Let me tell you a story on Sam. Sam was always ambitious. He always knew exactly what he wanted to do. When we was very little boys, we were playing, and he had these popsicle sticks — you know them little wooden sticks? He had about twenty of them, and he lined them sticks up, stuck 'em in the ground, and said, "This is my audience, see? I'm gonna sing to these sticks." He said, "This prepare me for my future." Another time he said, "Hey, C., you know what?" I said, "What?" He said, "I figured out my life, man." He said, "I'm never gonna have a nine-to-five job." I said, "What you mean, Sam?" He said, "Man, I figured out the whole system." He said, "It's designed, if you work, to keep you working, all you do is live from payday to payday — at the end of the week you broke again." He said, "The system is designed like that." And I'm listening. I'm seven and he's nine, and he's talking about "the system"! I said, "What are you gonna do, then, if you ain't gonna work, Sam?" He said, "I'm gonna sing, and I'm going to make me a lot of money." And that's just what he did.
— L.C. Cooke, on his brother's early ambitions
[Note: Cooke added the 'e' at the end of his name later in life, as did his brother.]
Sam Cook was a golden child around whom a family mythology was constructed, long before he achieved fame or added the e to his last name.
There are all the stories about Sam as a child: how he was endowed with second sight; how he sang to the sticks; how he convinced his neighborhood "gang" to tear the slats off backyard fences, then sold them to their previous owners for firewood; how he was marked with a gift from earliest childhood on and never wavered from its fulfillment.
He was the adored middle child of a Church of Christ (Holiness) minister with untrammeled ambitions for his children.
Movies were strictly forbidden. So were sports, considered gambling because the outcome inevitably determined a winner and a loser. Church took up all day Sunday, with preparations starting on Saturday night.
They were respectable, upwardly mobile, proud members of a proudly striving community, but they didn't shrink from a fight. Their daddy told them to stand up for themselves and their principles, no matter what the situation was. Respect your elders, respect authority — but if you were in the right, don't back down for anyone, not the police, not the white man, not anyone. One time neighborhood bullies tried to block Sam's way to school, and he told them he didn't care if he had to fight them every day, he was going to school. He lived in a world in which he was told hard work would be rewarded, but he could see evidence to the contrary all around him. Their father told them that their true reward would come in heaven, but Sam was unwilling to wait. He was unwilling to live in a world of superstition and fear, and even his father's strictures and homilies were subject to the same rational skepticism, the same unwavering gaze with which he seemed to have been born. He was determined to live his life by his own lights and no one else's.
He was born January 22, 1931, in Clarksdale, Mississippi, the fifth of the Reverend Charles Cook and his wife Annie Mae's eight children (the oldest, Willie, was Annie Mae's first cousin, whom they took in at three upon his mother's death). Charles and Annie Mae met at a Church of Christ (Holiness) convention at which he was preaching, and they started going to church together. He was a young widower of twenty-three with a child that was being raised by his late wife's family. Born to sharecroppers in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1897, he had been baptized into the Holiness church at the age of eight, and when the church split in two a couple of years later (its founders, Charles Price Jones and Charles Harrison Mason, differed over the importance of speaking in tongues as certain confirmation of "spirit baptism," with Mason declaring this surrender to a force that overcomes recognizable human speech to be a sure sign of grace), the Cooks remained with the Jackson-based Reverend Jones, while Reverend Mason's followers became the better-known, more populous (and more prosperous) Memphis-based Church of God in Christ.
Just fourteen when she met Charles, Annie Mae was fair-skinned, round-faced, with hair she could sit on. She was sixteen when they married in November of 1923. She had grown up in Mound Bayou, a self-sufficient all-black township founded in 1887 and known as "the negro capital of Mississippi." The granddaughter of a businessman reputed, according to family legend, to be "the second-wealthiest man in Mound Bayou," she was raised by an aunt after her mother died in childbirth. She was working as a cook when she met her future husband and by her husband's account won him over with her culinary skills, inviting him home from church one day and producing a four-course meal in the forty-five minutes between services.
They had three children (Mary, Charles Jr., and Hattie), spaced eighteen months to two years apart, before Sam was born in January of 1931, with his brother L.C. ("it don't stand for nothing") following twenty-three months later.
Within weeks of L.C.'s birth Charles Cook was on the road, hitchhiking to Chicago with a fellow preacher with thirty-five cents in his pocket. It was the Lord who had convinced him he couldn't fail, but it was his children's education, and the opportunity he was determined to give them to get ahead, that provided the burning motivation. He had sharecropped, worked on the railroad, and most recently been a houseboy in one of Clarksdale's wealthiest homes while continuing to do the Lord's work as a Holiness circuit preacher — but he was not prepared to consign his children to the same fate. He was thirty-five years old at the time, and as certain of his reasons sixty-three years later. "It was to educate my children. It was a better chance up here. In Mississipi they didn't even furnish you with the schoolbooks. But I didn't put nothing ahead of God."
Charles Cook preached his way to Chicago, "mostly for white folks, they give me food and money," he said, for a sermon that satisfactorily answered the "riddle" of salvation, "proving that man could pray his self out of hell." Within weeks of his arrival, he had found work and sent for his wife and children, who arrived on a Greyhound bus at the Twelfth Street station, the gateway to Chicago's teeming South Side.
