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He got it, but whether he went too far to get it remains a bone of contention among pop fans and soul purists. Signing with Keen in 1957, Cooke proved from the start that he had the songwriter's instincts to match his high, golden voice, penning hits like "You Send Me," "Only Sixteen" and others, classics that took teen love and bathed it in the glow of Cooke's shining vocal presence. But when he signed with the production team of Hugo and Luigi at RCA in 1960, his music began to take on even more pop overtones -- perhaps only Elvis could have sold hokey songs like "Cousin of Mine" and "Everybody Likes To Cha-Cha-Cha" with equal authority.
But it's also worth remembering that Sam was always a more prominent fixture on the R&B charts than on pop radio, no matter what the song of the moment. Something in that magical voice just seemed to speak to the black community, and not just because Cooke hung out with Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali or delivered one of the Sixties' great protest songs, "A Change Is Gonna Come," just before his mysterious death in a 1964 motel shooting. Sam Cooke was a rebel in the same way many of his contemporaries were, black and white: he just never looked or sounded the part. And that blame can be laid squarely at the feet of our own cultural myopia.