It's been a long, a long time coming
but I know
A change gonna come
Read full Lyrics
Location of Hacienda Motel
(now Polaris Motel)
in Los Angeles
Few artists have graced the entertainment industry scene with as much class, poise, and soul as the late, great Sam Cooke. Commonly referred to as the King of Soul, Cooke pioneered African-American involvement in music as both a musician and businessman, and in so doing paved the way for such legends as Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Al Green to follow in his footsteps as. He had thirty Top 40 hits in the US between 1957 and 1964 (the stuff of legend just in and of itself) and three more after his death. Even if you aren’t familiar with the name, millions of music fans know the tunes such as "You Send Me," "Cupid," "Chain Gang," "Wonderful World," and "Twistin’ the Night Away." Perhaps his greatest achievement as a composer was "A Change is Gonna Come," the song about which this article is written.
What became the theme song for the Civil Rights Movement, "A Change is Gonna Come" was born in 1963 from a single incident Cooke experienced in Shreveport, Louisiana, when he and his band tried to register for rooms at a "whites only" motel. A verbal altercation ensued and when Cooke and his group arrived at another downtown motel, the police were waiting to arrest them. The New York Times
headline on the following day read: Negro Band Leader Held in Shreveport.
In addition to that event, Cooke blended other incidents acquaintances of his had had in Memphis and Birmingham to add to the major themes of racism, struggle, hope, and eventual justice embedded in the lyrics.
Located in the north-westernmost part of Louisiana, Shreveport (named for Captain Henry Miller Shreve of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers), along with many other cities in the American South, has a rich history full of violence, racism, and social upheaval. Originally founded as Shreve Town in 1836, as a meeting point for settlers moving west across what would later become Texas, Shreveport developed into a commercial center during the steamboat era, with a slave population of 1,300 within the city limits. During the Civil War, the city served as state capitol after Baton Rouge fell under Union control, and as Capitol of the Confederacy after the fall of Richmond. Today, the town is a major hub for commerce, with commodities moving through via boat, train, plane, and truck, and Southern hospitality and charm once again blooms in "the Heart and Soul of Dixie."
Texas Street in Shreveport
(thanks Michael Barera)
But in 1963, life there was still very much entrenched in Civil Rights. "A Change Is Gonna Come" was a call to arms in an attempt to bring that struggle to the forefront. Cooke's first and only live performance of the song was on Johnny Carson’s "The Tonight Show" in February 1964, with a full string section. Cooke’s manager felt the moment would become a milestone for Cooke, Carson, and the Civil Rights Movement.
However, two days later the Beatles appeared on "Ed Sullivan" and Sam Cooke's performance was all but forgotten under the hysteria of the British Invasion.
On December 11, 1964, less than a year after the song’s release and solitary live performance, at the Hacienda Motel at 9137 South Figueroa Street in Los Angeles, California, Sam Cooke was shot and killed by the establishment’s manager, Bertha Franklin, under exceedingly suspicious circumstances, at best. The details surrounding the case have been in dispute for 50 years. Franklin claims self-defense, when an inebriated and partially clad Cooke broke into her office demanding to know the whereabouts of a woman who’d accompanied him to the motel. When Franklin denied knowledge, she states Cooke attacked her. According to Franklin, she grabbed a gun and shot him once in the chest. A mortally wounded Cooke stated, “Lady… you shot me.” After which Franklin beat him with a broom until he died. He was just 33.
The woman Cooke had been looking for was Elisa Boyer, who gave testimony as to the events of that fateful evening. She claimed that after being at a night club with Cooke, she did return to the motel with him, but while the couple was there, Cooke forced her onto the bed. Certain she was about to be raped, she gathered up most of his clothes with hers by mistake and fled when he stepped into the bathroom.
Inconsistencies have arisen between her account and other witness reports, including thousands of dollars in missing cash Cooke was carrying, which was never recovered, and the fact that Boyer was shortly thereafter arrested for prostitution.
Many of Cooke’s closest relatives and friends (and fans) believe Boyer was probably trying to rob him instead of fleeing from an attempted rape. In fact, anyone present at the funeral who saw the body recognized that Cooke’s injuries were so bad there’s no way he could’ve received them from one person. His head was nearly separated from his shoulders, his nose was mangled, and his hands were broken and crushed; hardly the work of a single shooter with a broomstick.
Sam Cooke’s career was too short for the amount of talent he displayed. He was a composer and a singer who played a dozen instruments, founded a record label and a publishing company, took an inactive and active part in the Civil Rights Movement, and his legacy as the King of Soul will live on for centuries. As long as people are listening to pop music, they’ll be listening to Sam Cooke.
~ Justin Novelli
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