Barbara Campbell Cooke, a wife and mother, is dead. She was 85.
Mrs. Cooke lost her husband, Sam Cooke, in 1964 at age 25. He was only two weeks from his planned wedding to Gertrude (Hankerson) Boyd.
Sam’s last days, during which he struggled with his own addiction to marijuana, cocaine and heroin, were a personal tragedy from which she wept for years. His death silenced a national dream, one that had lifted hundreds of thousands of black people from the barber shop and the beauty parlor, into a life of simple and graceful self-expression.
The Cooke story is still a poignant mystery, with every possible interpretation made by every possible family. The Colemans were black Americans. He was a top recording artist. The gravesite overlooks the Atlantic Ocean on a high mountain. His birthday is a cherished date on the black social calendar and his music still permeates every facet of African-American culture.
“I never got over it,” he said in a 1996 interview. “What I had to do … maybe I should get over it. I’m probably the only musician that’s had a separation between death and his own life.”
Despite the short period of blissful decades between his demise and the birth of his daughter and son, the marriage’s young age and close-knit family determined his fame, the source of his artistic inspiration and the source of his problems.
The tragedy befell a family whose main influence was Sam Cooke and would continue to shape his legacy.
Sam Cooke shared their Mississippi roots, becoming born Sam Perdue in June 1930. The family moved to Chicago, where Cooke became a pre-teen star, making home recordings that became the stuff of legend. As his story was told in his new bio, Cooke the storyteller thrived as a kind of sonic sensation. His drawling voice, twangy guitar and innovative lyrics reflected the world around him.
He began a 26-year stint as a nightclub singer, where his superbly timed vocal runs and melodic combinations transformed the more realistic singing style. Cooke was also introduced to famed photographer Norman Mailer, who wanted to use the Cooke years as a concept study to showcase a gritty period in post-World War II America. After Cooke’s death, his picture and photo story, titled “Settler in the Moonlight,” became an unexpected piece of popular culture.
Sam Cooke’s humble beginnings allowed him to bloom into the most recognizable black artist of the era.
Weeks after Sam’s death, songstress Billie Holiday recorded “A Change is Gonna Come,” inspired by the Cooke track, and sang it at his funeral, staying true to her promise. “Don’t you ever give up,” she said. “Just believe in change, that’s what it’s about.