Sam Cooke at the Copacabana

Sam Cooke (1931 – 1964), singer, songwriter and civil-rights activist, on stage with band at New York’s Copacabana nightclub, June 1964. | Source: Ben Martin / Getty

UPDATED: 4:00 a.m. ET, Dec. 11, 2021

Pioneering soul singer Sam Cooke, also dubbed the “King Of Soul,” left an unmistakable mark on the music industry, and his contributions led to the opening of doors for other legendary vocalists of his time. Cooke was murdered under curious circumstances on this day in 1964 — a case which remains under heavy scrutiny.

Cooke was born in the town of Clarksdale in Mississippi and was one of eight children to his parents Reverend Charles Cook and Annie Mae Cook. Cooke, who added the “e” to his name for unknown reasons, sang in a variety of gospel groups as a youth. After years as a fan of the gospel group, The Soul Stirrers, Cooke joined the band after leaving high school.

MORE: Sam Cooke To Nina Simone To Billie Holiday: 10 Civil Rights Protest Songs

After establishing himself in the group, Cooke began to branch out to secular tunes, landing the hit single “You Send Me” in 1957. Savvy and driven to succeed, Cooke established a series of publishing companies and signed a huge deal with RCA. Cooke also started his own label and worked with fellow singers Billy Preston, Bobby Womack and others.

Watch “You Send Me” here:

The 1960s were especially good to Cooke’s career, with the singer landing hit after hit. His crossover appeal — coupled with his good looks — helped catapult him to new heights. But with fame came tragedy, and the loss of his toddler son while he was away touring ripped apart his already troubled marriage to his wife, Barbara.

Sam Cooke Portrait Session

Sam Cooke his wife Barbara Cooke on November 30, 1960, in Los Angeles. | Source: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty

On the evening of December 11, 1964, Cooke met a woman named Elisa Boyer at a Los Angeles bar. The pair traveled to the Hacienda Motel, where reportedly, an incident broke out between them. After the incident, Cooke allegedly burst into the motel’s office and violently confronted the manager, Bertha Franklin, who shot the singer in the chest. The bullet went through Cooke’s heart, killing him instantly.

Based on Boyer’s account, she claimed Cooke kidnapped her and threatened sexual assault. She also claims to have called the police to alert them that her life was in danger.

The Soul Stirrers

The Soul Stirrers, L-R Sam Cooke, JJ Farley, SR Crain, RB Robinson and Paul Foster, pose for a studio group portrait in 1950 in the United Sattes. | Source: Gilles Petard / Getty

Boyer’s stories, though, have been deemed inconsistent and lacking evidence.

Franklin’s accounts have also been under question, but authorities were never able to determine the true facts behind the death of Cooke.

At his funeral in Los Angeles, thousands attended and a performance of “Angels Keep Watching Over Me” by Ray Charles that was said to be stirring. Posthumously, Cooke landed other hits such as the classic “Change Is Gonna Come,” which became an anthem for civil rights activists.

Listen to “Change Is Gonna Come” here:

Despite the tragic end to Cooke’s life, his musical contributions and impact on how male R&B singers are received today are arguably the most significant portions of his legacy. With a silky voice that remains unmatched and lyrics that stirred the soul, Sam Cooke’s music lives on forever.


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Soul Music Pioneer Sam Cooke Shot To Death On This Day In 1964  was originally published on