Sam Cooke (Image Source)
Earlier this spring, when rapper Kendrick Lamar dropped his critically praised album, “DAMN”, it shot up to the top of the Billboard charts. Thing is, it wasn’t just a hit in Hip Hop; it was a certified success in the realm of Pop, too. Slate boasted, “Kendrick Lamar’s New No. 1 Proves He’s Not Just Our Greatest Rapper. He’s One of Our Biggest Pop Stars.”
Rappers can be Pop Stars, yes. Twenty years ago (!), the recently deceased Notorious B.I.G.’s “Hypnotize” spent most of May ’97 atop the Hot 100 Charts until being bumped by Hanson’s “Mmmbop” (!!). But it wasn’t long before Biggie’s producer/ B.F.F./ kind-of-a-rapper… kind-of… Bad Boy Records founder- buddy Puff Daddy knocked the blond brothers from number one with “I’ll Be Missing You”. It was an ode to Biggie that featured fellow Bad Boy artists 112 and Faith Evans, Big’s widow.
In other words, Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, a young Black music producer of Urban music, with a roster of Urban acts (Lil’ Kim, Mase, The Lox), and a performer who sampled some of the best classics of old school Soul music… became not just a Pop hit, but a definitive Pop star.
Of course, Puffy was not the first crossover act. Michael Jackson blurred the lines of what was R&B and Pop; Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston were introduced as Pop singers with soulful voices, but both swung back and forth comfortably between the charts. Aretha Franklin, Queen of Soul, had Pop success, too, of course, as did Tina Turner, Little Richard, Marvin Gaye and many more.
Yet, when I think of Kendrick’s “surprise” Pop popularity, or Puffy’s late 90’s ascendency of Producer/Performer/Pop star extraordinaire, I think of Sam Cooke. Sam “Gospel-turned-Soul-turned-Pop” Cooke. Back in the 1950s and 60’s, he crooned, swooned, and breezily sang his way into the hearts of Black and White fans alike. With a dazzling smile, and confident-but-not-cocky-demeanor, Cooke performed his way into White America in a way that in the decades since, has become expected. Today in 2017, most people don’t bat an eye at Bruno Mars, person of color, reigning supreme on darn near every station from Z100 to Power 105.1. After all, we have had Usher, Ne-yo, Omarion, Drake, etc., doing this on the regular. But 60 years ago (!!!), Cooke’s smooth step over the musical color line made him a pioneer.
From The Boston Phoenix:
Cooke’s graceful voice and rakish good looks had already made him a star by the time he left the popular gospel group the Soul Stirrers in 1956. His crossover dreams became real the next year, when his first pop hit, “You Send Me,” sold 1.7 million copies. He had more smashes for RCA, including “Chain Gang,” “Only Sixteen,” “Bring It On Home to Me,” and “Twisting the Night Away.”
RCA’s producers used sugary strings and white back-up singers to move Cooke’s R&B-and-gospel-steeped singing across the color line. By the time he recorded the material on Keep Movin’ On, he had wrested complete artistic control from RCA, thanks to the relationship he had forged with Klein, who was an accountant when he met Cooke in early 1963. Within months, Klein was able to get Cooke $119,000 in back royalties, a $50,000 advance from BMI, and a new contract with RCA that paid him $450,000 over five years. Cooke and Klein formed their own publishing and management company and leased the master tapes Cooke had recorded to RCA. Cooke also became one of the first popular black performers to have his own imprint, SAR/Derby Records.
Or listen to my favorite Sam Cooke song, “A Change Is Gonna Come”, below.