It was a whole different world in Chicago, a separate self-contained world in which the middle class mingled with the lowest down, in which black doctors and lawyers and preachers and schoolteachers strove to establish standards and set realistic expectations for a community that included every type of individual engaged in every type of human endeavor, from numbers kings to domestics, from street players to steel workers, from race heroes to self-made millionaires. It was a society which, despite a form of segregation as cruel and pernicious as the Southern kind, could not be confined or defined, a society of which almost all of its variegated members, nearly every one of them an immigrant from what was commonly referred to as South America, felt an integral part. It was a society into which the Cook family immediately fit.
From the moment of his arrival, Reverend Cook found his way to Christ Temple Cathedral, an imposing edifice which the Church of Christ (Holiness) had purchased for $55,000 six years earlier, just ten years after its modest prayer-meeting beginnings in the Federal Street home of Brother Holloway. He preached an occasional sermon and served as a faithful congregant and assistant pastor while working a number of jobs, including for a brief time selling burial insurance, before he found steady employment at the Reynolds Metals plant in McCook, Illinois, some fifteen miles out of town, where he would eventually rise to a position as union shop steward.
The family lived briefly in a kitchenette apartment on Thirty-third and State but soon moved into more comfortable surroundings on the fourth floor of the four-story Lenox Building, at 3527 Cottage Grove Avenue (there were five separately numbered entrances to the Lenox Building, with the back porches all interconnected), in the midst of a busy neighborhood not far from the lake. There was a drugstore on the corner, the Blue Goose grocery store was just up the street, and directly across from the Blue Goose was a chicken market where you could select your own live chicken and have it killed and dressed on the spot. Westpoint Baptist Church was on the other side of the street, all the players hung out at the poolroom on Thirty-sixth, and Ellis Park, an elegant enclave of privately owned row houses surrounding a park with two swimming pools in the middle, ran between Thirty-sixth and Thirty-seventh across Cottage Grove.
The new baby, Agnes, was almost two years old when Reverend Cook, through the intervention of one of his original Jackson mentors, Bishop J. L. I. Conic, finally got his own congregation at Christ Temple Church in Chicago Heights, some thirty miles out of town. This quickly became the focus of the Cooks' family life.
We was in church every time that church door was open. That was a must, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Saturday night Mama would cook our dinner. Then we'd all get up about 6:30 Sunday morning, 'cause everyone had to take their bath — seven children, one bathroom! — so we could be dressed and be at church at nine o'clock for Sunday school. After Sunday school you had eleven o'clock service, with prayer and singing, and Papa would do the sermon for the day. Then Mama would take us to the basement and heat up our food in the church kitchen. Then we had afternoon service, and after that BYPU, which is a young people's service, then the eight o'clock service until about 10 o'clock, when we would go home. Plus Wednesday night prayer meeting! One time Mary, our oldest sister — she was used to doing what she wanted — decided she wasn't going to go to church. She said, "I know what I'm gonna do. I'm going to wash my hair, and then I'm going to tell Papa, ‘I can't go to church 'cause I just got my hair washed, and I haven't got it done.'" Well, she washed her hair, and she told Papa, but he just said, "That's all right, just come right on." So she had to go to church with her hair all a mess. Papa didn't play. You had to either go to church or get out of his house.
— Hattie, Agnes, and L.C. Cook in a spirited chorus of voices recalling their early religious training
The Chicago Heights church, which had first been organized in 1919, grew dramatically under Reverend Cook's stewardship. The "seventeen" previous ministers, he told gospel historian David Tenenbaum, had been able to do nothing to increase the size or fervor of a congregation made up for the most part of workers from the local Ford assembly plant, but, Reverend Cook said, "I worked up to one hundred and twenty-five, I filled the church up. You had to be sure to come there on time if you wanted a seat."
He was, according to his daughter Agnes, a "fire-and-brimstone country preacher" who always sang before he preached, strictly the old songs — two of his favorites were "You Can't Hurry God" and "This Little Light of Mine." He took his sermon from a Bible text and was known to preach standing on one leg for two minutes at a time when he got carried away by his message. The congregation was vocal in its response, shouting, occasionally speaking in tongues, with church mothers dressed in nurse's whites prepared to attend to any of the congregation who were overcome. The Cooks didn't shout, but Annie Mae would cry sometimes, her children could always tell when the sermon really got to her and her spirit was full by the tears streaming down her cheeks. The other ladies in the congregation were equally moved, for despite his stern demeanor, the Reverend Cook was a handsome man — and despite his numerous strictures, as his children were well aware, the Reverend Cook definitely had an eye for the ladies. Annie Mae sang in the choir, which was accompanied by a girl named Flora on piano, and different groups would come out occasionally to present spiritual and gospel music programs. One group in particular, the Progressive Moaners, became regular visitors — they always got a good response — and that is what gave the Reverend Cook the idea for the Singing Children.
