The Death of Sam Cooke
Interview with Erik Greene I
Not long after singer Sam Cooke was killed in a cheap Los Angeles motel, his father, the Rev. Charles (Papa) Cook, called a family meeting to suggest that the singer's loved ones would have to learn to let go of anxiety about the circumstances of his demise.
"People are going to believe what they're going to believe," the Chicago minister said.
That attitude prevailed in Cooke's vast family for more than 40 years, even as one biographer after another portrayed the soul singer as a wanton womanizer whose final hot-sheets romp on Dec. 11, 1964, at the Hacienda Motel led directly to his death.
This changed in 2006 with the publication of Our Uncle Sam, a biography of Cooke written by his great-nephew, Erik Greene. Greene says publication of Our Uncle Sam was "necessary" to add his family's perspective to the singer's life story. (The book is available at www.ourunclesam.com.) Greene, a financial advisor in the Chicago area, was born about a year after Cooke's death to Gwendolyn Greene, the daughter of Sam Cooke's oldest sister, Mary. Our Uncle Sam paints a portrait of Cooke that is often at odds with that of other biographers. Perhaps most importantly, the book questions the official account of Cooke's death.
"There was a lot going on in the last few months of Sam's life," Greene says. "He had discovered irregularities in the way his businesses were set up and was planning to fire his accountant-turned-manager and his long-time business partner. He had made up his mind to divorce his wife. Not to mention, it wasn't uncommon at the time to see start-up record labels with large insurance policies on their artists — policies which could be 'cashed in' in times of economic need."
Greene was interviewed by the Crime Library's David J. Krajicek.
Crime Library: What motivated you to write this book?
Erik Greene: So much has been written about Sam from outsiders — some things accurate, others wildly inaccurate — but over the past 40-plus years, my family's voice for the most part hasn't been heard. Sam Cooke's life was truly one of perseverance, determination, foresight and tragedy. In my estimation, he was such an important figure in American music history; his saga deserves to be told in the correct light.
CL: Can you describe your family's relationship with Sam as he found fame?
Greene: My grandmother was Sam's oldest sister, so quite naturally my mom was the oldest niece. My mother's memories of Sam were a part of my growing up, and I describe the deep effect her memories had on me in Our Uncle Sam. Even at the height of Sam's stardom, he was never too big for friends and family.
Sam spent much of his pop career in Los Angeles, so the fondest memories occurred when he came home to Chicago. Even as young children, my cousins remember how special they felt in Sam's presence. His family would have front row seats when he played the Regal Theater on Chicago's South Side, and there's a famous picture of Sam on stage doing the "Twist" with his niece, Ophelia. After dinner at Sam's mother's house, the kids would gather around and he would make up competitive games for them to play and songs for them to sing. My mom remembered one of the songs he made up on the spot and sang only one time.
Since Cowboys and Indians were a popular theme, Sam's nieces and nephews formed a circle as he told the story of two young braves wooing an Indian maiden. "I took in every last word and remembered it," she said. "He would just make it up right there on the spot. And that's what impressed us the most. We had an uncle that could do anything."