By: Erik Greene
Sam Cooke: Pioneer for Modern Music
Rapper Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson made over $50 million in 2004 without ever releasing a song. In today's society, it's not uncommon for musicians like "50" to expand their business horizons to include film, clothing apparel, and artist management. But until the latter half of the 20th century, the notion was unheard of--especially for an artist of color.
Flash back to early 1959, when an entrepreneurial singer with a golden voice, movie-star good looks, and the tenacity of a bull dog became the first black recording artist to form a record label. SAR Records, which stood for Sam, Alex, and Roy, was the brainchild of Sam Cooke and two of his gospel music contemporaries--J.W. Alexander and S.R. Crain.
Cooke actively recruited young talent to SAR, and his roster included the likes of Bobby Womack, Billy Preston and Johnnie Taylor. In an era when a lot of artists were only worth their last hit record, Cooke recognized the power of ownership and vowed to control his destiny.
In Little Rock, Arkansas a year earlier, Sam Cooke caused a stir by challenging Jim Crow segregation head-on. Concert promoters wanted Cooke to sing two shows--one for the black audience and one for the white--but the singer refused, citing he was only contracted to perform one show.
The promoters thought quickly and seated the blacks on one side of the auditorium and whites on the other, but the arrangement didn't satisfy Sam. "He got them back," his youngest sister Agnes recalls. "He sang only to the black side of the room and never even looked at the other side.
It worked because the next time he came to Little Rock, everyone sat together." Starting as early 1961, Cooke routinely cancelled shows that weren't integrated. "He wouldn't even take the stage," recalls his driver and older brother, Charles. "We'd just pack up and move on to the next town."
Young artists who enjoy mass appeal also have Sam Cooke to thank. He was one of the first singers to identify and intentionally go after the crossover market with the release of You Send Me in 1957. Widely considered the first Soul song, it went to #1 on both the Pop and R&B music charts and sold over 1.7 million singles. Around the same time, he was the first celebrity to take pride in his natural hair and shun the "processed" look.
But it was Cooke's record deal with RCA in January of 1960 that would provide a ripple effect for generations to come. By giving in to Cooke's demand he retain ownership of his publishing rights, RCA gave Cooke full control of how his music was used and to whom songwriting royalties were paid. This move set a new precedent in a recording industry notorious for swindling artists out of their record royalties and future earnings.
Sam Cooke didn't live to experience the age of multi-media, but his pioneering efforts opened the door to both the social and financial freedoms so many modern-day musicians enjoy. Without his efforts, artists like 50 Cent may have been forever stuck "In Da Club," and may never have made the more lucrative move to the boardroom.