Sam Gooden left a legacy of great music, professionalism in Chattanooga and around the world

Staff photo by Tim Barber/ Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, far left, stands in with Fred Cash and Sam Gooden, of Impressions, who stand with Altheida Mayfield, Cheaa Mayfield at the unveiling of the Impressions sign out in front of the Bessie Smith Cultural Center for the dedication on Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019.

I don't remember the year, but I am certain of the date. It was Sept. 14. I know because that's my birthday.

I'd been invited by friend and colleague Chip Chapman to WDEF-TV 12 to watch his taped interview with Fred Cash and Sam Gooden of The Impressions. Chapman knew I knew the guys and thought I could both get some new information and maybe offer something he could use.

After the interview, Chapman surprised me by asking the guys to join him in singing "Happy Birthday" to me. At that very moment, I thought, "Cool. That's nice."

As I got in my car two minutes later, the magnitude of what had just happened hit me. I had just been serenaded on my birthday by Rock and Roll Hall of Famers THE IMPRESSIONS.

My job has afforded me some pretty amazing moments, but this might be the very best moment of them all. Sam, a founding member and Chattanooga native, passed away at age 87 on Aug. 3 at his home in Brainerd. His loss is significant to not just me, but Chattanooga.

Sam, and his fellow Impressions member, Fred Cash, loved Chattanooga. The two moved to Chicago in the late 1950s and became famous. We talked on several occasions in person and on the phone over the years, and always they talked about Chattanooga. Their family was here. Their roots were here.

Sam's daughter currently lives in the house I grew up in. We have a connection.

But, again, it's not about me and the fact that I got to know Sam. For me, it is the fact that Sam was part of not just musical history, but American history. The Impressions, with Curtis Mayfield writing such songs as "People Get Ready," "Choice of Colors" and "Keep on Pushing," literally led the charge for civil rights through their music.

Sam and Fred sat with me in 2019 inside the Times Free Press offices to record a podcast about their careers and said that all of their contemporaries, including James Brown, had advised them to tone it down at the time. Speaking out about social justice in their songs would damage their careers, they were told.

Sam, Fred and Curtis said they didn't care and charged full steam ahead. [You can hear that interview here.]

To perfectly illustrate what kind of man Sam was, on the morning of the interview for the podcast, which was set for 9 a.m., I got a call from the front desk at the paper at 8:20 a.m. Sam was downstairs. He wasn't sure of the route to take so he had left early. I couldn't help but think of my dad, who was never, ever late.

Anyway, Sam was dressed -- for an audio recording -- like it was Christmas morning church.

When I called Fred to say Sam was already there, he just laughed and said he'd be there at 9. Sam just smiled as we talked about baseball and Chattanooga.

Years earlier, the two reached out after being invited to the White House by then President Barack Obama. I've never sat across from two people who were more excited about something than those two that day.

"That is a cool cat," Sam said of President Obama. They were like two teenagers who'd just sang their first song in front of an audience.

Several years earlier, the two had been asked to fly to England to record with Eric Clapton. They accepted and told me later that Clapton loved what they'd done so much, he asked them to come back the next day to sing backup on another song.

Being the professionals that they are, they went to their hotel and worked out their parts. When they arrived the next day, Clapton was ready to begin figuring out how to proceed. Sam and Fred told me that they had then informed the guitar god that they'd already worked on their parts and had some ideas. He was stunned, they said.

To them, it was just part of being a professional, which is what they've always been to me. Pros. And gentlemen to the end.

  photo  Fred Cash, left, and Sam Gooden of the Impressions had the opportunity to meet President Barack Obama in early October.