It was a semi-seedy Los Angeles motel, well removed from the glitz and glitter of Hollywood. In the wee small hours of December 11, 1964 an out of place, gleaming red Ferrari screeched up to the office and a young, frantic Black man clad only in a sport coat and a single shoe leaped out and began pounding on the closed door of the manager’s apartment. Highly agitated the man forced his way in demanding to know where the young woman was who had checked in with him not long before and accusing the female manager of harboring her. He screamed something about her steeling his clothes and money. He grabbed the woman. They tussled and fell to the floor. She managed to wriggle free and grab a pistol. She got off a wild shot that lodged in the ceiling by the next bullet pierced the man’s naked chest as he advanced on her again passing through his lungs and heart. “Lady, you shot me,” the astonished man reportedly said but had enough strength to continue to stagger toward her. The manager dropped the gun and used a broom handle to beat him on the head until he collapsed—and apparently for a while after—until the intruder was dead. So went the account of the motel manager, which was quickly accepted by the police,
The whole sordid event would have barely merited a back page mention in the Los Angeles Times—just a bit of senseless urban violence, the possible inspiration for a late film noire at best. Except that the corpse had been 33 year old Sam Cooke, then the most popular Black singer in America with a long string of hits and rare cross-over appeal for White audiences. He was a musical innovator whose smooth style had practically invented romantic soul music who had mentored and influenced a rising generation of young artists, and opened the door for the Motown sound. On the basis of his good looks and the easy charm of his personality he was on the verge of branching out into movies and perhaps his own TV variety show. He was also a shrewd businessman who had avoided the pitfalls that drained the money of many Black artists into the pockets of White agents, producers, and investment hucksters and had formed his own record labels and struck a lucrative deal with RCA Victor. And with all of his success he was well liked and admired by his peers and colleagues.
Naturally there were headlines and scandal.
Cooke was born on January 22, 1931 in Clarksdale, Mississippi, one of a brood of eight children of the Rev. Charles Cook, a Baptist minister, and his wife, Annie Mae. The family moved early to Chicago where the Rev. Cook took the pulpit of the Christ Temple Church where he was soon singing with his siblings. When young Sam was 9 years old they formed the Singing Children which was soon in demand for guest performances at Black churches across the city.
While attending Wendell Phillips Academy High School, the alma mater of Nat King Cole, Cooke moved up to lead singer of the popular Gospel music group the Highway QC’s at the age of 14. He was also a neighbor and close friend of Lou Rawls who sang with another Gospel ensemble.
When the QC’s broke up Cooke moved over to the established Soul Stirrers in 1950 taking over tenor and leadership from the group’s founder, R.H. Harris. Despite—or because of—his youth he brought a fresh sound to the Chicago Gospel scene and was soon attracting a younger crowd, including adoring teen girls and branching from church appearances to secular venues like theaters and even dance halls. The group signed a deal with Specialty Records and made several successful records, most arranged and some written by Cooke.
Despite his deep roots in Church and religious music young Cooke found the attention of his young female fans irresistible. At one point in the mid-50’s he was juggling three pregnant girlfriends, two in Chicago, and one in Cleveland.
In 1956 Cooke was eager to explore secular music, but was leery of offending his loyal Gospel fan base which had turned on other artists who moved on to pop. He recorded a couple of singles as Dale Cook. But his distinctive voice on the moderate hit Lovable which he adapted from the Gospel song Wonderful did not deceive anyone. He got the permission of Specialty Records head Art Rupe to make secular records under his own name. But the two soon clashed over Cooke’s approach—Rupe wanted a harder driving sound like the label’s other Gospel star turned Rhythm and Bluesman Little Richard. Cooke was looking for a mellower, romantic groove.
Cook bolted Specialty and signed a new deal with Keen Records which in 1957 released the blow out hit You Send Me. The single became a number one hit on both Billboard’s Rhythm & Blues Records chart and the Billboard Hot 100. The unprecedented crossover appeal was so deep that You Send Me became the favorite record of my 43 year old mother, usually a devotee of the likes of Patty Paige, Eddie Fisher, and Tennessee Ernie Ford. When Theresa Brewer came out with a cover for White audiences, it was a #8 hit—but it revived interest in Cooke’s original, sending it back up the charts and topping hers in sales.
