Ain't that good news? Singer Sam Cooke gets street renamed in his honor

June 17, 2011

 

Watch the above clip of Sam Cooke singing his 1957 hit You Send Me on American Bandstand.

He's cool. Confident. Assured. "A lil' bit sexy," a female friend emailed me when I sent her this clip. And most certainly a star on the rise.

Cooke was shot to death in an Los Angeles motel at the height of his fame in 1964 under circumstances that still baffle. But his music continues to resonate nearly a half century later.

Cat Stevens, Luther Vandross, The Pretenders and countless others have remade or referenced Cooke songs over the past 40 years. Cooke songs have turned up in 20 different movies and television shows over the past two decades, according to Internet Movie Database.

Twisting the Night Away was featured in that awful Green Hornet movie earlier this year. They played Shake in an episode of HBO's The Wire. And I still get the chills when Cooke's A Change is Gonna Come is played in a pivotal scene toward the end of Malcolm X. (It begins at 2:34 in this clip.)

Sam Cooke's latest honor comes Saturday at 2pm when a stretch of 36th Street in the city's Bronzeville neighborhood will be renamed Sam Cooke Way, marking the place where the late, great soul singer spent his formative years. The renamed section begins at Cottage Grove and runs east, passing the site at 36th and Ellis where Cooke's boyhood home once stood.

Cooke's great-nephew Erik Greene spent four years advocating for the honorary street renaming. Greene is also the writer of a Cooke biography called Our Uncle Sam. I asked him a few questions about Cooke and his legacy.

Q: Why is this honorary street important?

A: I was born and raised in Chicago but never had an appreciation for the rich musical history of Bronzeville until I researched its history for what would eventually become Our Uncle Sam. It was then I learned Bronzeville was home to not just Sam, but Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington, Lou Rawls, and a host of other musical greats. Sam had already been recognized on the Bronzeville Walk of Fame, but his exclusion on a 35th and State Street mural commemorating famous Bronzeville residents gave me the impetus to make his street naming--a more permanent form of recognition--a reality.

Q: His music is still appreciated, isn't it? Even my teenage daughters and a couple of their friends are fans.

A: Good music is eternal and has the ability to transcend all age barriers. Sam adopted a simple, straight-forward songwriting style, and he wrote songs the common man could relate to. As a result, his music is timeless--easily appreciated and understood by all ages and generations. This type of pure simplicity is a long-lost art form.

Q: What will tomorrow's street-renaming ceremony look like?

A: Sam's street naming ceremony will consist of recognizing Sam's legacy and the importance of this particular street by myself, my cousin Eugene Jamison who will speak on behalf of the Cook family, Bronzeville political representatives, and Gregg Parker, CEO of the Chicago Blues Museum. I formally met Gregg after the street naming had been approved by the Chicago City Council, and his musical interest in Sam and the Bronzeville neighborhood fueled the event to its current prominence. A City of Chicago proclamation will be read, and local celebrities may be on the program as well.

Q: One last question. For decades there has been talk of a Sam Cooke movie. If one were made, who'd play Sam?

A: Ever since Sam's death, talk of a movie based on his life has heated up on several occasions only to fizzle out and go nowhere, and "Who should play Sam Cooke?" is an age-old question that's been kicked around by Sam Cooke fans for generations. In the early 70s, talk of Marvin Gaye portraying Sam was squashed when Gaye declared himself not worthy of the honor. Actors from Blair Underwood to Denzel Washington to Will Smith have been discussed more recently, but because Sam died at 33, these actors have invariably grown too old. Having been fooled by the several false-starts over the years, I've stopped speculating as to who could play Sam on the silver screen, but still smile at some of the suggestions.

And before we go, dig this: Sam Cooke singing Bob Dylan's Blowing in the Wind.