Sam Cooke > Marvin Gaye

Based on a, um, civil discussion I had on Twitter last night, I know a lot of people are under the misapprehension that the reverse is true. But I just want to let you all know that my official policy is the following:

Marvin Gaye is cool and all, but Sam Cooke was the best male vocalist of all time. ALL TIME.

And I’ve got about a dozen more before bringing up “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

Carry on.

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  • blackink12

    That’s crazy talk. The answer is none of the above. If we’re talking quality of voice, the answer can only be Donny Hathaway.

    If we’re talking best R&B male musician of all time, it’s Stevie. And no one else is second.

  • Scipio Africanus

    Sam Cooke had better chops, certainly. The only problem with the comparison is that Sam Cooke died before he could expand into other sounds that were less overtly pop and overtly 60’s-sounding. Marvin was able to do that.

    Rightly or wrongly, most black popular music from before 1969, or so, has been perceived as part of the Archaic History of Black music, and isn’t really consumed and enjoyed by younger folks (Generation X and later) as much as the material from after 1969. So then you wind up with a bias (though relatively slight) against the “old stuff” and in favor of the “less old stuff.” That’s why folks love Curtis Mayfield, but many don’t really understand that much of his best work was written before 1967 and the political songs, as an example.

    • shani-o

      Yes, yes, yes to this. I totally agree. Mayfield’s work with The Impressions was absolutely genius (and he’d be my #2 after Sam, vocally), but people mostly know him for “Freddie’s Dead” and the like. Which is fine, but doesn’t hold a candle to his more political and spiritual work.

  • I’mma let you finish, but Otis Redding was the best Male Singer of all time. **hands you back the microphone**

    On a serious note, if Sam Vs. Marvin is a cute comparison, but as Scipio pointed out we never got to see Sam transcend generations and appeal to a younger set of fans the way Marvin did. Otis Redding would be a more appropriate comparison and although Sam might have been a better vocalist of the two, Otis could SANG.

    **pulls up chair in the back of the room**

    • nichole

      if we’re going there- where does donny hathaway stand in all of this?

      • I’ll take your Donny and raise you a Bill Withers.

        • nichole

          and now i know you’re buggin’.

          • bill

            You guys have lost ya’ll minds. No one, not Sam, Otis or Al, could sing like Marvin. Marvin Gaye was simply the greatest singer of all time. Just listen to the live version of Distant Lover.

            And no offense to Donny Hathoway, but he shouldn’t even be in the discussion. He was good, but he’s not on that level.

    • Seconded on Otis.

  • nichole

    i agree.
    marvin had a chance to evolve with his music and his personality, so he’s made a stronger, more lasting impression, but sam cooke is a better singer.

  • I love all of the above. My Imagination by Bill Withers was my wedding song and the live Carnegie Hall album is one of my all time favorites.

    But for pure vocals…

    I’m just saying.

  • Grump

    there is some crazy talking going on in here

  • distance88

    That ‘greater than’ sign looks pretty intimidating between those two names–Cooke & Gaye…but I think “Chain Gang”, “Cupid”, “(What a) Wonderful World”, “A Change Is Gonna Come”, and Cooke’s version of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” make the title a true statement..

  • If you confine this argument to Cooke v. Gaye, I think it’s pretty clear that Sam was the better pure singer — especially taking into account the entire catalog (early gospel stuff, etc). I think there’ve been some pretty persuasive arguments, though, about the fact that Gaye got a chance to mature — both lyrically and musically — in a way that Cooke never did.

    I think the only real competition Sam had as a vocalist comes from some folks that have already been mentioned: Donny Hathaway and Otis Redding. I think Sam still wins, though. It’s an interesting study because Hathaway and Redding come from two ends of the spectrum, when you talk about soul vocalists: Donny is waaaay smooth, while Otis is as raspy and down-home as humanly possible.

    I think Sam Cooke’s genius is that he could write and sing as smooth a pop confection as you’re liable to find, but — as anyone who’s picked up his Live at The Apollo set knows — he could take you to church at the drop of a dime.

    That’s why he still wins. My two cents.

    • young_

      No disrespect to the late Marvin Gaye and his enthusiasts but in terms of actual *singing*, he’s not even in the same conversation as these guys. Otis gets my vote hands down for the gritty soulfulness, feeling and force of his voice. He was a once in a lifetime talent and it’s amazing to think what he would have done if he had lived past 26.


  • And I don’t mean to mix it up too too much, but if you want to take it outside of soul, there’s a case to be made for both Van Morrison and Freddie Mercury.

    Oh, and back to soul for a sec: David Ruffin, anybody?!? This is too hard.

    • Captain Noble

      Seconded on Freddie. The man was a god.

