Sam Cooke will be overlooked amid all the hype and hoopla surrounding America’s festival of food and football called the Super Bowl. It’s too bad because one of songs became an anthem of the very movement which made integration of the National Football League happen.
Fifty years ago this month, Sam Cooke walked into a recording studio in Los Angeles, put the headphones on and sang what would become one of the most important songs of the civil rights era. “A Change is Gonna Come” is considered one of the greatest songs ever, but in 1964 its message was a political one and that made the recording risky.
Cooke, who had built a large following as a gospel singer, had been working hard for acceptance as a crossover artist. The song frightened him and it’s unlike any song the singer had ever written or recorded.
Cooke’s first taste of crossover success came with “You Send Me. It hit the number one spot on the pop charts which, at the time, was unheard of. As Cooke grew more as a pop singer, he stayed more in touch with his gospel roots. Bringing more of his gospel background into his music, he combined it with his consciousness for social justice. “A Change is Gonna Come” was the first time that Cooke spoke to social issues in a direct manner.
It can be hard to imagine today what it was like for a black artist to achieve crossover success in 1963. It didn’t come easily and the last thing Cooke wanted was to alienate his new-found audience. Since he came from the gospel world, he couldn’t ignore the social justice issues and moral outrage which stood in front of him.
One evening Cooke heard another civil rights anthem, “Blowin’ in the Wind”, by Bob Dylan. Cooke was enthralled by the song but always wished that it had’ve come from a black singer. The desire was so great that Cooke would come to include it in his stage shows almost immediately.
Cooke’s reluctance to record and release “A Change is Gonna Come” was eliminated in the fall of 1963. He and his band were in Shreveport, Louisiana, to perform at the auditorium in town. The motel in town was a whites only and refused to let Cooke and his band have rooms.
Cooke biographer Peter Guralnick says that Cooke “just went off”. Refusing to leave, Cooke became unmanageable to the point that his wife Barbara was worried Cooke might get killed.
“They’re not going to kill me, I’m Sam Cooke,” he said. Barbara replied, “No, to them you’re just another….”. You know the rest.
Arrested and jailed for disturbing the piece, Cooke wrote “A Change is Gonna Come” within the next month. Taking less work than any song he had ever written, it almost scared him. The song may be one of the most complex songs that Cooke ever wrote.
Known for his polished image and songs such as “You Send Me” and “Twistin’ the Night Away”, a new awareness rose up in Cooke. He had long felt that his songs needed to address discrimination and racism in America, and now he had the impetus to put his fears aside and do it.
Starting with the verse, “I was born by the river”, the song not only tells the story of an individual, but also of a generation and of a race. When Cooke first played the song for his producer, the producer said the song “…sounded like death.”
Cooke, who was known to be a control freak in the studio, gave complete freedom to the arranger, Rene Hall. Hall, taking the challenge seriously, wrote a symphonic arrangement. Each verse comprises a different movement with the strings having their’s, the horns, theirs and the timpani carries the bridge. Like a movie score, the melody had grandeur to it.
The song was picked up almost immediately by the civil rights movement, but Cooke’s audience wasn’t as quick. He performed the piece only one time during a live performance.
Sam Cooke was shot to death at a motel in Los Angeles just days before the song was released as a single.
By Jerry Nelson