“At first, I just had the melody and the refrain ‘Here in America,’” Dion explained in a conversation with American Songwriter. “A friend suggested I use an episode from my memoir about walking southern streets with Sam Cooke in 1962. It’s a good story, a true story.”
Dion’s lyrics tell of his experience with Cooke during a visit to the South. “Sam and I went to see James Brown in 1962,” the singer explained. “People were getting on my case. Sam brought me to some soul dive, a nightclub in the hood. And he told people, `Dion’s with me. Cool out.’”
The experience stuck with Dion for decades. “He stood up for me. He was a good guy. I miss him,” the singer recalled of Cooke, who was shot and killed in 1964.
After initially finishing the song many years ago, Dion put it on the shelf, deeming the subject too personal for public release. The singer revisited the track in 2019 after being inspired by an Academy Award winning film.
“I saw the movie Green Book and after that, I couldn’t shake the song. I thought, `Hey, they almost wrote a movie about my song.’ I loved the movie so much that I thought I’d better take that song out to see it if works. And it did. It actually did.”
Dion then sought the input of his friend and regular collaborator, Simon.
“When I first played it for Paul, he saw it like I saw it,” Dion noted. “He didn’t see it as a song which is purely about racism in America. He saw it as a song of brotherhood and understanding. Because I was telling him that Sam Cooke took care of me in the South. Paul said he wanted to record what he was hearing on the tune.”
The result is an earnest song about race relations and personal strength. “I think Paul really helped it,” Dion confessed. “He embellished it beautifully. He elevated it and made it something sublime.”
Listen to “Song for Sam Cooke (Here in America)” below.
Dion’s new album, Blues with Friends, will be released June 5. In addition to his collaboration with Simon, the LP features Dion joining forces with such vaunted artists as Bruce Springsteen, Billy Gibbons, Van Morrison and Jeff Beck.