Sam grew up in a tough Harlem neighborhood. His father, a minister, had been killed trying to stop a fight. Sam did his best to try and do the right thing, but when his mother was killed by a mugger two years later, Sam's grief and anger consumed him. His grief and anger consumed his personality, eventually led him down a criminal path. The once-respected community volunteer took on the name of "Snap" Wilson, becoming a racketeer while working for the mob.
After an assignment in Rio de Janeiro, Sam's plane crashed in a remote Caribbean island where the Red Skull and his henchmen, the Exiles, were hiding out. The Red Skull sought to use Wilson as a pawn against Captain America, who was currently on the island searching for the villain. The Skull reasoned that Wilson's idealism would appeal to the Captain enough to become his crimefighting partner. Then, at some later date, the Skull could use Wilson against his enemy. He used a Cosmic Cube to revert "Snap" into Sam and give Sam the ability to telepathically communicate with birds, especially a bird that Wilson had bought named Redwing. Sam helped Captain America defeat the Skull and did indeed become his partner as the Falcon.