Cooke was born Samuel Cook in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in 1931 (he added the “e” to his last name in 1957 to signify a new start to his life). He was the fifth of eight children of the Rev. Charles Cook, a minister in the Church of Christ (Holiness), and his wife, Annie Mae. One of his younger brothers, L.C. (1932–2017), later became a member of the doo-wop band Johnny Keyes and the Magnificents.
The family moved to Chicago in 1933. Cook attended Doolittle Elementary and Wendell Phillips Academy High School in Chicago, the same school that Nat “King” Cole had attended a few years earlier. Sam Cooke began his career with his siblings in a group called the Singing Children when he was six years old. He first became known as lead singer with the Highway Q.C.’s when he was a teenager, having joined the group at the age of During this time, Cooke befriended fellow gospel singer and neighbor Lou Rawls, who sang in a rival gospel group.