A pioneering figure of soul music, Clarksdale, Mississippi native Sam Cooke remains one of the most influential singers and songwriters of all time. His young start in gospel music paved the way for his unrivaled voice and his time spent growing up in blues-centric Chicago, Illinois shaped his brilliant songwriting abilities.
From his earliest releases, fusing everything from R&B to gospel and country, he impacted the soul genre like no other has to this day. Over the course of his career throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s, he released 29 top 40 Billboard singles and 20 top ten singles. He was not only a visionary in the studio and as a songwriter and performer, but he was one of the first artists to take a business-oriented approach to his music by eventually founding his own label and publishing company. His work had a profound effect on acts like Simon & Garfunkel and The Animals. With countless of the music industry’s biggest artists covering his timeless hits, his legacy remains as strong as ever.
Despite his untimely death in 1964 at the age of 33, his prodigious collection of original music lives on through the artistic works of others. And the scope of his influence can be found in every hall of fame throughout America including the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Here, we unpack the most popular singles of Soul music’s founding father.
Released after Sam’s untimely passing, ‘Shake’ was a huge posthumous hit for the soul singer. The fun tune utilizes one of Cooke’s favorite beats, the “cha-cha,” giving it that classic ‘60s feel. A good time song about tearing it up on the dance floor, several prominent artists went on to put their own spin on it in honor of the late influential musician, including Otis Redding and The Animals.
11. I’ll Come Running Back To You
This top 20 hit has a particularly interesting backstory. The sleepy, romantic ballad was released by Cooke’s former label, Specialty Records, after the owner cut him from the roster because he didn’t like the music the singer’s manager presented him with. The tune that got him booted was called ‘You Send Me,’ which became a smash hit number one single after Sam’s new label, Keen Records, released it. This sent Specialty reeling, and they went searching through their archives for a similar Cooke song they could release to capitalize on the momentum. That tune was ‘I’ll Come Running Back to You,’ which also climbed all the way to number one as well.
10. Another Saturday Night
One of several songs Cooke wrote while touring with iconic R&B musician Little Richard, ‘Another Saturday Night’ is one of many upbeat top ten hit singles Sam released over the course of his career. Despite the tune’s happy disposition, it was actually the first release after Cooke’s son Vincent tragically drowned. While the song climbed the charts Sam left town to tour as much as he could while grieving his son. ‘Another Saturday Night’ appears on his 1963 album, Ain’t That Good News, which is a reference honoring his gospel roots. He got his start singing in his church’s choir.
Inspired by a beautiful woman acting alongside musician and TV personality Perry Como on one of his shows, Sam added in a little extra creativity in the studio for his single ‘Cupid.’ All of Cooke’s music is groovy, but this one has a unique percussive element. In keeping with the song’s romantic theme, Cooke had two of his studio musicians vocally mimic the sound of an arrow being shot and hitting a target. It adds an effortless rhythmic layer to the track that almost goes undetected, but makes all the difference when the listener catches it.
8. Nothing Can Change This Love
A soaring romance anthem, Cooke’s prowess in the studio is on full display with ‘Nothing Can Change This Love.’ The tune requires a vocally-demanding delivery, and Sam got it done in just eight takes. To top it all off, it was after midnight in the studio and he was due to leave that morning for a lengthy tour. Released mere weeks after his popular ‘Bring It On Home To Me’ single, the two songs ended up duking it out on the charts. ‘Nothing Can Change This Love’ took the second spot on Billboard R&B charts and climbed all the way to #12 on the Hot 100.
7. Good Times
A gospel-tinged original about letting loose and having fun at a party, ‘Good Times’ experienced widespread appeal across multiple genres. Not only did it gain him a huge influx of new listeners, but the song’s infectious rhythm and unique vocal lines had an impact on future rock and rollers, including The Rolling Stones and Journey. One of his most enduring tracks, ‘Good Times’ was a bonafide R&B/Soul hit but it became a highly influential tune among rock and roll’s early days as well.
6. Chain Gang
A chance encounter sparked Cooke to write his second most popular single release in the states, ‘Chain Gang.’ While touring in Georgia in 1959, Sam and his crew came across a prison group on the side of the road carrying out manual labor orders. The musicians decided to make a pit stop, and Sam handed out cigarettes while chatting with the prisoners. When he found time to get back in the studio to record the track inspired by that day, he added in sound effects to mimic the clanging sledgehammers of a chain gang working on a railroad. Not only was the single Cooke’s second biggest hit in the US, it was his first hit for his new label home, RCA Victor, after parting ways with Keen Records.
Recommended: This appears on our songs about jail time playlist (well worth checking out).
5. Twistin’ the Night Away
A huge top ten hit for Sam in both the states and in the UK, ‘Twistin’ The Night Away’ is a ‘60s dance number with an uplifting horn section and rollicking piano work. The rhythmic number was recorded in Hollywood, and Cooke utilized the talents of Renee Hall, the band leader of the group known as “The Wrecking Crew.” This highly skilled group of session musicians from the ‘60s played on many of the decade’s biggest hits and most popular tracks. For Cooke’s own track, Hall brought in the whole Wrecking Crew, from Red Callender on bass to John Ewing and Jewell Grant on saxophone.
4. You Send Me
One of Sam’s signature tracks, ‘You Send Me’ was a huge number one hit for the soul singer. While Sam wrote his own songs, this time, his brother Charles was the one who penned this track. The two spent quite a bit of time singing together in Sam’s early days. They headed up their family’s gospel group known as The Singing Children. Though Cooke’s label home at the time passed up on the single, Keen Records quickly scooped it up and sold more than 2 million copies. The song’s popularity had a ripple effect, including being an inspiration for Art Garfunkel, who reportedly never tired of singing the sweet tune.
Recommended: Our pick of the best songs from the 50s (which includes this one).
3. A Change Is Gonna Come
His most culturally influential song, Cooke wrote ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ in honor of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Following the untimely death of his son, he began writing more philosophical and contemplative songs like this one. Released posthumously, the moving track had a profound effect on those fighting for equality, and it became a work of art that stood synonymously with the movement itself. During the songwriting process, he channeled the work of one of America’s most famous protest writers of all time, Bob Dylan.
Recommended: Listen to more equal rights anthems.
2. Bring It On Home to Me
This hit song features guest vocal work by Lou Rawls, which gives the harmonies and call and response lines an effortless gospel feel. Another everlasting track thanks to Cooke’s one of a kind voice, ‘Bring It On Home To Me’ is not only a fan favorite but has been used in countless movies and TV shows over the years including 90210, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Ali. It has been a hit several times over for other artists as well who’ve covered it, including blues-rock group The Animals and ‘70s country musician Mickey Gilley.
Recommended: Our essential playlist of Motown hits.
1. (What A) Wonderful World
One of the 1960’s authoritative songs that defined the era, ‘(What a) Wonderful World’ remains a timeless R&B hit and one of Sam’s most influential single releases. Written alongside songwriting greats Lou Alder and Herb Alpert, what was first known as a cheeky tune Cooke would sing to potential dates became one of his most covered songs. Legends from Otis Redding and Rod Stewart to Michael Bolton put their own twist on the bouncy, playful tune. It’s also a favorite choice among music supervisors and filmmakers. It’s been used in many productions including the iconic cult hit film Animal House and contemporary Will Smith popular rom-com, Hitch.
Recommended: Hear this track and more on our pick of best soul music.