Sam Cooke had one of the sweetest voices of his era. He was a gospel star before he made the transition to mainstream music, and then he became a legend, writing and performing songs that would become enduring classics of soul, pop and rock music.
He died violently at age 33, in one of the most bizarre deaths in pop music history.
Sarasota's Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe is paying homage to Cooke with a new show titled "The Sam Cooke Story." It opens Saturday and runs for five weeks.
"I have always wanted to do a show about Sam Cooke," said Nate Jacobs, the founding artistic director of WBBT, and the director and co-writer of "The Sam Cooke Story." WBTT is known for revues that celebrate musicians or musical eras, but Jacobs said "The Sam Cooke Story" has a strong narrative. He wouldn't even call it a musical.
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"I'd call it a play with music," he said. "The story pretty much centers around what made him great. There's sort of a biopic overview of his life and accomplishments. He was a true trailblazer. He was an a amazing businessman, in addition to being a great singer."
He also wrote most of his own hit songs, which was unusual for a singer in his era. "Twistin' the Night Away," "Chain Gang," "You Send Me," "Cupid," and "A Change Is Gonna Come" were all Cooke compositions.
He also started his own record company and publishing company, and he's been credited with helping start the careers of Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Bobby Womack and Billy Preston.
He was shot to death in 1964 in the office of a motel. He was wearing only a jacket and shoes. The woman who shot him said she was acting in self-defense but a lot of people have questioned her story. The WBTT production features a cast of 10 plus a five-piece band. Jacobs, who wrote the show with Michael Jacobs and B.G. Rhule, said he's been especially impressed with New York singer-actor Cecil Washington Jr., who summons both the voice and spirit of Cooke.
"It's turning into quite the show," Jacobs said. "Sam Cooke was an artists that all people embraced, and continue to embrace, and I'm excited about the community embracing this celebration of the man and his music."
Details: March 5-April 9, Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, 1646 10th Way, Sarasota. Show times: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $38; students and active military $27. Information: 941-366-1505, westcoastblacktheatre.org.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.