The Cook children were all musical, but Charles, the next-to-oldest, was the heart and soul of the family group. He was eleven, "and I had to sing every Sunday in church, my daddy used to make me sing all the time, stop me from going out in the street and playing with my friends." He and his big sister, Mary, sang lead in the five-member quartet. Hattie, who was eight, sang baritone; Sam, already focused on music as a career at six, sang tenor; and L.C., the baby of the group, was their four-year-old bass singer.
They practiced at home at first but soon were "upsetting" the church on a regular basis, taking the Progressive Moaners' place at the center of the service and in the process reflecting as much on their father, Reverend Cook, as on themselves. They sang "Precious Lord, Take My Hand" and "They Nailed Him to the Cross" with Flora accompanying them. "We just practiced our own selves and decided what songs we was going to sing," recalled Hattie. "Every time the church doors opened we had to be there."
Before long they were going around to other churches and leading off their father's out-of-town revivals in Indianapolis and Gary and Kankakee. The entire family traveled together, all nine of them, generally staying with the minister, but not infrequently having to split up among various church households due to the size of the group. Each of the Singing Children had a freshness and charm. They were a good-looking family, even the boys had pretty, long bangs, and the church ladies used to cluck over that baby bass singer who put himself into the music so earnestly, and the handsome lead singer — he was a big boy who carried himself in a manly fashion — but no one missed the little tenor singer, either, the one with the sparkle in his eye, who could just melt your heart with the way he communicated the spirit of the song. Sometimes, when he got too many preaching engagements, Reverend Cook would send them to sing in his place. "When they'd come back, the people would tell me, say, ‘Anytime you can't come, Preach, just send the children to sing.'"
All the children were proud of what they were doing, both for themselves and for their father. And their father was proud of them, not only for causing the Cook family sound (his sound) to become more widely known but for adding substantially to his store of entrepreneurial activities: the church, the revivals, the riders he carried out to Reynolds each day for a fee in his nearly brand-new 1936 Chevrolet, soon to be replaced by a Hudson Terraplane, and, when Charles was old enough to drive, a pair of limousines ("Brother, I made my money!" he was wont to declare in later years with unabashed pride).
But Charles, a gruff, sometimes taciturn boy with a disinclination to show his sensitivity, soon grew disenchanted with the spotlight. "Aw, man, my daddy used to make me sing too much. I used to get so tired of singing I said, I'm gonna get up there and mess up, and he won't ask me to sing no more, but once I got up there, that song would get so good, shit, I couldn't mess up. I couldn't mess up. But I said, if I ever get grown, if I ever make twenty-one, I'm not going to sing for nobody. And I didn't."
Meanwhile, Sam, the irrepressible middle child, made no secret of his own impatience for the spotlight. Even L.C., who slept in the same room with him and appreciated wholeheartedly his brother's wit and spark, was taken aback by Sam's undisguised ambition. Charles could easily have resented his brother's importunity, but instead he retained a strictly pragmatic point of view. "Well, he had such a pretty little tenor — I mean, it was kind of undescribable, his tone, his singing. But we didn't have nobody to replace him. So we wouldn't let him lead. We were the lead singers, my sister and I. We pretty much had the say-so."
It was a busy life. The children all went to Doolittle Elementary School just two blocks west of the Lenox Building, and they were all expected to do well. Both parents checked their homework, though even at an early age the children became aware that their mother possessed more formal schooling than their father, and she would even substitute-teach at Doolittle on occasion. Reverend Cook, on the other hand, conveyed a kind of uncompromising rectitude and pride, which, in all of their recollection, he was determined to instill in his children. "He had a saying," said his youngest daughter, Agnes, "that he would write in everybody's course book when they graduated, and he would recite it to you constantly: ‘Once a task is once begun / Never stop until it's done / Be the labor great or small / Do it well or not at all.' He always told us, ‘If you're going to shine shoes, be the best shoe-shine boy out there. If you're going to sweep a street, be the best street sweeper. Whatever you strive to be, be the best at it, whether it's a small job or working in top management.' He always felt that you could do anything that you put your mind to."
Everyone was expected to contribute. The girls did the housework. Willie, the oldest, the adopted cousin, was already sixteen and working for the Jewish butcher at the chicken market across the street. At eleven, Charles went to work as a delivery boy for the Blue Goose grocery store. Even the little boys helped their mother with her shopping.
Charles joined the Deacons, a neighborhood gang. Sam and L.C. freely roamed the streets, but there was only so much you could get away with, because the neighborhood functioned, really, as an extended family; if you got too out of hand, the neighbors would correct you, even go so far as to physically chastise you, and Reverend and Mrs. Cook would certainly do the same.
There were still white people in the neighborhood when the Cooks moved in, but by now almost all its residents were black, the shopkeepers uniformly white — and yet the children for the most part thought little about segregation because their exposure was limited to the fact, but not the experience, of it. Reverend Cook, on the other hand, was unwilling to see his children, or anyone else in the family for that matter, treated like second-class citizens. One time the police confronted Charles on the street, and Reverend Cook, in his children's recollection, came out of the house and said, "Don't you mess around with my kids. If there is something wrong, you come and get me." And when the policeman touched his holstered gun, their father said, "I'll whip that pistol off you." He meant it, according to his children, "and the police knew he meant it. Our daddy wasn't bashful about nothing. He always told us to hold our head high and speak our mind. ‘Don't you all run from nobody.'"
