Any way you slice it, the first two weeks of December were historically tragic ones for popular music. Already this week we have chronicled the anniversaries of the dark days of Altamont and the death of John Lennon. There were two other significant passings that occurred during this time in the 1960s. Rock and roll and soul pioneers Sam Cooke and Otis Redding both died violently at young ages during early December only three years apart.
The first to go was Sam Cooke, who was gunned down under mysterious circumstances on December 11, 1964. Cooke was born in 1931 in the hotbed of the blues, Clarksdale, Mississippi, but grew up in Chicago where his father was a respected minister. He first got notice as the vocalist for the legendary gospel group The Soul Stirrers, who had several hits during the early 50s. Later that decade he broke with his gospel roots to become a secular singer. Over the next seven years he had nearly 30 hits, including Another Saturday Night, Cupid, Chain Gang, Twistin’ the Night Away, You Send Me, and A Change Is Gonna Come, which became a soulful anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.
Cooke was shot and killed in a South L.A. motel by the establishment’s female manager who claimed he was threatening her life. A coroner’s inquest later ruled that the killing was justified. He was only 33.
Sam’s widow Barbara created a scandal by marrying soul artist Bobby Womack only three months after his death, thereby becoming one of a select group of women (Patty Boyd is another) who married two men that are today in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Cooke’s daughter later married Womack’s brother, making the family tree a bit more interesting.
With Sam Cooke’s talent and good looks, I am stunned that his story has never been brought to the screen in a major way. Hollywood, get on this.
Three years and one day later, twenty-six-year-old soul singer Otis Redding perished, along with most of his backup band, when the plane they were flying in crashed into a lake in Wisconsin.
Redding spent most of the 60’s building a fan base through electric performances of his hits Try a Little Tenderness, Mr. Pitiful, and I Can’t Turn You Loose.
Today he is best remembered for the single, (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay, which he recorded only three days before his death. It was Redding’s only number one hit, becoming the first posthumous chart topper in American history.
Incidentally, the whistling that you hear in The Dock of the Bay was never meant to stay. Redding used it as a place holder for more lyrics that he intended to insert later.