In 1956 he made his secular pop debut with the single "Lovable", recorded under the alias Dale Cooke in an attempt not to alienate his gospel fan base; however, when Art Rupe, the owner Soul Stirrers' label, Specialty, objected to producer "Bumps" Blackwell's plans for a follow-up effort, Cooke was released from his contract. Upon signing to the tiny Keen label, he resurfaced in 1957 under his own name with the self-penned "You Send Me," a majestic soul confection which sold some two million copies and made him a star. A series of hits -- most of them light romantic ballads and novelty tunes, followed over the next two years, most notably the Top 40 hits "Wonderful World," "Only Sixteen" and "Everybody Likes to Cha Cha."
As the 1960s dawned, Cooke began taking an active interest in the music business, founding his own independent label, SAR, producing hits for the Simms Twins and the Valentinos and releasing early efforts from Bobby Womack and fellow Soul Stirrers alum Johnnie Taylor; additionally, he established his own publishing imprint, Kags Music, and even created his own management firm. At the same time, he left Keen to sign with RCA. Upon his arrival at the label, Cooke's music adopted a grittier, more gospel-influenced feel; his RCA debut, a reworking of "Chain Gang," became his biggest hit in some time, peaking at the number two position in 1960.
At RCA, Cooke's gifts reached their full potential as he reeled off a string of early 1960s hits ranging from the bluesy "Sad Mood" to the gospel-pop of "Bring It on Home to Me," through to the smooth soul of "Another Saturday Night" and the buoyant R&B of "Twisting the Night Away." While remaining primarily a singles artist, in 1963 he issued the superb "Night Beat", a moody, intimate collection steeped heavily in the blues; unlike most pop albums of the era, which fleshed out a couple of hits with an abundance of filler, Night Beat was a complete and ambitious artistic statement, comprised purely of prime material. As his reputation as a performer grew, Cooke established fervent fan bases in both the pop and R&B markets, and eventually he graduated from the so-called "chitlin' circuit" of black-owned venues to Las Vegas casino stages and white nightclubs, emerging as a crossover superstar.
At the peak of his career, Sam Cooke was shot and killed. The circumstances surrounding his tragic death on December 11, 1964 remain hazy. According to initial reports, he was shot three times by 55 year old Bertha Franklin, the manager of Los Angeles' Hacienda Motel, who claimed she acted in self-defence. She said that Cooke had sexually assaulted a 22-year-old woman, who escaped to the motel's office seeking help. When Cooke followed, he turned on Franklin. The shooting was ruled a justifiable homicide. Sam Cooke was one month shy of his 34th birthday.
In subsequent years it has been rumoured that a number of crucial details surrounding the case were buried in deference to Cooke's wife and children, who wished to avoid any further publicity and scrutiny; decades later, a satisfactory resolution to the matter has yet to be reached.
At Sam's funeral, about 200,000 fans showed up to pay their respects. Lou Rawls, Ray Charles, and Bobby "Blue" Bland all performed at the service. He was buried in Glendale, California at Forest Lawn Memorial Park.
Even given the scandalous circumstances of his death, Cooke remained a major presence. "At the Copa", a triumphant live set recorded at the elite New York club, was released during the month of his passing, and the single "Shake" reached the Top Ten a few weeks later. "A Change Is Gonna Come", another posthumous 1965 smash, was his true epitaph, a thoughtful, spiritually charged assessment of the then-current state of American race relations, it presaged the ascendant civil rights movement with remarkable clarity. In the years following his murder, Cooke's stature continued to grow and reissues and unreleased material have appeared regularly. In 1986, he was named a charter inductee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Sam Cooke's musical legacy lives on to this day. John Cougar Mellencamp's 1980 recording of "Ain't Even Done With the Night" contains the line You got your hands in my back pockets, and Sam Cooke's singin' on the radio. In 1982, British rock band The Pretenders recorded "Back on the Chain Gang", written by singer-guitarist Chrissie Hynde. Sam's "A Change Is Gonna Come" was featured in Spike Lee's film Malcolm X. It also serves as title for a season six episode of The West Wing in which James Taylor performs a rendition of the song. Cooke's songs "Bring It on Home to Me" and "A Change is Gonna Come" were both featured in the 2001 film Ali. Alternative Rock band The Wallflowers' song "Sleepwalker" from their 2000 album, "Breach" featured the lyric Cupid don't draw back your bow / Sam Cooke didn't know what I know. The words are a reference to Cooke's song, "Cupid". In 2008, Cooke was named the fourth Greatest Singer of All Time by Rolling Stone magazine. In June 2011, the City of Chicago renamed a portion of East 36th Street near Cottage Grove Avenue as Sam Cooke Way, to remember a corner where Sam hung out and sang as a teenager.