Legends: Sam Cooke

Any program that exposes new audiences to the greatness of Sam Cooke would have merit, and this "Legends" episode, once you get past Jeffrey Wright's dry narration, is a start-to-finish winner, loaded with superb clips and insightful commentary from Bobby Womack, Aretha Franklin, Dick Clark and other Cooke contemporaries.

Narrator: Jeffrey Wright

This review was corrected on Dec. 13, 2001.

Any program that exposes new audiences to the greatness of Sam Cooke would have merit, and this “Legends” episode, once you get past Jeffrey Wright’s dry narration, is a start-to-finish winner, loaded with superb clips and insightful commentary from Bobby Womack, Aretha Franklin, Dick Clark and other Cooke contemporaries. Cooke has been overlooked in many rock history books, mainly because of his lighter, even syrupy, hits from the pre-Beatles days. But as this hour proves, Cooke was a savvy performer and businessman, a man whom nearly every figure in R&B and rap emulates today.

After working the gospel circuit and scoring secular hits for Keen and RCA, Cooke became one of the first artists to start his own label after acquiring his publishing rights, thereby taking full control of his work and ensuring maximum payments on his songs and recordings.

He started in the pop world, however, like the Supremes and other black pop performers, intent on succeeding at Gotham’s Copacabana, where white audiences were giving the thumbs up or down. After his first show there flopped, he didn’t retreat: He created a new revue for black auds, one that would rely more heavily on his gospel roots and put him in a light that was honest in reflecting who he was as a man.

While not as formulaic as “Behind the Music,” “Legends” does have its own cadence and sense of discovery about facts, and it presents its characters as larger-than-life in the early moments. Early in the docu, Cooke, accurately, is called handsome, talented, charismatic, smart, savvy and sexy; those qualities, combined with a great alto singing voice, help him rise through the gospel ranks until he is R.H. Harris’ replacement in superstar quintet the Soul Stirrers. Fans initially are wary, but he eventually gets them on his side — until he enters the secular world.

His first release, “You Send Me” on the Keen label, hits No. 1 and Cooke is on his way — clips from “The Arthur Murray Party” and “The Ed Sullivan Show” are telling in identifying the sort of audience he was trying to win over; as he blossoms, with second wife Barbara Campbell, it’s in the world of a major label (RCA) and major black figures.

Cooke’s friendship with Cassius Clay as he was in the process of becoming Muhammad Ali is particularly illuminating: Consider that Cooke, Malcolm X, Clay and the Beatles were mingling together in Miami just days before Clay’s championship fight with Sonny Liston in 1964. Has civil rights, sports, entertainment and culture ever had a more significant gathering?

Cooke’s striking response to the world’s turmoil, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” should leave audiences mourning the day he was murdered in a Los Angeles motel. Reporting of his death has long been sketchy: “Legends” goes with a quick sentence and a newsreel account that makes it seem Cooke was shot due to a case of mistaken identity.

Late in his career, Cooke creates his own SAR label and gains control of his previous master tapes. Allen Klein, who was Cooke’s manager and whose company ABKCO is one of the pic’s producers, comes off as a bit of a career-saver here. Timing of special is not happenstance either: ABKCO Records will release on Jan. 15 “Keep Movin’ On,” a 23-song Cooke collection.

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Legends: Sam Cooke

VH1; Sun., Dec. 16, 9 p.m.

Production: Filmed by VH1 and ABKCO.

Crew: Executive producer, Bill Flanagan; producer, Mary Wharton; associate producer, Jim McDonnell; editor, Alex Hall. 60 MIN.

Cast: Narrator: Jeffrey Wright

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