Barbara Campbell Cooke, who has died aged 85, married, successively, Sam Cooke and Bobby Womack, two of the greatest soul singers of the 20th century; but neither relationship brought her much beyond heartache and tragedy.
Born with a twin sister on August 10 1935 in Chicago, Barbara Campbell was a 13-year-old high school pupil when she met and fell in love with the 18-year-old Cooke in Chicago’s South Side. She was 17 when she became pregnant by him, by which time Cooke, with his film-star good looks, was winning admiring female fans as lead singer of the gospel group the Soul Stirrers.
As a teenage mother Barbara did two jobs to support herself and her child as her on-off relationship with the star continued. But Cooke was chronically unfaithful, fathering several illegitimate children. When he abandoned her, Barbara took up with pimps and drug dealers and contracted a short-lived marriage to a businessman, Fred “Diddy” Dennis, in part to make Cooke jealous. She was said to have become pregnant by Dennis but to have had an abortion when Cooke returned to her.
After they married in 1959 they had two more children and settled in Hollywood. By this time Cooke was a soul superstar, and Barbara attempted to live up to his intellectual and social aspirations by reading James Baldwin and joining a group of philanthropic African American women known as the Regalettes. As Cooke’s indiscretions continued, however, they led increasingly separate lives.
In 1963 the couple’s third child, Vincent, drowned in their swimming pool aged 18 months, and the following year, on December 11 1964, Cooke, then aged 33, was shot dead at the Hacienda Motel, a seedy $3-a-night joint in Los Angeles.
The motel manager was said to have shot him in self-defence after he came into the motel office looking for a prostitute he claimed had stolen his clothes and money. The verdict was “justifiable homicide”, though conspiracy theories that the killing might have been racially or financially motivated continued to swirl.
Thousands flocked to see his body, and at his funeral Ray Charles stepped up from the congregation when the gospel singer doing the tribute collapsed in tears. Outside, more than 200,000 fans stood in silence as the hearse made its way to the cemetery.
Cooke’s family (he was the son of a preacher) never approved of Barbara. According to Cooke’s biographer Peter Guralnick they felt that she was an adventuress, and as the pair went their separate ways (when her husband was killed, Barbara was dating a bartender), they saw her as neglectful, the implication being that if Cooke had been happy at home, he would not have strayed.
When, three months after Cooke’s death, Barbara married Bobby Womack, a protégé of Cooke’s and a member of the R&B group the Valentinos, their union provoked outrage, not only from their families but also from the music world and Cooke’s grief-stricken fans. The couple received hate mail, including a parcel containing a baby doll in a coffin, and were booed when they turned up in the audience at gigs.
Womack, who had recently achieved fame when the Rolling Stones covered his 1964 song It’s All Over Now, their first No 1, suddenly found himself a pariah. Unable to land a new recording contract, he left the Valentinos, settled into backing work for other stars and took to cocaine.
His career would revive from the late 1960s, but in the meantime he began a sexual relationship with his wife’s oldest child, Linda, by then a teenager. In 1970 when Barbara found them in bed together, she shot Womack, though by his account the bullet only grazed his temple and she was never charged. They divorced the same year.
Linda went on to write Womack’s 1972 hit Woman’s Gotta Have It, went on the road with him and began to make strides as a songwriter before marrying Womack’s younger brother Cecil, with whom she formed the successful recording duo, Womack & Womack. Barbara Campbell Cooke and Bobby Womack had a son, named Vincent after the baby who had drowned; he committed suicide in 1986 aged 21 after a struggle with drugs and alcohol.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, few of those involved remained on speaking terms. “I don’t speak to Barbara no more,” Womack wrote in his 2006 memoir Bobby Womack – Midnight Mover. “Linda doesn’t speak to her. Haven’t spoken to Cecil for years. No one speaks to no one.”
There was at least some degree of family reconciliation in 1986 when Sam Cooke was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Barbara and his father stood side by side to collect the award on his behalf. “Everybody wants a happy ending,” she told Peter Guralnick. “That’s the way I see it.”
Little is known about Barbara Campbell Cooke’s later years and no public announcement was made when she died in April. Her death was only recently confirmed by a family friend.
Barbara Campbell Cooke is survived by her daughter Linda (now Zekkariyas) and Tracy, her other daughter from her marriage to Cooke.
Barbara Campbell Cooke, born August 10 1935, died April 2021