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The Real American Idol

It was obvious Jimmy McNeal was nervous as he took the stage. He announced to the three American Idol judges he was going to sing "Cupid," a 1961 classic written and recorded by Sam Cooke. As McNeal began to sing, the trio of judges displayed distinctly unique reactions. Randy Jackson stared intently in an attempt to gauge the 23-year-old Texan's talent. Paula Abdul swayed from side to side, her body language expressing approval of McNeal's performance. Only Simon Cowell seemed to notice the fact that McNeal was singing "Another Saturday Night," Sam Cooke's smash hit from1963! Cowell's face was perplexed, but he didn't interrupt. Instead, he allowed the young singer to make the smooth transition from "Another Saturday Night" into "Cupid," and by end of the two-song tribute to Cooke, the AI judges were unanimous in their decision--Jimmy McNeal was headed to Hollywood on the last Golden Ticket of Season 6.

McNeal represents one of the many aspiring singers who recognize the timeless value of Sam Cooke's music. Akron Watson's performance of Cooke's legendary "A Change Is Gonna Come" earlier in the competition helped him advance to the next round, but Watson was asked to leave the show for reasons still unclear. In Season 4, Randy Jackson called David Brown's rendition of "A Change Is Gonna Come" 'the best he's seen' in the four years of the show, and Gedeon McKinney gave a memorable performance of the song in Season 5.

But it was Taylor Hicks who took the crown in Season 5, impressing AI's judges by singing "A Change Is Gonna Come" in his audition and Cooke's "You Send Me" on a night when the theme was "Songs from the Great American Songbook." When Taylor finished You Send Me, Paula Abdul told him "Sam would be proud of you!" Rod Stewart admitted "No one sings this song like Sam Cooke--nobody--but he did a great version."

So why all the fuss about an entertainer who died over 40 years ago and whose Pop career only lasted only eight years? Perhaps Jerry Wexler, Atlantic Records' super-producer to Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles, sums it up best:

"Sam was the best singer who ever lived, no contest. When I listen to him, I still can't believe the things that he did…everything about him was perfection. A perfect case."

Ray Charles himself testified that Sam Cooke "never hit a wrong note."

The son of a Baptist preacher, Sam Cooke was raised in the church. By early 1951, less than three years after his high school graduation, Cooke found himself lead singer of the top gospel group at the time--The Soul Stirrers. His smooth tenor voice dripped honey, and his shows attracted young female fans by the dozens. Cooke was the country's biggest name in Gospel, but he ignored potential ostracism from his fan base and made the transition to popular music in 1956. He gained national prominence with the 1957 release of "You Send Me," an innovative song that combined his gospel roots with a smooth, R&B flavor. The world called the new sound "Soul."

For the next seven years Sam Cooke wrote, arranged, produced, and recorded hit songs not just for himself, but for the artists on the record labels he founded. At the peak of his popularity, his life was tragically cut short under still-mysterious circumstances on December 11, 1964.

What he left behind was a laundry list of soulful, chart-topping hits--most written by Cooke himself--and the world's desire to find another artist of his caliber. American Idol contestants are aware that "holding their own" against a Sam Cooke classic is almost a guarantee to advance to higher rounds. It seems Cooke has set the bar so high that Rod Stewart's comment "No one sings this song like Sam Cooke…but he did a great version" is not an insult, but is indeed the ultimate complement.

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About The Author: Erik Greene is Sam Cooke’s great-nephew. Personally-autographed copies of Our Uncle Sam: The Sam Cooke Story From His Family’s Perspective can be ordered through

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