Fifty years ago this week, Sam Cooke strolled into a recording studio, put on a pair of headphones, and laid down the tracks for one of the most important songs of the civil rights era.
Rolling Stone now calls “A Change Is Gonna Come” one of the greatest songs of all time, but in 1964 its political message was a risky maneuver. Cooke had worked hard to be accepted as a crossover artist after building a sizable following on the gospel circuit. And the first thing to know about the song, Cooke biographer Peter Guralnick says, is that it’s unlike anything the singer had ever recorded.
“His first success came with the song ‘You Send Me.’ I mean, this was his first crossover number under his own name, and it went to No. 1 on the pop charts, which was just unheard of,” Guralnick says. “As he evolved as a pop singer, he brought more and more of his gospel background into his music, as well as his social awareness, which was keen. But really, ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ was a real departure for him, in the sense that it was undoubtedly the first time that he addressed social problems in a direct and explicit way.”
It’s hard to imagine today what it meant for a black artist to achieve crossover in 1963. It did not come easily, and the last thing Sam Cooke wanted to do was to alienate his new audience. But he also came from the gospel world. He could not ignore moral outrage right in front of him.
Soon, Cooke was jarred by another civil rights anthem: Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which Guralnick says Cooke loved but wished had come from a person of color — so much so that he incorporated it into his repertoire almost immediately.
In the fall of 1963, Cooke faced a direct affront: He and his band were turned away from a Holiday Inn in Shreveport, La.
“He just went off,” Guralnick says. “And when he refused to leave, he became obstreperous to the point where his wife, Barbara, said, ‘Sam, we’d better get out of here. They’re going to kill you.’ And he says, ‘They’re not gonna kill me; I’m Sam Cooke.’ To which his wife said, ‘No, to them you’re just another …’ you know.”
Cooke was arrested and jailed, along with several of his company, for disturbing the peace. Guralnick says “A Change Is Gonna Come” was written within a month or two after that.
“It was less work than any song he’d ever written,” Guralnick says. “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.”
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