It was a family above all, one that, no matter what internal frictions might arise, always stuck together. Charles might feel resentment against his father and long for the day when he could find some escape; the girls might very well feel that it was unfair that the boys had no household responsibilities; Sam and L.C. might fight every day just in the course of normal events. "We was always together," said L.C. "We slept together, we grew up together. Sometimes we'd be in bed at the end of the day, and Sam would say, ‘Hey, we didn't fight today,' and we'd fight right there in the bed — that's how close we were!" But the moment that the outside world intruded, Cooks, as their father constantly reminded them, stood up for one another. Mess with one Cook, mess with all.
The children all took their baths before their father came home from work ("We could tell it was him by the lights of his car"). Then they would sit down at the round kitchen table and have dinner together, every night without exception. They weren't allowed to eat at somebody else's house ("If you had a friend, bring them home"). Their mother, who addressed her husband unfailingly as "Brother Cook," never made them eat anything they didn't like and often cooked something special for one or another of her children. Chicken and dumplings, chicken and dressing, and homemade dinner rolls were the favorites, along with red beans and rice. None of them doubted for a moment that Mama loved him or her best of all. She lived for her children, as she told them over and over, and she prayed every night that she would live to see them grown, because "she did not want a stepmother over her children."
After dinner, in the summertime especially, they might go for a drive. They might go to the airport to watch the planes take off; they might go to the park or just ride around downtown. On weekends they would all go to the zoo sometimes, and every summer they had family picnics by the pavilion at Red Gate Woods, part of the forest preserve, family picnics for which their mother provided baskets of food and at which attendance was not optional.
Once a year the family attended the national Church of Christ (Holiness) convention in Annapolis, Detroit, St. Louis, and every summer they drove to Mississippi, spending Reverend Cook's two-week vacation from Reynolds shuttling back and forth among their various relatives all over the state, with Reverend Cook preaching (and the Singing Children accompanying him) wherever they went.
The preparations for the trip were always busy and exciting, with Mama staying up the night before frying chicken and making pound cake because there was nowhere on the road for a black family to stop. Papa did all the driving, at least until Charles turned fifteen, and after the first hour or so, everyone started to get hungry and beg Mama for a chicken leg or wing out of the shoe boxes in which she had packed the food. They all sang together in the car, silly songs like "Merrily, We Roll Along," and read off the Burma-Shave signs that unspooled their message sign by sign on the side of the highway. They all remembered one sequence in particular year after year. The first sign said "Papa liked the shave," the next "Mama liked the jar," then "Both liked the cream," and, finally, "So there you are!" One time, Agnes recalled, they ran out of bread for the cold cuts, and Papa sent her and her sixteen-year-old sister, Mary, into a grocery store — she couldn't have been more than five or six at the time. "Well, Mary went in and picked up the loaf of bread and put it on the counter just like she do anywhere else, just like she would do at home, and the man said, ‘You're not from around here, are you?' So she says no, and he said, ‘When you come in here, you ask me for what you want, and I'll get it for you.' So she said, ‘I'm buying it. I don't see why I can't pick it up. I'm taking it with me.'"
It was a very different way of life. Charles and Mary went out in the fields to pick cotton, but, L.C. said, he and Sam had no interest in that kind of work ("We were out there playing with the little girls, trying to get them in the cotton gin"), and Hattie, who did, was forced to take care of Agnes. One time Sam and L.C. were watching their grandfather pull up some logs in a field, "and he just throwed the horse's reins down when he seen us coming," said L.C. "Well, Sam got tangled up in the reins, and they had to run and catch the horse. And we got Sam back to the house, and he was all right, but I never will forget, he said, ‘That horse tried to kill me.' I said, ‘No, Sam, the horse was just spooked. She wasn't trying to kill you.' He said, ‘No — Nelly tried to kill me!'"
They met far-flung relatives on both sides of the family who had never left Mississippi, including their mother's cousin Mabel, who lived in Shaw and was more like a sister to her, and their father's brother George, who sharecropped outside of Greenville. Their grandmother, L.C. said, was always trying to get Sam and him to stay with her. "She would say, ‘You got to come live with us,' but I had a little joke I'd tell her. I said, ‘You know what? If Mama and them hadn't of moved and left Mississippi, as soon as I'd gotten big enough to walk, I'd have walked out!' They used to laugh at me and say, ‘Boy, you're so crazy.'"
Papa preached and they sang all over the state. To Hattie, "It was really a learning experience," but from Charles' point of view, "We was glad to get there, glad to leave."
They saw their father as a stern but fair man, but their mother was someone they could tell their secrets to. She treated their friends with the same kind of gentle consideration that she showed all of them, never reluctant to add another place to the table or take a mattress and lay it on the floor. "I don't know where one of you all might be," she told them by way of explanation, "maybe someone will help you some day in the same way." If any one of them was in a play and just said "Boo," why, then, to their mother, they were "the best booer in the world."
None of them was ever really singled out. Papa whipped all of them equally, and Mama rewarded them all the same — but even within the family Sam stood out. To L.C., bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, someone who by his own account, and everyone else's, too, "always thought like a man," Sam was similar — but at the same time altogether different. "Hey, I thought I had a personality. But Sam had the personality. He could charm the birds out of the trees."
