The late Sam Cooke would be 90 years old today. Cooke’s relevance and artistry has never been clearer, thanks to Regina King’s new film, “One Night in Miami,” which brings the Kemp Powers play of the same name to the big screen. The movie imagines the personal sparks, bonds, and struggles of four key Black American figures on a night in 1964 when Cooke, sports hero Muhammed Ali (then known as Cassius Clay), civil-rights icon Malcolm X and sports/film star Jim Brown all gathered to celebrate Ali’s heavyweight championship fight victory over reigning champ Sonny Liston.
To help celebrate Cooke’s birthday, Variety reached out to legendary music manager Andrew Loog Oldham, whose tenure as the original manager of the Rolling Stones was preceded by his work on Sam Cooke’s 1962 tour of the United Kingdom. Here are Loog Oldham’s recollections of the man, the music, the magic, that was Sam Cooke:
I first witnessed Sam Cooke in October 1962. I was a young press agent making my way in the pop world, translating my wages into suits similar to those worn by Tony Curtis’ Sidney Falco in “The Sweet Smell of Success.”
The legendary promoter, Don Arden, father to the equally legendary Sharon Osborne, had hired me to PR his U.K. tour headlined by the infamous rocker Little Richard, with Cooke and six string bass maven Jet Harris (former bass player for Cliff Richard) supporting. It was not a Sam Cooke audience, it was odd but astute casting on the part of Mr. Arden, who was also known as the Godfather of Pop. The audience was basically a Teddy Boy gathering. Teds were the first British youth movement, working class and defined by their love of raucous American rock ‘n’ roll, loathing of the upcoming Mod movement and adoption of the Edwardian Dandy style of dress, a Brit version of the American Zoot Suit look, and in “Peaky Blinders” mode the Teds had nothing against violence.
Sam arrived late, he missed the first show in Doncaster, but stepped smoothly on stage for the second show backed by guitarist Cliff White and drummer Al Gardner augmenting a British backing band, Sounds Incorporated, a C version of the soon-to-be Dave Clark Five. A 15-year-old Billy Preston accompanied Little Richard.
The tour ran all of October, no days off, sometimes two shows a night, ending Oct. 28 at the Liverpool Empire, a city where a local band named the Beatles had just had their first single, “Love Me Do,” released on the EMI Parlophone label. The Beatles would also join the Little Richard/Sam Cooke tour as support on two of the northern dates, in Wallasey and the final Liverpool gig.
I was witnessing history, and I got to witness Sam Cooke on his only U.K. tour.
It started out dodgy, it started out rough. This was not Sam’s crowd. In addition, looking back, another factor for both Sam and Richard was that the audience was 100% white, something neither artist was used to back in America, apart from Cooke’s turn at the Cocacabana in New York.
Sam was like a good-looking prize fighter in an immaculate suit, he played and gauged the audience as a master of one, not unlike the then-named boxing icon, Cassius Clay, whose CBS Records recording he would work on the next year.
Sam weaved, he bobbed, he swayed. He sang through the gauntlet of Teds with groove, verve and humor. And the songs — “Cupid,” “You Send Me,” “Chain Gang” and finally “Twistin’ the Night Away.” Some risky moments, around song three, Sam took out his pocket handkerchief just to let the crowd know he’d been working them and how was he doing? The few girls that were there got it, the guys followed. Every night Sam did the same. He won them over, this potentially hostile audience, and turned it over to Richard, crowd intact, a smooth transition. Remember those?
I had witnessed the very best, (Little Richard was no slouch either) Sam was an instrument, the core of the band, and every night he’d end up with the audience in the palm of his hand. I had loved and marveled at his recordings: the songs, the poetry in motion, the sensual control, the arrangements, those pipes of Tiffany , the cool space between the heat.
I knew from instinct, not experience, that no matter who was in the booth this man produced himself. He knew exactly who he was and what he had to give.
My cell phone plays Dion & Paul Simon singing Dion’s recent “Song for Sam Cooke” when I get a call. It did when I got this one. Thanks for the call.
Andrew Loog Oldham was the first manager of the Rolling Stones and produced all their recordings from 1963-1967. Loog Oldham is the author of several books on the music business and is currently serving as a visiting Scholar at Thompson Rivers University, in British Columbia, Canada, He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014.