I wonder what Sam Cooke was feeling as the new year dawned in 1964. He was firmly positioned at the top of the music world. He’d had a string of non-stop hits that began with “You Send Me” seven years earlier. He was still going strong with hits like “Another Saturday Night” in 1963. Two things happened that year that served to inspire Cooke to think beyond the pop hits that he had been crafting and performing for years. First, he heard Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Cooke was stunned that such a powerful civil rights anthem could have been written by a white man, and disappointed that he had never addressed the issue in song himself. In his defense, he had a lot to lose, namely the large part of his fan base that was white. Cooke immediately added the song to his live set list however.
The second incident of 1963 had a more direct impact on Cooke. In October, he was on tour with his band, and called ahead to book hotel rooms in Shreveport, Louisiana. When the touring party arrived however, they were told that there were no rooms available. Cooke was livid as his brother Charles dragged him away, fearing that Cooke would be killed for voicing his anger. As the cars drove away from the hotel, horns blared, and insults were hurled at the hotel staff. By the time the group arrived at a downtown hotel, police had been notified and they were waiting to arrest Cooke and others for disturbing the peace.
By the end of 1963, Cooke had written “A Change is Gonna Come,” easily his most personal and profound song. As Cooke biographer Peter Guralnick told NPR earlier this year …
“”It was less work than any song he’d ever written. It almost scared him that the song — it was almost as if the song were intended for somebody else. He grabbed it out of the air and it came to him whole, despite the fact that in many ways it’s probably the most complex song that he wrote. It was both singular — in the sense that you started out, ‘I was born by the river’ — but it also told the story both of a generation and of a people.”
Cooke gave the song to his collaborator Rene Hall so that Hall could create an arrangement. Cooke provided no instructions, but Hall was aware of the song’s importance and he was determined to create the best arrangement of his career. By January 30, 1964 the arrangement was done and Cooke was in the studio in Hollywood with producers Hugo & Luigi. A large cast of musicians was on hand to help Cooke realize Hall’s arrangement, including notables like drummer Earl Palmer, pianist Harold Battiste, and Hall himself as one of four guitarists. Joining them were a five piece horn section, a 13-piece string section, and four backing vocalists. The eighth take was the charm that day.
The first time that most of America heard “A Change is Gonna Come” was when Cooke sang in on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson on February 7, eschewing promotion of his current single to perform his new song at the behest of his manager, Allen Klein. Sadly, NBC did not keep a tape of the performance, which was overshadowed in any event by the first appearance of the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show two nights later.
Obviously Cooke couldn’t have known that his life would be brutally cut short at the end of the year. No one knows what really happened at that motel in Los Angeles on December 11, 1964. We do know for certain that the world lost one of its greatest artists that night. Cooke did seem to know something however. After his appearance on The Tonight Show, Cooke never performed “A Change is Gonna Come Again” because the ominous nature of the song seemed to him to foreshadow death.
“A Change is Gonna Come” was finally released as a single on December 22, 1964, 11 days after Cooke’s death. It wasn’t even the A-side of the single released that day, which was “Shake.” And it wasn’t a big hit by Cooke’s standards, but it was something more important than a chart hit. The song quickly became an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement, which was entering a critical phase. Over the years “A Change is Gonna Come” has come to be recognized as Cooke’s greatest composition. Rolling Stone deemed it the 12th greatest song of all time, it was on NPR‘s list of the 300 most important songs ever recorded, and the Library of Congress selected it as one of 25 recordings for inclusion in the National Recording Registry in 2007.
At the age of 50, “A Change is Gonna Come” has lost none of its inspirational power. Despite living in a world that often seems to be falling down around our heads, one listen to the song can still renew our hope that a better day is coming. Let’s hope that that day begins today, January 1, 2015.