David Hajdu: Happy Birthday, Sam Cooke

Roundup: Talking About History

[David Hajdu is the music critic for The New Republic and a professor of arts journalism at Columbia.]

Rock stars of the 1960s have begun turning 70, and the aging of a generation that defined its culture by its youth has prompted the sucking of veiny thumbs. I did mine last October, right here, on the seventieth anniversary of John Lennon’s birth. Earlier this month, Joan Baez turned 70; Neil Diamond will do the same on January 24; Bob Dylan will have his seventieth birthday in May, followed by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, along with the likes of David Crosby, George Clinton, and Paul Anka. (It’s hard to believe, I know: George Clinton and Paul Anka are the same age.) As susceptible to temptation as the next thumb-sucker, I will probably end up writing more about a group of artists about whom too much has already been written.

Meanwhile, Sam Cooke, the sensational pop and soul singer of the late ’50s and early ’60s, would have turned 80 on January 22, and I suspect that the occasion will go largely unnoticed. This is a small tragedy, though one infinitely less tragic than the fact of Cooke’s early death at age 33 in December 1964. (Cooke was shot to death by a motel manager in a confrontation, the facts of which are unclear.) It is a lesser misfortune of Cooke’s abbreviated life to have been born ten years earlier than the rock stars of the 1960s. Neither a raucous rock ‘n’ roll originator like Chuck Berry and Little Richard, nor an overtly cerebral counter-culture figure like Dylan or Lennon, Cooke was a highly original artist whose story falls outside the standard narrative of rock history....

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Christopher John Stanwood - 2/1/2011

Mr. Hajdu,

Thanks for giving Sam Cooke a shout-out on his birthday. Sam Cooke was, and still is, one of the great soul singers in music history. His music remains relevant, and can still be heard in movies.