Cooke wrote this as a protest song to support the civil rights movement, as black Americans fought for equality. Up to this point, most of his songs were either touching ballads ("You Send Me") or lighthearted uptemo tunes ("Twistin' The Night Away"). When Cooke heard Bob Dylan's "Blowin' In The Wind
," he became determined to write something similar - he couldn't believe Dylan's song wasn't written by a black man.
Cooke was deeply affected by the death of his infant son, who drowned in a swimming pool in 1963. He started writing more introspective songs and took an interest in black history and politics.
Some of the lyrics were inspired by an incident where Cooke and some of his friends were arrested for disturbing the peace after they were denied rooms at a motel in Shreveport, Louisiana because they were black.
This was released as a single a few months after Cooke died. He was shot by a motel owner who claimed he was raping a young girl in one of the rooms. A lot of controversy surrounded his death; Cooke owned his own record label and publishing company, and some people thought he was killed as part of a plot.
For Cooke, this was a return to his roots as a gospel singer.
When the song was published as a single, the third verse was edited out. The line went, "I go to the movie and I go downtown somebody keep telling me don't hang around" and apparently was too boldly speaking about segregation. The album version shows the whole lyric. When Otis Redding covered this song in his Otis Blue album he followed the single version, with just two verses before the bridge. (thanks, Martín - Sevilla, Spain)
This was released on Tracey Records, a label Cooke started in 1963 following the death of his son. Allen Klein, who was Cooke's business manager, bought Tracey Records after Cooke's death and controls the rights to Cooke's performance of this song. Klein also bought the Cameo/Parkway label, which was home to Herman's Hermits, Bobby Rydell and The Animals.
Peter Noone, who was lead singer of Herman's Hermits, told the Forgotten Hits newsletter: "Allen Klein THINKS he owns the product and, as he hates music, he has trodden and traded down the works of not only my band but also the genius of Sam Cooke and anyone else he and his family have decided to steal from to pay for their lifestyle. My revenge is to have a happy life and denounce this fraudulent family at every occasion to the point that people think it is a personal vendetta, but I love my life and I bet his family will pay for their fraud one day. Every time someone asks to use a Herman's Hermits song in a movie (eg Naked Gun), I have to go and recreate the music and nothing can beat the original vibe and Allen owns it and hides it. Ever hear a Sam Cooke song in a movie? One of the greatest songs of all time, 'A Change Is Gonna Come' is never heard. How about all the other stuff he owns, like the Cameo/Parkway tracks. His son and daughter now operate the catalogue in the same vein as their crooked father and one day bad things will surely befall them! (Scumbags!) You would think they would at least ask for permission to re-release all our stolen work, and one day the lawyers we throw money at to get these scum will expose them for who and what they are. I use them as an example to my daughter (who is also intent on being in the music business) of what she should avoid, and to try to always act honestly, unlike them."
In November 2008 a cover by English singer Seal returned this song to the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart for the first time since Cooke's original peaked at #9 in February 1965. Part of the success of Seal's remake can be attributed to it tying in with the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States, who proclaimed in his victory speech that "change has come to America."
Seal's remake was the first revival of a Sam Cooke-penned song to appear on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs tally since the Manhattans posted a version of "You Send Me
," which arrived at #20 in 1985.