  • as much as i love sam cooke, i don’t know if i can get behind the whole ‘best male vocalist of all time’ thing. it’s also really difficult for me to separate the artists that have been mentioned as ‘vocalists’ from the whole experience of listening to them altogether. i think marvin, otis, and stevie offer fuller listening experiences than sam and donny. the showtunes-y/broadway sound of sam isn’t a personal favorite of mine and likewise donny’s vocals are really pure .. which don’t move me in the same way as otis’s gritty crying voice.

    if i HAD to.. i’d say overall, as a musical artist, stevie is genius. then marvin (his album “I Want You”???? What?).. then.. oh, i dunno. i’m a big fan of curtis mayfield and the impressions as well. and billie holiday.. vocally anyway. but i guess that’s another discussion 😉

  • Val

    I saw the American Masters on Sam Cooke last night. He was amazing. Unfortunately even though most or many PBS stations also show the Marvin Gaye American Masters, my station did not.

    Sam singing A Change is Gonna Come, is one of the greatest songs ever.

    Anyway, Sam’s death was so senseless. I had no idea he died like that.

  • Jr

    I’m only flesh and blood, but I can be anything that you demand. I can be king of everything or just a tiny grain of sand. Donny was absolutely sick. Marvin gets the nod, if for no other reason his body of work outshine’s Sam and Donny.

  • I could state my biased opinion but instead I’ll let history speak for itself. When Marvin Gaye was approached to play Sam Cooke in his life story, Marvin declined, citing he wasn’t worthy.

    Erik Greene
    Author, “Our Uncle Sam: The Sam Cooke Story From His Family’s Perspective”

  • Jr

    Otis was tight to but I would compre him more too a Teddy Pendergrass.

  • HoneyBearKelly

    Jackie Wilson.
    That is all.

    • LaJane Galt

      Mom? Get off the computer!

      But I have to agree, Sam Cooke’s death robbed him of his chance to shine. I’m willing to bet his voice would have become a little grittier with age.

  • Ladyfresh

    This is just wrong!
    I refuse to participate…well beyond typing this part in.

    I love them all and depending no what mood i’m in one of the many singers mentioned here will be played.

    *ignores gun to the head and eats a sammich*

    besides both programs sit on my dvr waiting for me to view them this weekend

  • Pingback: The Crossed Pond » Speaking of Sam Cooke…()

  • Martin

    If forced to choose, I would go with Sam. However, I think everyone should spend a few weeks of intense listening to all of these men – and be very happy.

  • No one has mentioned Al Green yet. For shame.

  • Good call G.D. These kind of discussions generally break along the lines of chops vs. soul (not limited to soul music). Sam and Steve had the chops; they had the subtlety and sublime delivery that came across as utterly effortless. In my brain Sam stands above, but I wonder what price that judgment owes to his tragic death and all the what-ifs that remain today. In my hear of hearts Otis takes the crown (with Hathaway right behind); “Pain In My Heart” just destroys me every time. Otis had the r&b/soul house band of the century behind him, and he died just after cutting “Dock of the Bay” and in the middle of a deep obsession with Sgt. Pepper’s. The what-ifs loom just as large.

  • vancouverguy

    The people who make a distinction between vocal talent and other forms of talent are correct.

    As pure vocalists/singers, Marvin Otis and even Al can’t equal Sam. That’s not to say that each didn’t have their own vocal style and skills. Al has such a great quiver/vibrator, that’s what sets him apart from other vocalists who are merely good. Otis has raw power and emotion, abd you can hear him strain and “fuzz up” on lots of notes. Marvin had a great silky sound, great falsetto, but his sound was weaker and on “grapevine” you have all heard the story about how the producer deliberately changed the key (up) to force Marvin out of his range.

    But Marvin was a *complete* musician. If you’ve read any Motown stories, you will know he played numerous instruments, earning his keep in the studio before even getting a shot as a singer. Finally Marvin extended his musicianship into songwriting – almost brilliant even if it dropped off for various personal reasons during the 70’s.

    So that’s my take – Sam could deliver anything vocally – ballads to soul shouters. But Marvin was a complete musician/songwriter and gave us just as much, if not more.

  • Seth in LA

    The difficulty here is that you are comparing two guys who are both so much more than singers. In the comparison of all the things they were beyond singers, I’d have to give it to Marvin because he did so much that influenced so many after him. Sam doesn’t have an album that could stand up to What’s Going On? or Let’s Get it On in terms of their importance to the evolution of music. But you have to consider that Sam came first and was probably the greatest influence on Marvin himself, plus the fact that Sam died about ten years younger. Considering some of his songs that came out posthumously, his magnum opus might have been just a year or two away.

    As pure singers, I have to give it Sam. No disrespect to Marvin, who could sho nuf sang, but Sam had that unique sound that still stirs my heart every time I hear it.

    Of course this is all personal and subjective, but a cool debate nonetheless.

  • Charlie

    SAM COOKE “THE TRUTH” (See shani-o & Scipio Africanus)There is nothing more to say. Marvin #2 Curtis Mayfield #3 & Donny Hathaway.
    The FINAL WORD!!!

