Nick Marino: Sam Cooke, "The Man Who Invented Soul"

Roundup: Talking About History

CLARKSDALE, MISS.: NOV. 1 - Sam Cooke entered the world in 1933, the fifth of eight children, the son of a preacher and the grandson of a sharecropper. He lived here, in a home on this Mississippi Delta street corner just across town from the lazy Sunflower River.

Clarksdale tour guide Robert Birdsong says the singer's house --- reportedly a one-family shotgun --- has been destroyed, replaced by a salmon-colored joint with a slab porch and a satellite dish. Birdsong will take you there anyway if you ask, which people still do.

On this mild fall day, he hops down from a visitor's SUV and heads straight for the backyard. There, smack in the middle, is the stump of a shade tree under which, he says, Cooke used to sing.

This was early in his life, years before his stage show made women faint, before he became not just the prototypical crossover pop star but also a civil rights icon. Years before a gunshot ended his life in a seedy Los Angeles motel. Back then, under that shade tree, "The Man Who Invented Soul," as he was known, was just a boy, raising his voice.
Cooke left Clarksdale on a Chicago-bound Greyhound bus with his family at age 2 and didn't identify as a Mississippian, or even a Southerner, as he grew into adulthood. But the place hasn't forgotten him.

Four days later, when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio, presents a weekend-long Cooke celebration as part of its American Music Masters series, several of the Delta's brightest lights show up to shine for Say-um, as he is sometimes called. Morgan Freeman is there, along with his business partner, Bill Luckett, and so are hotelier Bill Talbott and Delta Blues Museum executive director Shelley Ritter.

Aretha Franklin, Elvis Costello, Solomon Burke and the Blind Boys of Alabama appear, too, as part of a tribute concert that spreads almost six hours of music over two nights. Bill Clinton kicks the whole event off with prerecorded remarks, reminiscing about playing a scratched 45 of Cooke's hit single "You Send Me" on his Sears record player.

Released in 1957, "You Send Me" was the singer's first secular hit, a tune so universally appealing that it obliterated the borders between gospel music and pop, between black music and white. It's rivaled in impact perhaps only by his last song, "A Change Is Gonna Come," a haunting civil rights anthem released after his 1964 death, a piece that chronicled the universal African-American struggle for dignity, from the Deep South to the South Side of Chicago to Southern California.
Case Western Reserve University hosts a day of Cooke-related panels and lectures. Guralnick speaks to an integrated audience, praising the little details, the musical "embroidery" that turns Cooke's songs from simple to sublime. He discusses Cooke's charisma and his association with Malcolm X, and the time he refused to leave a Louisiana hotel after being turned away, he believed, because he was black.

That night, almost 3,000 people pack into the State Theatre, a palatial downtown hall built in the 1920s, for the tribute concert. The Blind Boys of Alabama sing "This Little Light." NAACP chairman Julian Bond says Cooke "helped create a new model of what it meant to be African-American." A tuxedo-clad Elvis Costello covers Cooke's bittersweet "That's Where It's At." Solomon Burke, the King of Rock and Soul, appears for his portion of the tribute seated in a throne.

[Editor's Note: This is a very short excerpt from a much longer article. Please see The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for more.]

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