Mississippi Festival to Honor Native, R&B Pioneer Sam Cooke

"He was Motown before Motown was even invented," says L.C. Cooke of brother Sam, being honored this weekend in Mississippi. (Associated Press)
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Associated Press
Thursday, August 6, 2009

JACKSON, Miss., Aug. 5 -- More than 40 years after his tragic, violent death, Sam Cooke is still known as the legendary soul and gospel singer who penned "A Change Is Gonna Come," which found a new audience with the election of America's first black president.

But Cooke's brother, L.C. Cooke, says the late singer should also be known for his pioneering business acumen that put him years ahead of his time in the music industry.

Cooke was among the first black performers to own the rights to his music and to form his own recording and publishing company. That's what L.C. Cooke will remind fans about when he attends a Mississippi music festival this weekend dedicated to the 1950s and '60s singer.

"If they look at it, Sam was first in everything," L.C. Cooke said in a phone interview from his home in Chicago. "All his masters belong to Sam, and that was unheard of. He was Motown before Motown was even invented."

The Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival begins Friday in Clarksdale, a sleepy town in the impoverished Delta region -- the musical breeding ground that produced the likes of B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters.

During the weekend-long Cooke tribute, a blues marker in his honor will be unveiled Friday at the New Roxy Theater. At Ground Zero, a blues club owned by actor and Mississippi native Morgan Freeman, an educational forum on Cooke's life will be held Saturday.

Many local performers at the festival will sing at least one of Cooke's hits, whether from his early gospel career with the Soul Stirrers or from his repertoire of pop music. Soul singer Bettye LaVette will headline Saturday night's show. O.B. Buchana takes the stage on Friday.

President Barack Obama's rhetorical nod to "A Change Is Gonna Come" after his 2008 election victory was a testament to Cooke's enduring significance, said Anthony DeCurtis, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine.

"The language of the artistry coupled with a kind of vision of a better world is something the song stands for," DeCurtis said. "Certainly his influence extends to contemporary artists. It would be hard to think of people like Alicia Keys and John Legend without Sam Cooke."

Born Jan. 22, 1931, Cooke was son of a Baptist minister. His mother was a native of Mound Bayou, Miss., a town founded by two former slaves. Sam Cooke was 2 years old when his parents and six siblings boarded a Greyhound bus to Chicago.

Cooke began his writing and recording career with the Soul Stirrers in 1951, making albums at Specialty Records. Tall and handsome with a smooth, melodious voice, Cooke drew crowds of swooning young women at gigs in auditoriums and larger venues that included the Apollo Theater.

After six years, he made the leap to secular music with a sound that melded blues and gospel. He co-founded his own record label, SAR Records, in 1961, signing such artists as Bobby Womack, Johnnie Taylor and Billy Preston.

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