  • Paula

    What’s the timeline for these dudes? My understanding is that Sam Cooke had chart hits singing in what was then a style that was a little too improvisation to be considered as standard doo-wop … then everyone else followed. In any case, phooey on this equation. No Marvin Gaye w/o Sam Cooke.

  • Blaspheme!

    But seriously folks. Look, I love Sam Cooke. We, erm, civilly discussed this before. But Marvin Gaye is The Man. Hands down. I Want You? What’s Going On? Trouble Man? Love-Starved Heart? (His early work, mostly b-sides, less popular, and brilliant songs with Motown.) Sam Cooke was a huge influence on Gaye, for sure, but Marvin Gaye forged his own unique sound, played 5011 instruments, wrote songs, and did it all while keeping Barry Gordy’s foot off his neck. Hmph.

  • DP

    Sam Cooke is one of the special ones. His voice is a comfort, an inspiration… Keep Movin’ On.

  • Anthony

    Donny Hathaway & David Ruffin!!

  • Chris F.

    Well I think that Sam had better chops lyrically in the beginning I think Marvin was able to mature and grow as a singer. The man was truly a genius and while he didn’t have a classically great voice he had such a unique sound that trumped any obstacles he might’ve had.

    If you’re going to talk about some of Sam’s hits then I offer up some of Marvin’s best singing with “Grapevine”, “What’s Going On”, “Wholy Holy” The B side version of “God is Love”, and that’s just one album there’s more. “Let’s get it on” and “Distant Lover” required some chops and while they weren’t successful Marvin’s HERE MY DEAR and IN OUR LIFETIME albums had some great vocal range in their songs.

    Hell I didn’t even mention his standards that he did on the VULNERABLE sessions. IMO and i’m biased but I think Sam and Marvin are on an equal footing. If you’re going to say that Marvin didn’t achieve some of the greatness that I mentioned until after he matured a bit then I submit to you “Love’s More Precious than Gold” which was recorded in the early days of Marvin’s Motown career.

  • plataman

    Sam Cooke is in my opinion superior to Marvin, I see Marvin more so as a soul or pop singer, Cooke on the other hand could sing anything and was far superior to Marvin when it came to interpeting lyrics, he also had a better command of voice control. Marvin’s music shined more in the soul era when the music was more dance oriented and when the musicians made singer sound better than they were, in sam’s era you had to know your craft and not depend on the musicians to hide your inabilities. Love them both but Sam’s number one.

  • Jourdin Cooper

    People that say Sam Cooke is not the greatest and didnt evolve music as much as some of the other great singers, must not of heard his live album at the Harlem Square. Please listen to this album and you will know he is the greatest singer of all time. No singer has ever and i mean ever come close.

  • Darkgable

    Sam Cooke is the GREATEST male singer to ever live; especially, when you add his gospel work to the discussion. Sam’s voice was remarkable and undeniable and no one ever has sounded exactly like Sam, not even the late great Johnnie Taylor (whose voice was the closes to Sam, especially at the time he sang with the Highway Q.C.’s…listen for yourself on YouTube @
    The only thing I would add is that each of the artists in question was great admirers and imitators of Sam, either in phrasing, or style. The list is broad and across several genres like: Bobby Blue Bland, Ron Isley, Rod Stewart, Steve Perry, etc. The one thing that this article has failed to mention, nor do you see in many articles, is Sam’s head for business. Many of these stars have made greater enrolls in the music business due to Sam’s headiness for the business.

  • bomani

    yo, as far as pure vocal talent, Jackie Wilson could outsing anyone. just check out what he does w/danny boy and that particular debate is over. am surprised that no one’s mentioned ray charles who created soul singing…his canon still holds up. for pure emotion – no one could top ray. otis redding was great but his career way to short. donny was great, but career too short and he never got the chance to really be worthy of this debate. sam cooke was great, producing, writing, arranging, phrasing, and singing and his cupid, change gonna come, out in the cold again, and gotta right to sing the blues are transcendent. but, marvin’s arrival on the scene in ’63 instantly took ray and sam’s sound and modernized/freshened it up. how can some of you claim marvin’s voice was weak? did you ever hear hitchhike, can I get a witness, ain’t that peculiar, you, chained, too busy thinking ’bout my baby, that’s the way love is? his duets w/tammi and kim weston have never been topped, his version of ‘I heard it thru the grapevine’ is the definitive version, though I love gladys’ version almost as much. and, marvin owned the 1st half of the ’70’s, seamlessly handing the genius mantle over to stevie. marvin rules!

    • Mr Soul

      Hey Bomani

      IT’s real hard for me to said this but you are so right you hit the nail on the head Man. I love Sam to death. I meet all of his family some 12 years ago good people. But Marvin was the Man. I do have a interview of Marvin saying that Sam was great and he didn’t feel he could do the film back in the 70’s on Sam.. But one thing Sam had on most of them is he got pay up front no bull on paying the mob that watch over and control the music business in the 30′ to right now.. If he was not setup and kill and could had live Marvin would had been and trouble man like his song !!

      Peace out
      Mr Soul