In just over six years in pop music, Sam Cooke recorded or wrote 29 Top 40 singles — more than Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard combined. He established SAR, an independent record label, in 1959 with J.W. Alexander and S.R. Crain, and launched the careers of artists such as Bobby Womack, Billy Preston and Mel Carter. In 1986, he was one of the first 10 inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
To teenage girls he was a fantasy made flesh, a charismatic sex symbol whose flashy smile and matinee idol looks were exceptionally easy on the eyes. Just months before he died, he had made a triumphant return to New York's Copacabana Club, and he had screen-tested for a movie role.
Cooke's career in gospel and pop also spanned an era when African Americans found their political voice. Beneath all of that sex appeal lay an evolving political consciousness that began surfacing in his moving civil rights anthem, "A Change Is Gonna Come."
He was found shot to death Dec. 11, 1964, his body slumped in the doorway of a sleazy tryst stop, his back resting against a desk — no pants, one shoe — a bullet through his heart. He had gone to the motel in his new red Ferrari with a woman he had picked up in a Hollywood restaurant.
She later told police he had abducted her and tried to rape her before she managed to flee with his trousers. When he broke down the door to the manager's office searching for her, there was a struggle.
The manager, a 55-year-old woman, fired three shots. And Cooke — the soulful singer poised at 33 to ascend to a level of stardom few black American entertainers had been allowed to reach —lay dead on the floor.
Police investigating Cooke's shooting "underestimated his stature," recalled Alexander, his former business partner — some say his right hand. "The head of the 77th Street Division said he didn't realize Sam was that big until he started getting calls from Europe."