If you only know Sam Cooke for his immaculate singing voice, you’re missing out on all the most interesting parts of his story. He got his first break in 1950 as the lead singer for gospel group The Soul Stirrers, with whom he helped repopularize the genre among young women due to his magnetic onstage charisma. From there, he crossed over to the mainstream and proceeded to crank out hit after hit, notching more than thirty top 40 singles between 1957 and 1964.

Sam Cooke – “You Send Me” – The Ed Sullivan Show – 1957

[Video: The Ed Sullivan Show]

Even more interesting than the story of Sam Cooke, the musician is the story of Sam Cooke, the man. He repeatedly broke racial barriers with defiance, took notable stands against segregationist policies while touring in the South, formed intellectual alliances with some of the biggest Black figures of his time (like Malcolm XJim Brown, and Muhammad Ali), and led historic drives for racial equality and empowerment in the record industry and beyond.

His activism, however, was routinely downplayed by his record label handlers. “If you’re RCA, you don’t want your mainstream Black artist talking about those kinds of politics,” explains Dr. Mark Anthony Neal, a Duke University professor of African Studies, in the 2019 Netflix documentary, ReMastered: The Two Killings of Sam Cooke. “There’s a second verse of ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ that was famously deleted when it was initially released that very explicitly talks about Jim Crow segregation in the South [‘I go to the movie / And I go downtown / Somebody keep telling me / Don’t hang around’] . I think it’s very telling that the record company deleted that verse because they were concerned with what sort of reaction the public would have with this very political verse in the song.”

With his music, his actions, and his vision, Sam Cooke had turned himself into a superstar and role model on a global scale by his early thirties. That’s why it came as such a shock to the world when he was murdered in a seedy motel room at the age of 33 under highly suspicious circumstances.

Cooke’s death prompted widespread public outrage, with many people believing he was secretly cut down for flying too close to the sun as a Black man in 1964 America. Authorities were quick to write his death off as a product of misadventure.

Sam Cooke’s murder and the splintered legacy it left in its wake are examined in detail in the aforementioned Netflix documentary. As Boston Globe associate editor Renee Graham explains in the film, “It felt to everyone like this was all done too quickly. Muhammad Ali, in his anger and rage, essentially said, ‘If this had happened to Frank Sinatra, or The Beatles, or Ricky Nelson, the FBI would be investigating this,’ and Muhammad Ali, I think, spoke for the whole community who believed that this was being treated as just another dead Black person. … You have to question, ‘why did the record companies suppress his politics?'”

Adds Dr. Neal, “Sam Cooke at the time of his death is someone who has significant meaning to the Black community. The Black community loves him. Sam Cooke didn’t mean the same to white America. They didn’t recognize how important Sam Cooke was.”

Among the various dualities highlighted in the film is the difference between Cooke’s performances for Black crowds and white/segregated audiences. In particular, the doc points to live album One Night Stand – Sam Cooke Live At The Harlem Square Club, 1963, as a perfect example of Cooke never truly leaving his Black audience behind as his success with mainstream audiences continued to skyrocket.

“This is Sam singing to a Black audience. It’s a vastly different kind of Sam Cooke than the mainstream, meaning white people, have become accustomed to,” Graham explains.

“There’s something else in that Harlem Square recording that’s so much grittier and Blacker,” adds Dr. Neal, lamenting the “tragic” truth that audiences were not able to hear the live record until it was finally released in 1985—more than two decades after Cooke was killed.

“That was not the guy [the label] wanted playing Vegas and the Copa, which were things Sam wanted as well, but Sam always felt there was room to do both of those things,” explains Graham. “The record industry didn’t. I think the more they pushed it aside, the more Sam pushed forward with it because he had to be who he was, he had to fulfill that, and these were things that had been important to him for a very long time.”

Take, for example, “Chain Gang”, one of Cooke’s enduring songs. As a single via RCA in 1960, it’s a clean, almost cute ditty wrapped around a vaguely political message. For Black audiences, it a became gravelly, gut-wrenching, yet somehow joyful acknowledgment of the inequities inherent in the country’s system of justice.

Listen to the difference yourself below with clips of the “Chain Gang” studio single and the recording from The Harlem Square Club in Miami in 1963, respectively. The contrast is as clear as day. Same words. Same notes. Same man. Vastly different song.

Sam Cooke – “Chain Gang” – Studio Version

[Video: Sean Ludwig]

Sam Cooke – “Chain Gang (Live)” – The Harlem Square Club, 1963

[Video: Sam Cooke – Topic]

The entire live record gives you a peek into the soul of Sam Cooke—the man and emotions behind the image of a polished superstar fallen from grace that has long cast a shadow on his legacy. If you’re looking to dive into Cooke’s nuanced story and catalog, One Night Stand – Sam Cooke Live At The Harlem Square Club, 1963 should be your very first stop. Stream the full album below and check out ReMastered: The Two Killings of Sam Cooke here.

Sam Cooke – One Night Stand – Sam Cooke Live At The Harlem Square Club, 1963