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How Sam Cooke faced down the devil

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Sam Cooke and “Little Richard” Penniman were about as different as two African-American pop singers could be.

Cooke was quiet, smooth, self-assured. Penniman was flamboyant, mercurial and insecure. As fate would have it, they toured England together back in the early 1960s.

And, when Penniman’s insecurities threatened the tour, it was Cooke who stepped in—quietly—to keep things going.

Penniman didn’t want to tour in the first place. He hadn’t sung rock ‘n’ roll for about five years, having given up the stage for his Southern Baptist ministry. But British music promoter Don Arden persisted.

Finally, Penniman agreed to the tour, but warned Arden that God would punish him because only someone evil would lead Little Richard back to rock ‘n’ roll.

Arden didn’t have to wait for God to punish him; Penniman did it himself, quoting Scripture to Arden and taking the stage one night wearing religious robes and singing gospel, instead of rock ‘n’ roll.

An angry Arden pleaded with and threatened Penniman, who merely called him the devil. The promoter even rushed outside to reassure the crowd for the second show that they wouldn’t be ripped off. Finally, he asked Cooke to intercede.

Cooke reasoned with Penniman. He pointed out that they’d signed contracts, and Cooke intended to honor his.

“You’re a man,” he added. “Why didn’t you say ‘No, I can’t’ if you didn’t want to do it?”

Penniman relented, saying he’d play only because he respected Cooke. They shook hands.

After all that, Penniman put on an incredible act, singing all his hits, carrying a chair in his mouth and running the aisles screaming.

Cooke had saved the show and probably the tour.

—Adapted from Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, Peter Guralnick, Little, Brown & Co.

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