Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Death of Sam Cooke

Cupid's Arrows

As the Christmas season arrived in 1964, the soulful pop crooner Sam Cooke was at the crest of his career.

Cooke, 33, had enjoyed a remarkable run of hit songs, beginning in 1957 with "You Send Me" and continuing with "Wonderful World," "Chain Gang," "Cupid," "Bring It on Home" and "Another Saturday Night," among many others.

Sam Cooke
Sam Cooke

He had sold 10 million records as a true crossover artist. His songs, with broad appeal to all races, rated high on both the pop and R&B charts. He had begun to dabble in acting, and talent agents saw limitless potential — film roles, a la Sammy Davis Jr., or a variety show, like Nat King Cole.

Born to humble roots in the Mississippi Delta, he had accumulated a personal fortune. He drove a $15,000 Ferrari convertible and lived with his lovely wife, Barbara, in a Hollywood mansion. A clever businessman, he seemed destined for even greater fame and unspeakable wealth.

But Cooke had a flaw of Biblical proportion: his unbridled libido.

He was a skirt-chaser and serial philanderer, a problem that shadowed his entire life since adolescence. At age 22, as he was blossoming as a star gospel singer, Cooke juggled three pregnant girlfriends — two in Chicago, one in Cleveland.

Cupid's well-worn arrow pricked Cooke yet again on December 10, 1964.

He was supposed to have dinner that night with his record producer, Al Schmitt, at Martoni's, an Italian restaurant off Sunset Boulevard, in Hollywood, that was a hangout for music business heavyweights. Cooke drove his red Ferrari down the few miles from his posh home on Ames Street in the Hollywood Hills.

Ferrari, similar to Cooke's
Ferrari, similar to Cooke's

Schmitt and Cooke guzzled several pre-dinner martinis while talking business in the dining room. Cooke was beckoned into the cocktail lounge by a friend, and soon he was lost in a well-liquored rump session of L.A. musicians.

They laughed, sang and toasted with one glass of elixir after another. 

At one point, a slinky young woman with Asian features caught Cooke's wandering eye. She was seated in a booth with several musicians, and Cooke sidled up for an introduction.

He winked, and she winked back.

The singer got sidetracked and missed dinner.

He should have known better. But they say he couldn't help himself.

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