In the months and years that followed Specialty Records scrambled to release two records it had in the can and Keen released 12 singles. All became hits including now classics like I’ll Come Running Back to You, Sentimental Reasons, and Wonderful World. Cooke seized control of his own profitable publishing with the creation of Kags Music in partnership with gospel producer J.W. Alexander. The pair along with Cooke’s manager Roy Crain also founded a record label, SAR Records in 1961 which found success issuing sides by The Simms Twins, The Valentinos, Cooke’s close friend Bobby Womack, and Johnnie Taylor.
|Sam Cooke and wife Barbara in happier days.|
During these years Cooke was touring extensively and appearing on TV shows. He continued to chase skirts and he also began to drink regularly and heavily. He was briefly married to singer-dancer Dolores Mohawk, who divorced him over his serial infidelity. But when she was killed in a California car crash in 1959, Cooke paid all of her final medical and burial expenses. The same year Cooke married Barbara Campbell, a former teenage sweetheart with whom he had a daughter, Linda.
In 1961 Cooke’s recording career really slipped into high gear when he signed with mainstream RCA records. A new string of hits began with Chain Gang, and included Cupid, Bring it on Home to Me, Another Saturday Night, and Twistin’ the Night Away. In all he posted 29 top 40 hits and several more on the R&B charts. Although he concentrated on singles, RCA issued hugely successful albums and compellations.
Cooke was at the peak of his career that December. He had laid down more tracks for RCA including his great Civil Rights anthem A Change is Gonna Come and Shake, both of which the label later released and became posthumous hits.
That fateful night Cooke left his wife and three children at their posh Hollywood Hills home to meet a business associate for drinks and dinner at the popular Martoni’s Italian restaurant off Sunset Boulevard, in Hollywood, a popular hangout for music industry types, wannabes, and hangers-on. After a few drinks, Elisa Boyer a striking 23 year old attracted his attention. After a few more drinks the pair departed in his Ferrari.
What happened next is a source of controversy. Boyer would later testify that she asked Cooke to drive her home but that instead he made the 30 minute drive to the Hacienda Motel on Figueroa Street in L.A. Cooke checked in for a $3 a night room. Boyer accompanied him. No one reported a struggle. Once inside she said that Cooke stripped her clothes off and began to attack him. She said that when he went into the bathroom for a moment, she swooped up her clothes—and almost all of his—and bolted out the door. She sprinted to the motel office where she pounded on the manager’s apartment door yelling that she had been kidnapped. The manager was slow to respond so she ran away, still clutching Cooke’s clothing, including his pants with his wallet in it, fearing that he would be after her.
He was. When Cooke emerged from the bathroom he threw on his jacket, one shoe and grabbed a towel and jumped in his car to speed to the office. The manager, Bertha Franklin may have been slow to be roused by Boyer but moments later she said that she was on the telephone with the motel owner, Evelyn Carr who later testified that she heard the whole incident. It was Carr who placed the first of several shooting reports to the police.
Investigators took Franklin’s and Carr’s testimony at face value—certainly the evidence seemed damning to Cooke. When they tracked down Boyer later they found little to doubt in her story. The case was quickly ruled a justifiable homicide Franklin was not charged in the death.
Cooke’s family never bought the story. They pointed out that despite his history of womanizing; Cooke had no history of violence or coercion. Singer Etta James viewed Cooke’s and wrote he was so badly beaten that his head was nearly separated from his shoulders, his hands were broken and crushed, and his nose mangled, more damage than a woman alone was likely to be able to administer with a broom handle.
The family believed that Boyer lured Cooke to the Motel in a classic John roll in which his clothing was taken with his wallet in order to prevent the victim from pursuing. Perpetrators of this kind of operation usually work in collusion with room renters and often have pimps or thumpers on hand in case the victim gets unruly. Although this sounds like a possible scenario, no connection between the three women involved was ever established and no evidence of enforcers ever brought forward.
Later Franklin sued Cooke’s estate alleging physical injuries and mental anguish and seeking $200,000 in compensatory and punitive damages. Cooke’s widow, Barbara, who had married Bobby Womack just three months after her husband’s death, countersued for $7,000 to cover the cost of her husband’s funeral expenses. In the 1967 trial Boyer and Carr testified on Franklin’s behalf. A jury ruled in favor of Franklin on both counts, awarding her $30,000 in damages. All three women then essentially vanished from public record.
The family’s brush with bizarre scandal was not over. Barbara and Bobby Womack had apparently launched an affair while Cooke was still alive. Their rapid marriage scandalized and offended the rest of the family. Then, Barbara discovered that Womack was secretly molesting teenage Linda. She held a gun to his head and threatened to kill him before chasing him out of her house. That caused a breach between mother and daughter. Linda eventually married Womack’s brother.
In the fifty years since his death, Cooke’s enduring popularity, reaching near cult worship status has tended to give credence to the family’s conspiracy theory, despite the angry accusations of some feminists that defenders of his reputation were blaming the victim. With the anniversary coming as Bill Cosby’s sex abuse scandal swirls in the headlines, these issues are bound to resurface in sometimes acrimonious debate.
It looks like many of Cooke’s devoted fans may have to divorce his art from his life.