If you tried to calculate just what it was, you would never be able to figure it out. There were other little boys just as good-looking, and there were undoubtedly others just as bright — but there was something about him, all of his siblings agreed, whether it was the infectiousness of his grin, or his unquenchable enthusiasm, or the insatiable nature of his curiosity, he possessed a spark that just seemed to light a fire under everyone he was around. He was a great storyteller and he always had something to tell you — but it was the way he communicated it, the way he made you feel as if you were the only person in the world and that what he was communicating to you was something he had never told anyone else before: there was a seemingly uncalculated spontaneity even to what his brothers and sisters knew to be his most calculated actions. He was always calling attention to himself. "He loved to play little pranks," his sister Agnes said, "and he could think of more jokes than anyone else." But why his actions failed to cause more jealousy or resentment than they did, no one could fully explain. Unless it was simply, as L.C. said, "he was just likeable."
To his older sister Hattie, Sam always had his own way of doing things. Sam and L.C. and Charles all pooled their collection of marbles, "but Sam liked to be by himself a lot, too, and he would take those marbles and have them be like boxers in the ring — he made up all kinds of things."
For that same reason, to his ninety-eight-year-old father looking back on it all thirty-two years after his son's death, "Sam was a peculiar child. He was always headman, he was always at the post, from a kid on what he said went. He'd just be walking along the street and make a song out of it. If he said it was a song, it was a song all the way through."
The others could see the contributions their next-to-youngest member made even to such familiar spirituals and jubilee numbers as "Deep River," "Swing Down, Chariot, Let Me Ride," and "Going Home," not to mention the more modern quartet style of Birmingham's Famous Blue Jays and the Five Soul Stirrers from Houston, both of whom had recently moved to the neighborhood. Spiritual music was at a crossroads, with the older style of singing, which the Reverend Cook favored — "sorrow songs" from slavery times along with the more up-tempo "jubilee"-style rhythmic narratives of the enormously influential Golden Gate Quartet — giving way to a more direct emotional style. This was the new quartet sound, with five- or six-member groups like the Stirrers expanding on the traditional parts while featuring alternating lead singers who egged each other on to a level of histrionics previously confined to the Pentecostal Church. Their driving attack mimicked the sound, as well as the message, of gospel preaching, and their repertoire, too, frequently sprang from more accessible personal testimony, like the "gospel blues" compositions of Thomas A. Dorsey. To the Singing Children it made little difference, they sang it all. Their repertoire was aimed at pleasing their audience, but they were drawn to the exciting new quartet sound. Anything the Soul Stirrers or the Blue Jays sang, they learned immediately off the record. But Sam's ability to rearrange verses or rhyme up familiar Bible stories to make a song was not lost on any of them, least of all the Reverend Cook.
It wasn't long before the Singing Children had a manager of their own, a friend of their father's named David Peale who owned a filling station and had plenty of money. He set up church bookings for them, established a firm fee structure ("We charged fifteen cents' admission, and we wouldn't sing if we didn't get paid"), drove them to their engagements in a white Cadillac limousine, and collected the money at the door. They had quite a following, according to Agnes, still too young to join the group. "Everywhere they went, they would turn the church out."
Sam accepted Christ at eleven, in 1942, just after America had entered the war — but like all of his brothers and sisters, the religion that he embraced seemed to have less to do with the Church of Christ (Holiness) or their father's strictures than the simple precepts that Reverend Cook had taught them: show respect to get respect, if you treat people right, they in turn will do right by you. At the same time, as Reverend Cook was equally quick to point out, there was no prohibition in the Bible against worldly success; in fact, there were many verses that endorsed it, and as proud as he was of his ability to put enough food on the table to feed a family of ten — and to have recently acquired two late-model limousines, a radio, a telephone, and a brand-new windup phonograph — he was equally determined that his children should learn to make their own way in the world.
Sam took this lesson in the spirit, but perhaps not quite in the manner, that his father intended. He established his own business with a group of neighborhood kids, with his brother L.C. serving as his chief lieutenant and himself as CEO. "Yeah, tearing out people's fences and then sell it back to them for firewood at twenty cents a basket. We did that; Sam didn't do it — he get the money. Sam would have me and Louis Truelove and Slick and Dan Lofton (there was about five of us) to go tear out the fence and chop the wood up — naw, they didn't know it was their fence — and then as soon as we get the money, he take half of everybody's but mine."
He was a mischievous, inquisitive child, always testing the limits but, unlike L.C., not inclined to measure the consequences of his every action. He went to the movies for the first time at around thirteen, at the Louis Theater at Thirty-fifth and Michigan, somehow persuading his younger brother to accompany him. "I said, ‘You know Papa don't believe in it.' He said, ‘Nobody gonna say anything, and you ain't gonna tell anyone.' I said, ‘Noooo . . .' ‘Then how he gonna know?'
"After that we went all the time — me and Sam had a ball. One time there was no seats, and Sam called, ‘Fire!' Shit, they wanted to put our ass in jail. But we got a seat. We used to get tripe sandwiches at this little place on Thirty-sixth, they be all covered with onions and pickles, and you get in the theater and just bite down on it, and everybody in the show want to know, ‘Who got them tripe sandwiches?'"
