Long time comin': Sam Cooke's brother releases a classic-that-never-was

A Q&A with L.C. Cooke, Sam's younger brother whose 1964 debut was finally released last week

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He wouldn’t have been the first Cooke to make it, but he was sure he was going to be the second: in the 1960s, L.C. Cooke, the sixth child of a preacher and a housewife—and the little brother of influential syrup-voiced crooner Sam Cooke—was a man on the rise. He too was a wonderful singer: He, his famous brother and the rest of their siblings made up the gospel group the Singing Children, who toured as well; in his 20s, he joined up with the doo-wop band the Magnificents. He was putting the finishing touches on an album—with many songs penned by Sam himself, all produced on his big brother’s record label, SAR—that was sure to make him famous.

And then in a flash, it was all gone. At the age of 33, Sam was dead, the victim of a still-mysterious shooting from a woman who claimed it was in self-defence. Cooke’s SAR label was sold. His younger brother’s album languished and was never released. That is, until this week, when the 50-year-old The Complete SAR Recordings finally came out. It’s as if you’re listening to a ghost; there are the plaintive tones, the inimitable soul, the husky way his voice ramps into those still-easy high notes, all conjuring a vision of the Sam we lost far too soon.

From his home in a Chicago suburb, L.C.—now 81 years old—talks about the new/old album, how hard it was to transition from gospel into the profane world of crossover secular pop, his brother’s enduring appeal and how he may have helped James Brown’s career.

Q: The album is really wonderful, and it’s so reminiscent of Sam’s voice.

It’s just wonderful because it always makes me think of Sam. Happy memories. It was always fun when we were together, we always had a good time. But see, people get it wrong. They always want to say, “That’s the Sam Cooke sound.” That’s not so. It’s the Cooke, period, sound. We got it from our daddy. All of us have that sound, not only Sam. See, if I did it first, they would’ve said, “Oh, that’s the L.C. Cooke sound.” People always just want to label things. But it’s Cooke, period.

Q: All the Cookes started out in gospel, and there used to be a lot of stigma about gospel singers going pop; in fact, Sam’s first pop single was Lovable, a reworking of the gospel song Wonderful, and he had to release it under a pseudonym so he didn’t alienate his gospel fan base.

Well, see, he asked my father first if he could do it. My father told him like this: “Sam, whatever you do has nothing to do with your heart. If you can sing and do better singing pop than singing gospel, then you go sing pop. It’s got nothing to do with your heart and how you feel about God, and don’t let anyone tell you it makes a difference, because it don’t.” My father’s blessing—that definitely made a huge difference. People were saying, “You’re singing that devil music.” People believed that and put that bad mouth on him. But they forget about economics. You gotta live, too. And if you can do better singing pop, I think you should sing pop.

People don’t speak like that more, but that shows you how much things have changed. Sam used to tell the Soul Stirrers after he left the group that one day, they’d be playing gospel on rhythm and blues stations. Everyone told him, “Aww, no. That’ll never happen.” Sam said, “Watch.” He said, “Time brings about a change. It changes the way people think. I guarantee you, in time, our people will playing on rhythm and blues radio stations, where they play gospel music. It’s just a matter of time.”

L.C. Cooke. (ABKCO/Handout)

L.C. Cooke. (ABKCO/Handout)

Q: When Sam died, and your album stayed there unreleased, did you ever make any noise about that?

No, I didn’t say a word about it. I just figured one day they were going to put it out. And I figured right.

After I recorded the album, I toured with the Upsetters, who played with Little Richard. I played with them about three or four years. After that, I just stopped. Now, just rest and dress—haven’t done anything, music-wise.

Q: Do you still think about the day Sam passed away?

I think about that day. You can’t help but think about that day. I was at my wife’s, down at her house, when I found out. I got a phone call.

Q: You came so close to being the star Sam wanted you to be.

I was so close, I could almost touch it. That’s how close I was to being a very big artist.  Sam once told me something, he said, “L.C., if your name had been anything other than Cooke, you’d have been made.” That’s the funny thing about the public: they do not want to see two siblings be on top at the same time. Go back to Bing Crosby and Bob Crosby. He said, “Both of them brothers are good, but nobody made it but Bing.” Take Aretha Franklin’s family. She had two great sisters who sung their heads off. Three sisters but only one of them made it. Sam said, “We made a mistake. We should’ve started out just putting ‘L.C.’ on the cover and took the ‘Cooke’ off. Being my brother’s hurting you.”

Q: And yet you never begrudged Sam’s success?

