In December 1964, legendary R&B singer Sam Cooke died at a motel after getting into a physical altercation with the motel’s manager. His death represented the loss of not just one of the greatest singers in music history but also one of the most critical burgeoning voices of the Civil Rights movement. Cooke had only just begun incorporating songs like ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ into his repertoire at the time of his death, robbing the world of a visionary forward-thinking artist.
One artist hit particularly hard by Cooke’s death was Otis Redding. Redding had been a fan of Cooke’s from a young age and had covered some of Cooke’s compositions, including ‘Nothing Can Change This Love’ and ‘You Send Me’, on his previous recordings. To pay tribute to his fallen peer, Redding decided to reserve a good chunk of his 1965 album Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul to cover Cooke’s songs.
The first was ‘A Change is Gonna Come’, which Redding infused with his signature shouts and emotional brays. Redding occasionally received criticism for his apparent lack of range or diversity. However, his ability to strain and peak on the first “I was booooorn by the river” is a classic example of Redding reaching deep into his soul to pull out the proper tone for whatever he was singing.
Next up was a version of Cooke’s ‘Shake’, the final recording that Cooke made in his lifetime. Cooke’s version of the track was released as a single just 11 days after his death. By the time Redding decided to cover the song, Cooke’s version had already been a top ten hit, landing at number seven on the Billboard Hot 100 in February of 1965.
Redding mostly excelled in two different modes: emotional ballads and frantic rave-ups. ‘Shake’ fit into the latter category, with Redding vamping and ad-libbing all over the funky rhythms provided by the Stax rhythms sections. That rhythm section included Booker T. & the MG’s, the instrumental soul outfit who had already scored their hit single with ‘Green Onions’ three years prior.
For his final Cooke cover, Redding decided to take on one of the singer’s most iconic tracks, ‘Wonderful World’. More low-key and straightforward than the rest of the songs on Otis Blue, ‘Wonderful World’ required Redding to be more playful and understated than his extremely energetic usual self. It’s a competent version, but it still doesn’t hold a candle to Cooke’s original.
However, personal preferences for the versions don’t matter since Redding’s interpretations should be seen as his tribute to the genius of Sam Cooke. It would only be two years after the release of Otis Blue that Redding would see his own untimely death. In a cruel twist of fate, Redding died almost exactly three years to the day after Cooke’s death, now robbing the music world of two of its greatest voices.