By Lee Hildebrand
Sam Cooke, right, teaching a song to Muhammad Ali in 1963.
Unlike other vocalists who crossed over from careers in gospel music to R&B and eventually to the top of the pop charts — Aretha Franklin and Johnnie Taylor, among them — Sam Cooke made the leap directly from gospel to the pop summit in a single bound. Within months of ending his six years at the helm of the Soul Stirrers, the handsome heartthrob with the angelic voice landed at No. 1 on both the pop and R&B charts in 1957 with “You Send Me.” Cooke and producer Bumps Blackwell had calculated the love song’s pop appeal, even using a Caucasian chorus behind the singer in order to make it more attractive to white record buyers.
“That was not R&B; that was pop,” James Brown says of “You Send Me” in “Sam Cooke: Crossing Over,” an engrossing hour-long documentary in the PBS series “American Masters” that airs at 10 p.m. Monday, January 11, on KQED-TV, Channel 9. Others interviewed for the film by producers John Antonelli and D. Channsin Berry include such contemporaries of the late singer as Billy Preston, Lou Rawls, Smokey Robinson and Bobby Womack and several members of Cooke’s family. Archival footage includes Cooke’s television appearances with Dick Clark and Mike Douglas, an a cappella duet by Cooke and Muhammad Ali (then known as Cassius Clay) from a BBC sports program and chilling courtroom testimony by the alleged prostitute who Cooke accused of stealing his pants on December 11, 1964, and the motel manager who then shot him to death during his frantic attempt to retrieve them. Danny Glover is the narrator.
Antonelli had begun work on the documentary 11 years ago but ran into roadblocks set up by Allen Klein, who micromanaged Cooke’s estate. The Sausalito filmmaker said that Klein, who died in July, had prevented him from licensing certain archival footage and from interviewing some of the late singer’s friends and family. Berry, who was known as “Chan Berry” when he was a KBLX disc jockey in the mid-1980s, managed to open many doors after being brought into the project. It helped that Berry’s wife’s cousin is married to Cooke’s nephew.
“Sam represented the independence I’ve always wanted, creatively and businesswise ,” Berry said by phone from Chicago, where he was filming a documentary on Dr. Jeremiah Wright, President Barak Obama’s controversial former pastor. “He was the first African American man to own himself as much as he possibly could — his masters (of his own recordings for RCA Victor) and his label, SAR Records (for which he produced Mel Carter, Johnnie Taylor, the Valentinos and others).
“The way Sam presented himself as a master craftsman on stage, he could have been an African American version of a Sinatra or a Tony Bennett. He had that much class and charisma. People loved him, not only African Americans, but Caucasian people and Latinos. You go in the Latino community today in Los Angeles and play ‘Cupid’ and ‘You Send Me,’ and people go wild.”
Send comments and story ideas to Lee Hildebrand at LeeHilde@aol.com.