23 Best Sam Cooke Songs

Best Sam Cooke Songs

Sam Cooke was only 33 when he was shot in a controversial incident at a Los Angeles hotel, but he left behind a collection of soulful music and a catalog of exquisitely well-written songs. Here are the best Sam Cooke Songs ever.

1. “A Change is Gonna Come”

Song Year: 1964

“A Change is Gonna Come” has become a symbol of the civil rights movement, and its message of hope in the face of struggle has resonated with people for decades. That said, the song barely made the Top 40.

But in the years after the song’s release, the powerful lyrics, reflecting Cooke's own experiences with racism and discrimination, have resonated with generations of listeners. Otis Redding covered “A Change is Gonna Come” at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, a performance that went down in history. Other notable artists include Seal, Greta van Fleet, and the Fugees.

2. “Wonderful World”

Song Year: 1960

One of the rare Sam Cooke hits that Cooke himself didn’t write, “Wonderful World” is about a man who isn’t book smart but knows what love is. Maybe that’s why the song appealed to so many people.

While it was written by Lou Adler and Herb Alpert, Cooke did make some changes to the lyrics. It’s a short-and-sweet song, but it’s a lovely piece of music. Generation X was introduced to the song when they saw Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis dancing to it in a barn in the film Witness.

3. “Bring It On Home To Me”

Song Year: 1962

Lou Rawls joined Cooke on backing vocals for “Bring It On Home to Me,” a top-20 hit. The ballad about a man trying to win back his love is considered one of Cooke’s most emotional performances.

The melody was inspired by a gospel tune called “I’m So Glad (Trouble Don’t Last Always)” by the Dixie Hummingbirds, which shines a light on Cooke’s church-music background.

4. “Twistin’ the Night Away”

Song Year: 1962

The title track to Cooke’s eighth studio album, “Twistin’ the Night Away” reached number nine on the Billboard Hot 100 chart on the strength of its infectious beat and catchy chorus. The lyrics are about a party where everyone is twisting and having a good time, and the song’s energy is irresistible.

The horn section alone could have made the whole song, but there are great performances from everyone on the record. Those are the Jordanaires on background vocals, and if the name doesn’t sound familiar, the voices should, anyway— they sang with Elvis Presley.

5. “Shake”

Song Year: 1964

Recorded in the last session before Sam Cooke’s death, “Shake” was a posthumous release and became a top-ten hit. It’s ridiculously fun, it makes you work hard not to dance around to it, and it’s got a pall of sadness around it since the world had just lost Cooke to the controversial shooting that took him from us.

6. “Another Saturday Night”

Song Year: 1963

Many of Cooke’s songs are the kind that people hear the title of, think, “I don’t think I know that,” and then they hear it. At that point, they either say, “Oh, yeah. I know this one,” or they say, “I didn’t know this was Sam Cooke.”

“Another Saturday Night” is one of those. It’s a piece of pop confectionery, but it’s so much fun to listen to, with Cooke’s borderline-shout performance and a danceable beat. And since it’s about a guy with money on his hands but no girl to spend it on, lonely people can relate to it.

7. “That’s Where It’s At”

Song Year: 1964

“That's Where It’s At” was released mere months before Cooke’s death. The title track of his 1964 album, “That’s Where It’s At” is about the good feeling of being in the moment with that special someone. It’s a romantic piece of music that draws strength from Cooke’s soulful performance.

It’s a slow burn that captures the romantic feeling of the situation in the lyrics.

8. “You Send Me”

Song Year: 1957

Sam Cooke’s first hit, “You Send Me” marked the beginning of his evolution as a songwriter and performer. It’s a song that very much sounds like it came out in the 50s, and when compared to Cooke’s later work, it’s very different.

The record label he was on at the time was a gospel label, and the brass was worried the song would drive listeners away. The song got sent to Keen Records and ended up selling two million copies. So score one for the heathens.

9. “Chain Gang”

Song Year: 1960

The upbeat sounds of “Chain Gang” belie its oppressive subject matter. It’s a song about prisoners working on a chain gang and suffering oppression, hardship, and injustice. It was a number-two hit, so it makes you wonder if all those people buying the song realized what a downer it really was, despite its peppy beat and call-and-response lyrics.

The song’s popularity helped to establish Cooke as a leading voice in soul music, and it has since become a classic of the civil rights era.

10. “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons”

Song Year: 1957

The Ink Spots and Nat King Cole had hits with “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons” in the 1940s, but they were mellower, jazzier iterations of the song. Cooke put his own R&B spin on it in the late 1950s and scored a top-20 hit with it.

It’s a song about why the narrator loves their significant other, and its simple, heartfelt message has made it a popular choice for wedding first dances and other romantic occasions.

11. “Good Times”

Song Year: 1964

“Good Times” is about living in the moment, and the narrator goes so far as to say that we should have fun now since we don’t know if we’ll ever feel as good as we do at this moment ever again.

It peaked at number 11 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart and has remained a constant presence on mix tapes (back in the day) and playlists (in the 21st century) for parties. And that’s James Jamerson on bass, one of the most influential players of all time and a mainstay of Motown recordings.

12. “You Were Made For Me”

“You Were Made For Me”

Song Year: 1958

Cooke lists off different things and what their purpose is in “You Were Made for Me” before getting around to his point— that his girl was made for him. It’s a romantic song that seems custom-made for slow-dancing to.