Their older sister Hattie still hadn't gone to the movies herself. "I wanted to go so bad, but I was scared of a whipping. Everyone in our group was going to the show, and I had to tell them I couldn't. They even offered to pay for me, 'cause I was too embarrassed to say, ‘My daddy won't let me.' But then I finally do go, and who do I see first thing in there? Sam and L.C. And they said, ‘Girl, we was wondering when you was going to wake up!'"
Sam, as L.C. saw it, "said just what he thought, whether you liked it or not. If Sam thought something, he would tell you, it didn't make no difference. One time we was going to the movies at the Oakland, on Thirty-ninth and Drexel, and we stopped to get some caramel corn. We come out of the store, and here are these three fellows, and one of them says, ‘Hey, man, give me a quarter.' And Sam just looks at him and says, ‘Hey, man, you too old to be out here mooching. Why don't you get a job?' He say, ‘Hey, man, what you say?' Well, Sam and I put our popcorn on the ground and get ready to fight. But then one of the other boys say, ‘Hey, man, don't mess with them. Don't you know they're Charlie Cook's brothers?' Said, ‘Charles'll come down here and kill everybody.' So that's what made the boys back up. But Sam didn't care. He said, ‘I got a quarter, and I'm going to the show with my quarter. You need a job!'"
His imagination was inflamed by the cowboys-and-Indians movies that ran at the Louis and at the Oakland Theater, too, and when they got home, he and L.C. played at all that "cowboy jazz," which, of course, inevitably led to yet another brotherly fight. There was no question that Sam lived in the world as much or more than any other member of his family: he was bright, he was daring, he was driven by ambition. But at the same time, much of the vision that fueled that ambition came from an interior view, a life of the mind, that was very different from his brothers' and sisters', that was almost entirely his own. Radio, like the movies, offered a vehicle of escape; he was completely caught up in the comedies, dramas, and ongoing serials. But books were his principal refuge from the humdrum reality of everyday life. He and Hattie (and later Agnes) were the readers in the family, each one taking out five books at a time, the maximum you were allowed, from the Lincoln Library on Thirty-ninth. They read everything — adventure books, mysteries, the classics (Sam's favorite was Huckleberry Finn) — and they swapped the books around, so that in one week, by Hattie's estimation, they might read as many as ten books apiece. "I mean, the whole family read. We would take turns reading tales out of different books, because our parents, even though they didn't go far in school, really valued education. But Sam was really a bookworm, he was a history buff, but he would read just about anything."
He started high school at Wendell Phillips, just a ten- or fifteen-minute walk from home, over on Pershing near the library, in the fall of 1944. His big sister Mary had recently graduated, Charles was entering his senior year, and Hattie was a junior, but Sam, despite his slight stature and some initial reserve, quickly made his mark. It was impossible, his classmates would later acknowledge in the Phillipsite, the high school yearbook, to imagine Sam Cook "not being able to make a person laugh." His teachers described Sam as "personable and aggressive," which might charitably be taken as a stab at summoning up something of his bubbling good nature, his vast appreciation of life in all of its dimensions. But whatever his schoolmates' or teachers' opinions of him, however much or however little he may have impressed them, he was probably better known as big Charlie Cook's brother than for any accomplishments of his own. And although he sang in the glee club, where sufficient notice was taken of him that he was given a solo at the Christmas show in his junior year, few of his classmates seem even to have been aware of the existence of the Singing Children, let alone their celebrity in certain circles.
He took over his brother's job at the Blue Goose when Charles started driving for a fruit-and-vegetable vendor. According to his little sister, Agnes, "Sam always drew a crowd, the kids would go in the grocery store just to talk to him." And he joined one of the local "gangs," the Junior Destroyers — more like a teenage social club, according to his brother L.C., which served as a badge of neighborhood identification and mutual protection. "We had to belong to a club to go to school," according to Sam, but he enjoyed the growing sense of independence, the thrill of confrontation not infrequently followed by unarmed combat, above all the camaraderie of belonging to a group that was not defined by his father's church. Everyone's memories of Sam at this time come back to his laugh, its warmth, its inclusiveness, the way he would indicate, simply by timbre, that for him there was no such thing as a private joke. There was another boy in the gang, Leroy Hoskins, known to everyone as "Duck," whose laugh was so infectious that Sam vowed he would one day capture it on record.
For all of his social skills, he continued to insist on his own idiosyncratic way of doing things, no matter how trivial, no matter how foolish this might sometimes make him seem. Charles had by now started working the 3:45 to 11:45 P.M. shift out at Reynolds ("I lied about my age. I got the job because I loved clothes; I was always the best dresser in the family"), and L.C. was working as Charles' assistant on the fruit-and-vegetable truck and pestering Charles to teach him to drive. "I was eleven, but Charles taught me, put me on two telephone books in my daddy's car so I could see. He was gonna teach Sam at the same time, but Sam said, ‘No, man, I'll learn myself.' You couldn't tell Sam nothing — he had to do it on his own. He tried to put the car in gear with his feet on the brakes instead of the clutch, almost stripped the gears in my daddy's car. Charles said, ‘Sam, you gonna strip the gears.' He said, ‘No, man, don't disturb me now.' You know, sometimes I think he thought he was the smartest person in the world."
