In the Fifites and Sixties, Sam Cooke helped invent soul music by merging gospel sounds with secular themes. Cooke's pure, elegant crooning was widely imitated, and both his voice and his suave, sophisticated image influenced generations of soul men.
One of eight sons of a Baptist minister, Cooke was born on January 22, 1931, in Clarkesdale, Mississippi, and grew up in Chicago. As a teenager, he became lead vocalist of the Soul Stirrers (which later included Johnnie Taylor), with whom he toured and recorded for nearly six years. By 1951 Cooke was a top gospel artist, already boasting his now-famous phrasing and urban enunciation.
Hoping not to offend his gospel fans, Cooke released his pop debut, "Lovable" (1956), as Dale Cooke, but Specialty Records dropped him for deserting the Soul Stirrers. He released his own "You Send Me" the following year, and the 1.7-million-selling Number One song was the first of many hits. In the next two years his several hits — "Only Sixteen" (Number 28, 1959), "Everybody Likes to Cha Cha" (Number 31, 1959) — concentrated on light ballads and novelty items. He signed to RCA in 1960 and began writing bluesier, gospel-inflected tunes.