It’s not a sappy ballad, but rather a mid-tempo song complete with doo-wop backing vocals and a vibraphone. Still, it’s a song that makes a mark.

13. “It’s Alright”

Song Year: 1961

There’s a 1950s sensibility to “It’s Alright,” with the 12/8 swing feel and the repetitive backing vocals, but none of those elements are bad things.

Sam Cooke, backed by a salty string section and a piano line that could have been played by Little Richard, reassures his beloved that he’ll always be there for her. He gets the same reassurance from her since he knows everything will be fine as long as she loves him. It’s very sweet.

14. “Cupid”

Song Year: 1961

“Cupid” features Cooke’s smooth, soulful vocals over a bouncy, upbeat rhythm and a memorable melody. The lyrics find the narrator asking Cupid to resolve his love problems. If Cupid would only shoot this one specific woman, then the narrator could have her because she’d love him back.

The song reached number 17 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and has since become a classic of the soul and R&B genres. Notable covers of the song include versions by Johnny Rivers, The Spinners, and the late Amy Winehouse.

15. “Having a Party”

Song Year: 1962

“Having a Party” is a B-side (this one to “Bring It On Home to Me”) that became a hit on its own. That wasn’t unheard of, but it was unusual. The song is about, well, having a party. Good times are had by all when you have a party, and Cooke did his best to capture that feeling.

Once the song was released, it became a mainstay of his live performances, with Cooke usually saving it for last. During the performance, he’d bring the other acts on the bill back out onto the stage to sing it with him, creating a party right there in front of the audience.

16. “Rome (Wasn’t Built in a Day)”

Song Year: 1964

True love is worth working for, according to “Rome (Wasn’t Built in a Day).” Part of 1964’s Ain’t That Good News, the song has a gentle melody and heartfelt lyrics that encourage the listener to slow things down, and that good things take time.

It wasn’t released as a single, but it’s such a well-written song that fans embraced it and many artists have covered it, including Nick Lowe and Tom Gaebel.

17. “I’ll Come Running Back To You”

Song Year: 1957

“I’ll Come Running Back to You” features Cooke’s smooth vocals over a gentle guitar riff and staccato piano triplets. The lyrics tell of a man who promises to return to his lover no matter what obstacles stand in their way. The title phrase has become one of the most memorable and iconic phrases in Cooke’s discography.

The song was an early hit for Cooke, and breaking into the top 20, it helped cement his status as a rising star in the world of soul and R&B music.

18. “Ain’t That Good News”

Song Year: 1964

The title track of Sam Cooke’s final studio album features an upbeat melody, shin-kicking horns, and gospel-inspired backing vocals, and its lyrics celebrate the joy and hope that come with the promise of good news.

The song’s gospel roots may result from the tragic death of Cooke’s 18-month-old son Vincent, which had happened about six months before Cooke wrote and recorded it. Looking for good in the wake of a tragedy seems to be a universal human course of action.

19. “That’s It, I Quit, I’m Moving On”

Song Year: 1961

We’ve all come to that point in a relationship where the last straw falls, and that’s what “That’s It, I Quit, I’m Moving On” is about. The narrator has put his all into a relationship, but as the red flags have amassed, he’s finally had enough and ends things. It was a top-40 hit for Cooke, just one in an impressively long line.

20. “Falling in Love”

Song Year: 1963

Unrequited love is a bummer. That’s the gist of “Falling in Love,” which finds Cooke singing in the voice of a narrator who loves someone who doesn’t feel the same way. While it was written by an adult Cooke, there’s a certain teenage mentality in the lyrics, especially the part about how the narrator knows other people have endured this same heartache, but no one has suffered more than he is at this moment. Poor Sam.

21. “Frankie and Johnny”

Song Year: 1963

One of the stranger two-word phrases in the music business is “murder ballad.” That’s what “Frankie and Johnny” is, based on the true story of two 19th-century lovers that ended in gunfire.

Cooke’s version isn’t much of a ballad with that bluesy horn section screaming in the background. It works out to be something of a raucous piece of music, but you can still hear the tragedy of the tale in Cooke’s voice.

22. “Tennessee Waltz”

Song Year: 1964

Hundreds of acts (many of them country) have covered “Tennessee Waltz,” but Cooke’s version was the most driving, bolstered by the insistent horn section pushing the rhythm throughout.

While Patti Page made the song a gigantic hit in 1950, Cooke’s rendition was so different that it feels like an entirely new piece of music. It was the B-side to “Good Times,” but it still reached number 35 on the charts.

23. “Summertime”

Song Year: 1957

“Summertime,” written by George Gershwin for Porgy and Bess, is up there with The Beatles’ “Yesterday” when it comes to the most-covered songs of all. Seemingly everyone has done a version of it, from Billie Holiday to Janis Joplin to R.E.M.

And then there’s Sam Cooke. His version features a slow, jazzy arrangement with a gentle piano accompaniment and his smooth, soulful vocals. It wasn’t released as a single, but it has become a beloved cover of the classic song about the joys and pleasures of summertime.

Top Sam Cooke Songs, Final Thoughts

The untimely death of Sam Cooke robbed the world of a great deal of wonderful music that he undoubtedly would have continued making. Thankfully, he left behind a wealth of material before that sad day in 1964. These songs represent some of his best work.

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