The war impinged in various ways. Most directly because Willie was in the Army Corps of Engineers overseas — he was in one of the first units to cross the Rhine, and they eagerly followed the news of his division's movements and looked forward to his letters home. Sam and L.C. explored the city, roaming far beyond the confines of the neighborhood, sometimes walking along the lake all the way to the Loop and back, a distance of some three miles, and observing a hub of activity, a sense of entitlement and economic well-being, from which they knew black people were systematically excluded. They read the Chicago Defender, too, the pioneering Chicago journal that served as a kind of Negro national newspaper, and took a job selling the weekend edition of the paper on the street every Thursday night when it came out. Their growing interest in girls took them to the skating rink up by the Regal Theater on Forty-seventh Street, where all the big stars of the day appeared — but, true to the strictures of their father, while they may have gazed longingly at the marquee, they never ventured inside to see the show.
They continued to sing every chance they got, going from apartment to apartment in the Lenox Building, with Sam performing pop numbers by the Ink Spots he had learned off the radio and L.C. taking care of the business end. "Sam would do the singing. I just get the money."
The Singing Children continued to perform all around town, wherever their father was preaching or their manager could get them bookings. For all of his reluctance, Charles was a more and more compelling performer who was not about to be distracted from his song. One time when he was little, L.C. watched in amazement as "this lady got happy and jumped up and grabbed Charles — I mean, she was shaking and wiggling him all around — but he never stopped singing. She wouldn't have had to shake me but one time, brother, and I'd be gone, but Charles was bad." At the same time, Sam's gift was increasingly apparent to Charles, who couldn't help but recognize the gulf that existed between a God-given but unwanted talent like his own and the wholehearted commitment that Sam brought to his music. But each of the children, with the possible exception of Hattie, was at this point disaffected in his or her own way. Charles at eighteen couldn't wait to get out of the house and out from under his father's rule. Mary, a year and a half older and working at Reynolds now, too, was going with a young minister at Westpoint Baptist across the street whom she would soon marry, and simply felt that she was "too old to be getting up there singing": it was, in a sense, embarrassing to her.
Even Sam seemed tired of living so much in his father's shadow. "This Little Light of Mine" was the Reverend Cook's favorite song, the one he would sing almost every Sunday before he would preach, and one day, when he was around fifteen, Sam announced, "Papa, I can beat you singing that song." Reverend Cook, never one to take a challenge lying down, said, "Son, I beg to differ. That's my song." But he agreed to let Sam test his theory.
When Sunday came, Reverend Cook announced that his son was going to sing with him, and Sam strode confidently to the pulpit in front of the whole congregation. "All right, Papa," he said, "you start." No, Reverend Cook replied, it was his song, and Sam could start. Then, just as Sam got the people right where he wanted, his father held up a hand and said, "Okay, boy, you can back up now." Bewildered, Sam said, "What you talking about, Papa?" But his father just said, "You can stop singing, it's my song, and it's time for me to sing." And so he did, according to L.C. "Papa took that song, and he wore Sam out with it. Afterwards, Sam said, ‘You know I was getting ready to turn it out.' And Papa said, ‘Yeah, you was getting ready, but I turned it out. Like I told you, it's my song.' And Sam laughed and said, ‘Yeah, Papa, it's your song.'"
To his brothers and sisters it was one more example of Sam's stubborn belief in himself, perhaps the closest that any of them could come to their father's sense of divine mission. And while they chuckled among themselves on those rare occasions when Sam got his comeuppance, no one ever thought to question his good intentions, merely his common sense.
The one time they saw his confidence falter was when the whole family went to hear the Soul Stirrers at a program at Christ Temple Cathedral, the Church of Christ (Holiness)'s mother church at Forty-fourth and Lawrence. It was the first time that any of the Singing Children had seen the Stirrers in person, and they were expecting to get up and do a number themselves. But when they heard R.H. Harris' soaring falsetto lead, and upon its conclusion second lead James Medlock just matched him note for note, they looked at one another with a combination of astonishment and fear. "I mean, we thought we were bad," said L.C., "but that was the greatest sound we ever heard in our lives." They were mesmerized by the intricate patterns of the music, the way in which Harris employed his patented "yodel" (a falsetto break that provided dramatic counterpoint to the carefully worked-out harmonies of the group), the way that he interjected his ad libs to visibly raise the spirit of the congregation, then came down hard on the last bar of each verse without ever losing the thread of the song. That baldheaded old man just stood up there flat-footed and delivered his pure gospel message, with the women falling out like the Singing Children had never seen. After a couple of numbers, Sam shook his head sorrowfully and turned to his younger brother. "Man, we ain't got no business being up there today," he said. And though the others all tried to persuade him otherwise, Sam remained resolute in his refusal to sing.
