Musical revue reheats the phenomenal talent of singer/songwriter Sam Cooke

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Darrian Ford performs the music of Sam Cooke. -Photo: Sam Ciardi

Singer/songwriter Sam Cooke was shot to death in a cheap motel in South Central Los Angeles on Dec. 11, 1964. No identification was found on his body, and it took police three days to identify him.

Although only 33 when he died, Cooke left behind a legacy of Top 10 hits that endure to this day. Songs like “Chain Gang,” “Cupid” and “A Change is Gonna Come” – recognized as one of the first civil rights protest songs – are among 19 other numbers that comprise “The Cooke Book: The Music of Sam Cooke.” The musical revue featuring singer Darrian Ford runs March 22-24 at Marcus Center for the Performing Arts’ Vogel Hall in Milwaukee.

The son of a Baptist minister from Clarksdale, Miss., Cooke was raised in Chicago. He’s generally credited for inventing the blend of gospel, rhythm and blues, and pop music that became known as “soul.” Cooke’s music forms the heartbeat of the show, according to Ford.

“There are many conspiracy theories about the death of Sam,” Ford says. “Some remain quite inflammatory. We don’t address any of them in this show. “

Nor does Ford perform as Cooke. Instead, he honors the singer’s memory through his music. In creating the show, the Chicago native did extensive research watching performance videos and listening to Cooke’s music.

“I sought out songs that spoke to me,” says Ford, who has also performed as a dancer with Alvin Ailey and other troupes during his career. “My research revealed to me that Sam was a man seeking to live an unprecedented life in the restricted atmosphere of his time. This impacted every recording, in small ways and in tremendous ways.”

Cooke’s career started in gospel music as a member of The Soul Stirrers, which enjoyed modest success and an independent record label contract. His matinee idol good looks, smooth tenor and sophisticated style made their mark with gospel audiences and enabled him to move easily into the pop music world in 1957.

His first hit, “You Send Me,” spent six weeks in the top spot on Billboard’s R&B charts. During the next seven years, Cooke had 30 Top 40 hits and three more after his death. He formed his own record label and management company, becoming the recording industry’s first African-American entrepreneur. His music became very popular with a broad cross-section of audiences.

“The catchy melodies, naturally human lyrics and honesty make his music approachable to everyone,” Ford says. “Any song that feels good enough to whistle will last forever. Try whistling ‘Cupid’ and see how it feels.”

Ford was doing a Broadway workshop for a musical focusing on crooners from the 1940s-1960s when Cooke’s music came to his attention. Ford grew up listening to Cooke’s pop songs, but he was astounded when he uncovered the singer’s jazz interpretations, which are not widely known. Cooke’s ability to so successfully cross genres at a time when it was difficult for black musicians to do much of anything impressed him.

“These jazz performances, by today’ s standards, would have been Sam’s ‘unplugged’ material,” Ford says. “I thought his range of artistic offerings, not to mention his business accomplishments, were compelling enough to deserve exhibition.”

Despite coming from different backgrounds, both musically and personally, Ford sees a lot of similarities between him and the singer he interprets. Cooke emerged from the gospel scene, while much of Ford’s work has been in musical theater. In addition to “The Cooke Book,” Ford has written songs, produced short films and even acted opposite Halle Berry in HBO’s “Introducing Dorothy
Dandridge,” portraying Fayard Nicholas of the legendary Nicholas Brothers. Ford’s reintroduction to Cooke’s music through the show has helped him forge a new career path.

“As distinctive as Sam’s voice was, we actually share some pretty similar vocal qualities,” Ford says. “For me, finding jazz and standards has been like coming home in every way – and has facilitated the same homecoming in others areas of my life. Sam is largely responsible for my personal course correction.”

What excites Ford the most is the ability to renew the interest in Cooke’s music for existing fans, as well as introduce a new generation to songs that have stood the test of time.

“There is always more to the story and possibly more appreciation to be gained for Sam’s life and works.” Ford adds. “I am satisfied that I am telling the part of the story I was divined and equipped to tell.”

On stage

Darrian Ford performs “The Cooke Book: The Music of Sam Cooke” March 22–24 in Vogel Hall at Milwaukee’s Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. For more, visit www.marcuscenter.org.