No, Sam was good to me! I had no reason. Whatever I asked Sam for, he gave me. We were sitting down talking one day, and I tell him I’m a walking man—no car, didn’t even have a bicycle. He said, “What kind of car would you like to have?” I said, “I’m walking. Anything will do.” He said, “No man, really, what kind of car would you really like to have?” I said, “Well, Sam, since you asked me, I’d like to have me a convertible Cadillac with a Continental kit on it. In fact, Sam, I’d like it to be so long, I need turntables to help me turn the corner.” A few months later, Sam called me from L.A. He said, “C, what you doing? I got something for you. You gotta come here to get it.” He flies me out to L.A., I get there, and he brings me my car. Man, when I seen it, I could’ve died. That was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life. It was everything I was asking for. And every time I went to L.A. to record, Sam would do three things: Get me a hotel, get me a car, and throw me a picnic. I could always look forward to that. He was a wonderful, wonderful brother.

Q: Did Sam ever give you any advice?

The only thing that Sam ever told me about singing, he said, “L.C., don’t say ‘before.’ Say ”fore.’ Remember our heritage.” Then he laughed. In other words, I was singing too correct. He always had a mind for crossing over. That’s why I didn’t want to sing the blues. He wanted me to sing Little Red Rooster. I refused. I said, “Sam, if I sing Little Red Rooster, and get a hit on it, they’ll label me a rhythm and blues man.” And when you cross over, you’re going to get white listeners. But if I stay rhythm and blues, I stay in the mainstream of black, and they weren’t spending money on records. I had to realize the economics of it all.

Q: On the track on your album, Gonna Have A Good Time, you talk about how you want to live life to the fullest, complete with 80-foot Cadillacs and diamond rings to show off to your friends, before you die. That’s a pretty daring statement to make for a black man at the time—people didn’t like their stars to be flashy.

You’re absolutely right. Sam wrote that song just for me. One thing about Sam: when he wrote a song for you, it was tailor-made for you. That song was tailor-made to fit me.

Q: The album is remarkable to me because it’s like you’re hearing Sam when you sing. Is there a weird kind of feeling for you, listening to yourself and thinking about your brother?

I think about him all the time anyway! It’s just one of those things. We used to talk so much alike that one day his wife called the house and I answered the phone, and she said, “Sam, you’re supposed to be over here,” and I said, “But Barbara—” and she said, “Ain’t no ‘but Barbara!’ ” I just let her talk. When she finally got through, I said, “This isn’t Sam, this is L.C.” She said, “Oh my God. Why didn’t you try to stop me?” That’s how much we used to sound alike! And we’d meet the gospel group, the Five Blind Boys, and me and Sam would get around them, and we’d talk, but they couldn’t tell us apart. That’s how close our voice was.

Q: It seems like Sam’s popularity has never really waned. What would he be doing if he was still around today?

Sam would be right along with it. Sam changed with time. All his songs, they’re all up to date with what’s playing right now. Sam was not dated. He was always “all time, any time.”

L.C. Cooke's debut solo album, released 50 years after it was shelved in the wake of brother Sam's death. (ABKCO Records/Handout)

L.C. Cooke’s debut solo album, released 50 years after it was shelved in the wake of brother Sam’s death. (ABKCO Records/Handout)

Q: One of the songs that has kept Sam in the limelight is the enduring legacy of his song A Change Is Gonna Come.

Well, Sam said that was the hardest song he ever wrote in his life. And you know what, he never sung it in person, just one time on television. That song to me, that was better than You Send Me. Over 160 people have recorded A Change Gonna Come. That’s a lot of people! And I’ve seen that change. We got Obama as president. Who’d have thought a black man would be president? I never thought I’d see that in my lifetime.

Q: This album comes out 50 years after you made it. Do you have any regrets?

I’ve had a wonderful life, a beautiful life. I can’t say nothin’ about it. I married a young lady that Sam told me to marry. I’m still with her today, been married 45 years, was with her seven years before we were married, so 52 years.

I’ve met everybody who’s out there, and I’ve enjoyed my time with them, and I hope they’ve enjoyed their time with me. There was a time early on, when I was with the Magnificents, and we were playing in Cincinnati, Ohio. Ruth Brown was the headliner. Bo Diddley was in the show. It was a big show, it was so many people I couldn’t tell you how many, a big coliseum. We had just left the Apollo Theater in New York for a 30-day tour. We get to Cincinnati and here comes James Brown. He comes up to me and says, “Can I sing a song in your show? I just cut a record today, called Please, Please, Please.” I said, “It’s not my show, James, but I’ll take you back to Ruth Brown and ask her if you can sing.” I took him back there, and to make a long story short, she told me to tell the band to let him sing. Ain’t nobody had ever heard of James Brown, then. Some years later, we’re in Atlanta, Georgia. Sam comes up and introduces James to me. James laughs. “Sam, I’ve been on L.C. since when he was with the Magnificents. I’d never forget it, because L.C. went back to ask Ruth Brown if I could sing a song, so you know I could never forget L.C.”

So no, I have no regrets. It’s been good.

This interview has been condensed and edited.