured by how pretty they are. Instead, they matter only if they convince you that they are telling the truth.”


In 1950, Sam Cooke became lead singer of gospel group the Soul Stirrers. This was their first recording with the 19-year-old, but his voice had already been honed by years on the gospel circuit with the Highway QCs.

THE SOUL STIRRERS - TOUCH THE HEM OF HIS GARMENT (Touch the Hem of His Garment, 1956)

Cooke remained with the Soul Stirrers until 1956. Arriving at the studio unprepared in February of that year, he came up with ‘Touch the Hem of His Garment’ on the spot by leafing through the Bible. Still just 25, he was singing with a maturity beyond his years while beginning to demonstrate his songwriting prowess. 

YOU SEND ME (Sam Cooke, 1958)

Cooke left the Soul Stirrers and embarked upon a successful solo career, with the first track of his first album proving one of his most enduring compositions. 

A number one hit in the USA, it sold an estimated 1.5 million copies and paved the way for his journey from the gospel world to the secular. 

(WHAT A) WONDERFUL WORLD (The Wonderful World of Sam Cooke, 1960)

‘Don’t know much about history, don’t know much biology…’

At any given time, someone within a five-mile radius of you will be singing, whistling or humming this one. 

Possibly Cooke’s catchiest song, it was given a new lease of life in 1986 and reached number two in the UK charts after featuring in a Levi’s 501 advert.

CHAIN GANG (Swing Low, 1960)

After prisoners from a chain gang asked Cooke and his brother Charles to buy them cigarettes, he wrote a song that was considerably more upbeat than its subject matter. In his ‘Dream Boogie’ biography of Cooke, writer Peter Guralnick hails the “lilting charm” and “conversational tone” of the singer’s vocal.

CUPID (Cupid, 1961)

One of Cooke’s most straightforward romantic songs, this was covered by Amy Winehouse in 2007. Featuring French horn and a calypso beat, it was also one of two Cooke songs to feature in 1987 sci-fi comedy Innerspace. 

TWISTIN’ THE NIGHT AWAY (Twistin’ the Night Away, 1962)

Backed by Phil Spector’s house band the Wrecking Crew, Cooke pays tribute to the era’s biggest dance craze. Covered by Rod Stewart, the title track from Cooke’s eighth solo album was inspired by TV footage of dancers at New York’s Peppermint Lounge. 

SMOKE RINGS (Mr. Soul, 1963)

Cooke delivers a commanding, world-weary vocal on this wistful album track. In a contemplative mood, he asks “why do they fade, my phantom parade of love?”.

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The most appropriate Cooke song for a first dance at a wedding, it features one of his most soulful vocals. His blistering performance of the song at the Harlem Square Club in 1963 is a high point of 1985’s ‘One Night Stand’ live album.

A CHANGE IS GONNA COME (Ain’t That Good News, 1964)

Cooke’s signature song and crowning achievement. A rousing anthem of the civil rights movement, his passionate vocal is both defiant and vulnerable. 

Reaching number three in Rolling Stone’s 2021 ‘500 Greatest Songs Of All Time’ list, it’s been covered by Beyonce, quoted by President Obama and preserved in the Library of Congress.

While it featured on February 1964’s ‘Ain’t That Good News’ album, it wasn’t released as a single until December 22 of that year. 

11 days earlier, Cooke was killed.


SAM COOKE - SUMMERTIME (Sam Cooke, 1958)

According to Guinness World Records, there were 67,591 recorded versions of this George Gershwin standard in existence as of June 2017. Few will have nailed the song like Cooke did, with ghostly backing vocals contrasting with his measured delivery to unsettling effect. 

SAM COOKE - CRY ME A RIVER (Mr. Soul, 1963)

While Cooke wrote more than his share of classics, he was also a skilful interpreter. 10 years after it was written, he turned in a sumptuous version of this famous torch song.


Like Cooke, Otis Redding died tragically young in the ‘60s. Otis Blue is his most acclaimed album, and it features three Cooke covers. Backed by a band of legendary Stax musicians, including Steve Cropper on guitar and Isaac Hayes on piano, Redding delivers a gritty, passionate vocal.


No debate about the greatest voice of all time would be legitimate without Cooke’s inclusion, and the same goes for Aretha Franklin. The former’s first hit is a natural fit for the Queen of Soul.

SAM COOKE - BRING IT ON HOME (One Night Stand: Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1985)

The greatest moment on possibly the greatest live album of all time comes towards the end of this rendition of Bring It On Home. Cooke and his band expertly build suspense for two-and-a-half minutes before before launching into a cathartic performance, and after the final round of call-and-response between artist and audience, Cooke lets out a joyous “ooooooooh” before laughing at the audacity of what he and the musicians had just pulled off.

Placing it at number 240 in their ‘500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ list, Rolling Stone said ‘One Night Stand’ was “considered too raw and gritty to release in 1963”, adding: “the audience was almost exclusively black. RCA was trying to sell him to a white audience, and they were scared that white audiences might be scared off by this fact if they heard this record.”

The public perception of Cooke as a live performer had been shaped by 1964’s ‘Sam Cooke at the Copa’, which saw him politely croon in front of a well-heeled white audience. While the singing is faultless, it’s a polished act that contains little of the energy or passion that he unleashed in Harlem. Here, the crowd are rapt and ecstatic, with Cooke in complete control from start to finish.

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In ‘Dream Boogie’, Guralnick said of the show: “There was nothing soft, measured or polite about the Sam Cooke you saw at the Harlem Square Club; there was none of the self-effacing, mannerable, ‘fair-haired little coloured boy’ that the white man was always looking for.”

“It was like a scene out of a movie”, recalled recording engineer Tony Salvatore, adding: “the whole building was rocking.”