Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Death of Sam Cooke

$100,000 Man

Sam Cooke
Sam Cooke

The night at Martoni's in 1964 was scarcely seven years after Cooke had sung "You Send Me" on the Sullivan Show.

But what a trip it had been.

Cooke charted nearly 30 songs during that time, working first with tiny Keen Records and later with industry giant RCA, which paid him monumental advance of $100,000 in 1960 — and allowed him to maintain ownership of his previous recordings.

His hit records included "Only Sixteen," "Everybody Likes to Cha Cha Cha" and "Young Blood" in 1959; "Wonderful World," "Chain Gang" and "I'm in a Sad Mood" in 1960; "Cupid" in 1961; "Bring It on Home," "Havin' a Party," Twistin' the Night Away" and "Nothing Can Change This Love" in 1962, and "Another Saturday Night" in 1963.

Cooke founded his own label, SAR Records, and was busy as a talent scout and producer.

He was one of the first black musical entrepreneurs to break out of R&B and into mainstream pop. He helped launch the rock 'n' roll careers of Billy Preston, Lou Rawls and Bobby Womack, a young member of the Womack Brothers, a family gospel act out of Cleveland.

Lou Rawls
Lou Rawls

Cooke also showed considerable talent as a songwriter, often working with his younger brother, L.C. Inspired by Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" and the Freedom Summer protests in the south, Sam Cooke in 1963 wrote and recorded "A Change Is Gonna Come," his paean to America's burgeoning Civil Rights movement.

He had a personal motivation.

On Oct. 8, 1963, Cooke and three other blacks tried to check into a whites-only Holiday Inn in Shreveport, La. When they were turned away by the manager, they got into a shouting match and sat outside in their car, honking the horn. Cooke was arrested for disturbing the peace, along with his wife, Barbara; his brother Charles, and his friend and Soul Stirrers' manager, S.R. Crane.

Cooke was still stinging a few months later, on February 7, 1964, when he appeared on The Tonight Show. The producer asked him to sing his hit songs. But he insisted on debuting "A Change Is Gonna Come."

He sang:

"There have been times that I thought I couldn't last for long,

But now I think I'm able to carry on.

It's been a long time coming,

But I know a change is gonna come."

The yearning song would become a Civil Rights anthem. Many believed Cooke was destined to be a musical standard-bearer for the movement. But it wasn't to be. 

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