Honoring Sam Cooke


On Saturday, June 18, 2011, Chicago’s own Sam Cooke was inducted into a select group honored by the posting of a street sign in their name. Each honorary street sign is placed in a prominent position either where the person lived or made their mark on society. On the corner of 36th Street and Ellis Avenue in the Bronzeville neighborhood, a brand new sign reading “Sam Cooke Way” establishes forever the place where the singer, songwriter, business man, husband, father, brother, uncle, pioneer and social change activist lived and learned.

The throng of people who came to witness the dedication were jovial, sober, high spirited and very eager. They shared their common love for Cooke in conversation and memories. Childhood friends of Cooke’s stood right by me and began to talk to me when they saw me taking notes.

Herb Kent, the "Cool Gent," (right) poses with fans, relatives and those who grew up with legendary Soul singer Sam Cooke at the June 2011 dedication of a street in Cook'e honor. Photo by Jacqueline Thompson

“Yeah, I remember when he used to run around here with us and play while we went to Doolittle Elementary School. He was in my brother’s room. He smiled a lot, a real role model,” said James Purnell, who lived at 530 East 36th Street. “We are all very proud to witness this day.”

Herman Mitchell added, “He was older than some of us, but even when he got up in the business, he would come back and he would entertain us for free.”

Scotty Wiggins of 532 E. Browning St. reminisced about Doolittle Elementary in the 1940s, when they all attended. Then, Gerald Rhymes, who lived at 470 E 35th St. at the time, added his memories. Clarence “Sonny” Wilson of 470 E. 35th St. recalled, “I used to sing baritone with him.” They all agreed that “It was about time they did this.” Cooke died in 1964.

A big limousine bus brought most of Sam’s family to the scene. Then the speakers began to arrive, and electricity was in the air. Radio personality Herb Kent, Cook County Commissioner Jerry “Ice Man” Butler, Ald. Pat Dowell (3) and Prentice Butler, an assistant to Ald. Will Burns (4), all made remarks.

Butler proceeded to answer the many fans who asked why it took so long to do this: “Alderman Preckwinkle made the initial application to honor Sam in this way in spring of 2010. However, it was just prior to her bid to run for Cook County board president and the following strenuous campaign left no opportunity for her to pursue the continuation of building momentum within the City Council to pass the confirmation to issue this much-desired honor for Sam Cooke and his family. However, the newly elected 4th Ward alderman, Mr. Will Burns, picked up the push that passed easily, and here we are today to fulfill the dedication that was so long in coming. It was a long journey but well worth it.” The crowd cheered loudly and clapped long in response.

Kent, known by his nickname “The Cool Gent,” was present in a stunning silver, star-studded black shirt and ever-present cowboy hat. He spoke with emotion when he said, “I am proud to be here for this momentous occasion. Sam Cooke had a very definitive voice and rose to become a very bright star. He was a pioneer and in his 33 years, he accomplished more than many. He made bold moves. He was the first Black artist to own his own label, the first Black to refuse to sing to a segregated audience. Everyone was touched by his voice that could not be considered blues, rock and roll or jazz, so it was coined as Soul.”

Jerry Butler expressed his thanks to Cooke’s family, “for making this event possible.”

Then, he went on to describe the effect Cooke had on him: “Sam defined an entire generation of musicians. It is our duty to make sure we honor the legacy made by him. My favorite song was ‘You Send Me.’ When he put that song out, I had dropped out of school, and when I heard it so often, I went back to school. Some of his written lyrics made prophetic social changes through song.” He thanked the family and the audience to very loud applause.

Dowell remembered Sam’s music through a personal exchange between her parents. Whenever there was a rift between the two of them, her father would play, “Bring It On Home To Me” and Dowell said, “The gap would be closed…With the placing of this Sam Cooke Way city sign here today, it signifies that Sam will forever be at 36th Street and Ellis.…I can imagine Sam looking down grinning.”

Kent said Bronzeville was a “hot bed” for all kinds of music during the time Cooke was on the scene. And on this day, musicians gave their offerings to honor his memory. As each one took the microphone, they sang a few notes of his music or the song they made famous. Alphonse Parker of the ‘Miracles’ sang, “If You Ever Change Your Mind” and “You Really Got A Hold On Me,” both real crowd pleasers.

Ruby Andrew sang a part of her best song, “Casanova.” Then, Cliff Curry of the ‘Notations’ recalled his personal contact with Cooke as an usher at the famed Regal theater on 47th Street and South Parkway. He too sang a few notes from the Notations’ familiar “You’re Still Here” and Cooke’s “You Send Me.” Michael Thurman, also from the ‘Notations,’ warmed the crowd again, with a few notes of the all-time favorite, “You Send Me.”

Cooke’s music was soul stirring on both sides of the chart. His renditions of Gospel music are legendary. And then he wrote “A Change Is Gonna Come,” which held far reaching truths. One of the day’s speakers mentioned that President Barack Obama quoted that song’s lyrics during his speech in Chicago the night he won the presidential election in 2008.

There were many members of Cooke’s family present and were very happy to witness this event. His two brothers, L.C. and David, were presented with their very own “Sam Cooke Way” signs to put in their homes. Cooke’s nephew Erik Greene has written a book about his famous uncle and encouraged fans to visit a web site: http://www.ourunclesam.com.

Greene stepped to the podium to close the program, and there was one more surprise to present to the family, friends and fans. In the crowd, there was a young boy who asked if he could sing a song in Cooke’s honor. He was given permission and two men held him up, gave him the microphone, and he sang out, clear, straight and true, “I Was Born By the River.” He was 10 years old and his name is Tarik Griffin. The crowd roared with awe, delight and pleasure. It was a very fitting conclusion to this exciting event.

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