Carla Cooke brings it home, performing the music of her legendary father
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Carla Cooke was only four months old when her father, the legendary King of Soul Sam Cooke, passed away tragically in 1964, leaving behind a coveted and respected body of work that included “Summertime,” “Wonderful World,” “Twistin’ the Night Away” and arguably his most famous work, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” that bridged the gaps between pious church spirituals and more risque early R&B, and the even wider gaps between white and black listeners at the height of the civil rights movement.
When: 7:30 p.m. March 1; 9 p.m. March 2
Where: Club Arcada, 105 E. Main St., St. Charles
When: 8 p.m. March 3; 5 p.m. March 4
Where: Evanston Rocks, 1012 Church St., Evanston
Bruce Eder of AllMusic claims Sam Cooke was perhaps “the most important soul singer in history” for his range in style and substance, and when Cooke passed at the young age of 33 in a mysterious and scandalous shooting at a night motel, the world was denied of what might could have been.
“Uncle L.C. [Cooke’s younger brother, a songwriter who passed away last year in Chicago] and I used to talk about what he might be doing today, probably still in the music business in some way, but probably also in politics,” says Carla Cooke, the late singer’s youngest child, who is resolute in her mission to not let the world forget about her father.
She recently started touring on a bill called “The Sam Cooke Experience,” in which she performs his timeless songs with her similar clean and polished vocals. She also tells stories of his career, like the time Sam was on tour with Aretha Franklin and Aretha’s father came looking for her, pounding down dressing room doors until he found Franklin and Sam deep in conversation. “Both froze and gave meaning to the term, ‘waiting to exhale,’” jokes Carla, noting that many of the stories have been told to her by L.C., or her godfather Sir Mack Rice (the man behind “Mustang Sally”).
“I never had the chance to have a relationship with [my father] unfortunately. It’s one of the saddest things for me as his daughter,” she says. “But luckily as a young girl, my mother gave me his music and had me sit and listen to it over and over again. And performing it now draws me closer to him. I really feel his presence.”
Like her father (the son of a reverend), Carla Cooke grew up in the church, singing in choirs, where she found her voice. “One of my first solos was Deniece Williams’ ‘God Is Truly Amazing.’ We used to listen to gospel music on the way to church every morning, and when I heard that song, I told the music director I had to sing it.” Carla remembers receiving a standing ovation and the deacon nicknaming her “songbird,” asking her to perform concerts each month.
Following in the footsteps of her half-sister Linda Womack (Sam Cooke’s daughter from his second marriage) who enjoyed a recording contract as part of Womack & Womack, Cooke says she had a chance to formally get into the music business but turned it down to raise a family of seven children. “Now that they’re all grown, it’s my time. I get to do what I really love to do,” she says, noting she has support from the siblings she’s in touch with as well as rabid fans young and old, who continue to cling to progeny for a taste of the music after legends have passed or retired. In fact, Cooke’s first live show two years ago was the “Daughters of Rhythm and Blues” concert at the Katherine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center, also featuring Rhonda Ross (daughter of Diana Ross and Berry Gordy) and Robyn Charles (daughter of Ray Charles).
“I love performing my father’s music and bringing it to people of all generations who remember it from before or are hearing it for the first time and hearing what his music meant to them,” Cooke says.
To prepare, she watched the videos that exist of Sam Cooke and listened to recordings. “The way he commanded the stage was incredible. He could just stand there, popping his finger,” she says. “His voice touched your soul and I want to do that as well.”
Cooke is also working on original material. She released a solo album, “A Time to Remember” recently, and hopes to have new music out by the end of this year, with tunes inspired by her father and his contemporaries as well as Roberta Flack and Barbara Streisand. Some of those tracks will also be part of her set list on the current tour.
It will be her first time performing in the Chicago area, where her father spent his formative years as a child and teenager, attending Wendell Phillips Academy High School in Bronzeville and singing with the gospel group the Highway QC’s. A part of a street at his neighborhood hangouts near 36th and Cottage Grove is named for him, which Cooke hopes to visit. “I’m super excited to come to Chicago and perform,” she says. “I just want to keep his music alive.”
Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.