He was the last act scheduled on November 3 1957, and after Ed introduced him, Sam strolled out looking very cool. The music started, he sang “Darling, you-ou-ou send me. I know…”, and the show was over. It was live TV, and the show had run long. The Sullivan Show received so many complaints that they immediately re-booked him.
So on December 1st 1957, Sam returned. Ed Sullivan introduced him by saying “Sam, here’s the time.” Dressed neatly in suit and tie, Cooke delivered a stripped-down version of “You Send Me.” His performance used little more than backup vocals to complement his singing, and centered on Cooke himself. As he crooned directly into the camera, his effortless charisma and charming smile made him a hit with audiences. Right after the show aired, “You Send Me” reached number one on the Billboard Top 100, displaying just how successful his performance was.
Later in the show, Ed brought Sam onstage and apologized to him and the audience saying, “I did wrong one night here on our stage. And I never received so much mail in my life!” Sam, now dressed in a tuxedo, sang his rendition of “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons,” an R&B classic sung most famously by Sullivan show regular Nat “King” Cole in 1946. Ed Sullivan had always been a supporter of the civil rights movement, bringing on African-American artists like Nat “King” Cole before anyone else in the industry was. But while Cole had always been a very “safe” act, Cooke was pushing the envelope in regards to race and music. Cooke combined the smooth crooning style of past greats like Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra with a soulful tone that many in Sullivan’s audience hadn’t previously heard.
In his tragically short life, Cooke made only a few television appearances, and The Ed Sullivan Show performance is one of the only ones that still exist. It proved once again that Sullivan was a reliable ally of the civil rights movement, and jumpstarted Cooke’s career as a pioneer of the “Soul” genre. Cooke’s musical style had a massive influence on the creation of Motown and on artists like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. Sam Cooke also went on to become an important leader in the civil rights movement because of politically-conscious songs like “A Change is Gonna Come,” released after his controversial death at the age of 33. But Cooke had the platform to speak out about the issues of his day only because of his early commercial success and fame. And for that, he has The Ed Sullivan Show to thank.
In his book “Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke”, Peter Guralnick writes that Sam’s music “still sounds as fresh, as elegant, as full of mirth, sadness and surprise as when it first emerged, translating somehow across the ages in ways that have little to do with calculation or fashion and everything to do with spontaneity of feeling, with a kind of purity of soul.”