11 December, 1964
His swinging Live At The Copa album had entered the Top 100 and his trophy cabinet of hits included Chain Gang, Wonderful World and Twistin’ The Night Away. He was telegenic, with a voice of effortless emotive power, and his self-penned material was growing in vision; he’d also foreseen how to survive an exploitative music business, having set up his own publishing concern and label.
Surely it was only a matter of time before Sam Cooke crossed over into the premier league of American entertainers, alongside Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr and the rest. Yet in the early hours of this December Monday, Sam Cooke met the most dismal of ends, shot to death in a Los Angeles fleapit motel.
Born in 1931 in Mississippi to a pastor father, Cooke had grown up in Chicago and by 1950 was singing lead with gospel legends The Soul Stirrers. In 1957 the now-secular solo singer reached US Number 1 with You Send Me. Another 15 Top 20 entries followed. His chart successes appealed to white listeners in droves, but after the Freedom Rides and the March On Washington – as well as such personal experiences as being arrested after being refused entry to a hotel in Louisiana in autumn 1963 – racism in America was becoming impossible for him to gloss over, however mainstream the TV show.
Consequently, Cooke’s greatest composition, civil rights anthem A Change Is Gonna Come, spoke directly to what America promised and what she delivered. Influenced by Dylan’s Blowin’ In The Wind, this horizon-gazing freedom prayer, symphonically arranged by René Hall, referred to racial segregation and included the poignant line, “It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die.” Cooke biographer Peter Guralnick recalled Cooke playing it to his guitarist Bobby Womack. “Bobby said, ‘It sounds like death.’ Sam said, ‘Man, that’s kind of how it sounds like to me. That’s why I’m never going to play it in public.’” The song was performed for the first and only time on The Tonight Show on February 7, 1964, appearing on Cooke’s LP Ain’t That Good News within the month.
Cooke’s last night involved talk of other future directions. He and he his engineer Al Schmitt, plus the latter’s wife Joan, went to Martoni’s Italian restaurant off Sunset Boulevard to discuss a new blues album. At one point, Joan saw Cooke waving a fat wad of thousands of dollars around and advised him to hide it. Cooke was later seen at the bar with the 22-year-old Elisa Boyer. The two left Martoni’s after midnight, stopped off at P.J.’s nightclub in West Hollywood and then drove in Cooke’s red Ferrari 250 GT Lusso to the Motel Hacienda, a $3-a-night place with a sign advertising ‘Free Radio TV’ in south-central LA. At 3am Boyer called police from a telephone box on the street; and at 6am, Cooke’s wife Barbara was called to tell her that her husband was dead.
At the perfunctory two-hour inquest on December 16, Boyer, was wearing shades and headscarf, alleged Cooke was planning to rape her. She had fled, taking his clothes, when he was in the bathroom. Wearing just his jacket and one shoe, the over-the-limit Cooke had then driven to motel manager Bertha Franklin’s office, breaking the door down and demanding to know where Boyer was. Franklin said, “he grabbed both my arms… I was fightin’, scratchin’, bitin’… finally I got up and grabbed a pistol.” A bullet went through Cooke’s lungs and heart: his last words, “Lady, you shot me.” It was ruled a “justifiable homicide”. The fat wad was never recovered, or the clothes Boyer took.
“If Cooke had been Frank Sinatra the FBI would be investigating.”
There were viewings of his open-topped casket in Los Angeles, where Cooke’s friend Cassius Clay came to say his goodbyes. Said the great boxer, “If Cooke had been Frank Sinatra, The Beatles or Ricky Nelson the FBI would be investigating… and that woman would have been sent to prison.” After a public memorial in Chicago, Cooke was interred on January 2, 1965 in Hollywood’s Forest Lawn cemetery, where The Staple Singers, Ray Charles, Lou Rawls and others sang him to his rest. A Change Is Gonna Come had been released on 45 on December 22, eventually reaching Number 31.
It later transpired that Bertha Franklin had a criminal record for pimping. In January, Elisa Boyer was arrested in a Hollywood motel on a prostitution rap. It wasn’t hard to see conspiracy, cover-up and proof that the LAPD simply didn’t care.
Music’s loss was immeasurable, but Sam Cooke’s epitaph lives on. Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Beyoncé and many more covered A Change Is Gonna Come; a victorious President Obama quoted it in 2008 in Chicago, and a current online music initiative to encourage US voter registration took its name from it. The song still speaks to anyone who wishes, let change finally come.