March 6: Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” peaks at No. 31

The entire soul music community was haunted by the killing of founding father Sam Cooke on December 11, 1964. It was Cooke and Ray Charles who had created the genre a decade earlier, when they combined gospel and rhythm and blues, a controversial move that enraged many churchgoers, just as Dylan’s going electric would soon enrage folk idealists. Following Cooke’s death, his label released “A Change Is Gonna Come” as a single, and it made it to No. 9 on the R&B chart and No. 31 on the pop charts in February.

The song was inspired by Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and by civil rights organizers Cooke had met who were trying to integrate restaurants such as Howard Johnsons in Durham, North Carolina. The lyrics about life being too hard but death being too frightening echo those in Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s “Ol’ Man River,” from Show Boat, most famously sung by African American actor and activist Paul Robeson. But the month after Cooke wrote his first draft of the song, the lyrics took on a devastating second meaning when his eighteen-month-old son, Vincent, drowned in the family swimming pool. A few months later, Cooke and his touring party were arrested when they tried to check into a whites-only motel in Louisiana. A French horn echoes Cooke’s weary desolation as he sings line after line describing adversity, including even being backstabbed by his own brother. But by the time he makes it to the song’s close, he thinks that he can carry on, and he knows a change is coming.

Soul singer Solomon Burke went to dinner with Cooke on December 11, but said good night before Cooke took off with a young lady to a motel for a tryst. When the woman disappeared with Cooke’s clothes and money, an enraged Cooke thought the female motel manager was hiding her and attacked her. The manager shot Cooke in self- defense.

Back at his own hotel that night, Burke found a special-delivery letter waiting for him from his wife, saying she wanted a divorce. Then a friend called him to tell him that Cooke had been shot. “I thought he was joking. ‘Sam wasn’t shot, man. I just left him.’ It was no joke. Sam’s death was devastating. He meant so much to me. He meant a lot to all of us. He represented the next level for us. He opened doors that haven’t been stepped through since. He was gonna be the next Nat Cole. He was a dear friend, and now he was gone. I had to get on the train to get on a plane to get back to Sam’s funeral in Chicago. I had no sleep, and I couldn’t get Sam off my mind. There’s the song. I wrote ‘Got to Get You Off My Mind’ to get Sam Cooke off my mind.” Recorded in January with the help of Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler, the song’s lyrics are about Burke’s wife’s leaving him, but Burke sings it in Cooke’s style.

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