It was during the war that they first heard their parents talking openly about segregation, about what you could and couldn't do both inside and outside the neighborhood. Their father was growing increasingly impatient with the lack of visible racial progress, and he was beginning to grow impatient with his own little ministry as well. More and more he was drawn to the traveling evangelism with which he had started out in Mississippi and which he had never entirely given up. "He was just kind of a freelance fellow," Church of Christ (Holiness) bishop M.R. Conic told writer David Tenenbaum, and soon Charles Cook started traveling again in ever-widening circles, shifting his exclusive focus away from his little flock. He thought he could do better for himself and his family.
The Cooks by now had moved around the corner to 724 East Thirty-sixth, and David, the baby of the family, who was born in 1941, would never forget his fifteen-year-old brother Sam getting in trouble with the neighbors, not long after they moved in, when the couple downstairs became involved in a noisy altercation. "We was all up there having fun, and [heard] this commotion on the floor below, so Sam goes out and leans over the bannister and calls out, ‘What's all this noise out here?' The guy shot upstairs — I mean, he was serious — but we all went back inside, and Sam said, ‘Well, that's all right, he won't make any more noise.'"
With the war over, Willie went back to work at the chicken market, Mary settled into married life, and Charles enlisted in the air force at the age of nineteen. He was stationed in Columbus, Ohio, and despite his unwavering determination to quit singing altogether the moment he turned twenty-one, he joined a chorus that traveled widely with a service show called Operation Happiness.
But that was the end of the Singing Children, and the extension of another phase of Sam's singing career. Just as he and L.C. had gone from apartment to apartment in the Lenox Building, serenading the various tenants with one of the Ink Spots' recent hits, they had begun in the last year or so to greet passengers alighting from the streetcar at Thirty-fifth and Cottage Grove, the end of the line, in similar fashion. Sam's specialties continued for the most part to derive from the sweet-voiced falsetto crooning of Bill Kenny, the breathy lead tenor for the group that had dominated black secular quartet singing (and in the process enjoyed a remarkable string of number-one pop hits) for the last seven years. Among Sam's favorites were Kenny's original 1939 signature tune, "If I Didn't Care," the group's almost equally influential "I Don't Want to Set the World On Fire," and their latest, one of 1946's biggest hits, "To Each His Own." As in the apartment building, Sam would sing, and L.C. would pass the hat. "People would stop because Sam had this voice. It seemed like he just drew people to him — he sang the hell out of ‘South of the Border.' The girls would stop, and they would give me dimes, quarters, and dollars. Man, we was cleaning up."
Sam and L.C. harmonized with other kids from the neighborhood, too ("You know, everybody in the neighborhood could sing"). They sang at every available opportunity — Johnny Carter (later lead singer with the Flamingos and Dells), James "Dimples" Cochran of the future Spaniels, Herman Mitchell, Johnny Keyes, every one of them doing their best in any number of interchangeable combinations to mimic Ink Spots harmonies, "singing around [different] places," as Sam would later recall, just to have fun.
His mind was never far from music; one day, he told L.C., he would rival Nat "King" Cole, another Chicago minister's son, whose first number-one pop hit, "(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons," was one of Sam's recent favorites. But somehow he never seemed to contemplate the idea that he might have to leave the gospel field to do it. Nor did he allow the music to distract him from his main task of the moment, which was to finish high school. Reverend and Mrs. Cook were determined that each of their children would graduate from Wendell Phillips — and it seemed as if L.C. was the only one likely to provide them with a real challenge ("Everybody else liked school; I didn't"). Sam saw education as a way to expand what he understood to be an otherwise narrow and parochial worldview. Reading took him places he couldn't go — but places he expected one day to discover for himself. He was constantly drawing, caught up in his studies of architectural drafting at school but just as quick to sketch anything that caught his interest — he did portraits of his family and friends, sketches to entertain his little brother David. In the absence of inherited wealth, he placed his faith in his talent and his powers of observation, and despite an almost willful blindness to his own eccentricities, he was a keen student of human nature. Which was perhaps the key to his success with girls, as his brother L.C. saw it, and the key to his almost instant appeal to friend and stranger, young and old alike.
His father had full faith in all his children, but perhaps most of all in his middle son. He was focused in a way that none of the others, for all of their obvious intelligence, ambition, and good character, appeared to be — and Reverend Cook had confidence that neither Sam's mischievousness nor his imagination would distract him from his mission. It was Sam's mark to sing, as his father was well aware. "He didn't bother about playing ball, nothing like that. He would just gather himself on the steps of buildings and sing."
It was a gift of God, manifest from when he was a baby, and the only question in Charles Cook's mind was not whether he would achieve his ambition but how.
Then one day in the spring of 1947, two teenage brothers, Lee and Jake Richards, members of a fledgling gospel quartet that so far had failed to come up with a name for itself, ran across Sam singing "If I Didn't Care" to a girl in the hallway of a building at Thirty-sixth and Rhodes. He was singing so pretty that Lee and his brother started harmonizing behind him, and it came out so good that they asked him who he was singing with. "I don't sing with nobody," Sam told them, and they brought him back to the apartment building where they lived on the third floor, at 466 East Thirty-fifth, just a block away, and where Mr. Copeland, the man who was training them, and the father of their fourteen-year-old baritone singer, Bubba, had the apartment at the back.
Copyright © 2005 by Peter Guralnick