Sam Cooke and The Crossover Dream

March 1964 was a crucial month in the all-too-short life of the soul giant

Sam Cooke in 1964, performing on the ABC variety show Shindig! just a few months before his death that December.

“A Change Is Gonna Come” was in plain sight: side two, track one of Sam Cooke’s Ain’t That Good News album, released in early March 1964. It wasn’t like anything he’d done previously: it felt like a steep, tiring climb up a hill, a plea for social reparations, a sermon on patience and persistence and the slow-grinding wheel of history.

You flipped the album over after listening to songs like the delightful “Good Times,” Meet Me at Mary’s Place,” the dejected but musically upbeat “Another Saturday Night,” the finger-snapping take on “Tennessee Waltz,” and suddenly you were in a different America, faced with a different side of the story. “I was born by the river,” Cooke began, and the song had the power and cadence of gospel, cloaked in strings that asked you to take this seriously. “It’s been a long time coming,” the chorus goes, a depth of weariness built to the certainty of “but I know a change is gonna come.” On many other records, Cooke would take those words “I know” and linger over them, roll them around. Here, he has no time for that. Justice had been delayed long enough.

Over the past five and a half decades, “A Change Is Gonna Come” has turned into an anthem, as much a part of the cultural civil rights conversation as the most familiar speeches by Martin Luther King. And it’s also become a symbol of where Cooke’s career might have been headed had he not been murdered in a Los Angeles motel in December 1964 (the incident is covered, with a great deal of unsubstantiated and far-fetched speculation, in the Netflix documentary The Two Killings of Sam Cooke). The song was, the theory goes, a turning point for him. Who knows how many more cries of protest, black pride, political consciousness, he might have written? He was, after all, hanging around with Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. How might he have responded to the Watts riots? How would the creative autonomy he was granted by a new recording contract have emboldened him? “A Change Is Gonna Come” took on mythic status, especially after RCA released an edited version as the B-side of his first posthumous single (“Shake”). It has a “last statement” narrative built into it, like the speech King gave in Memphis before he was assassinated. An “I may not get there with you” promise of better times ahead.

Sam Cooke Ain’t That Good News, RCA 1964

If only it were that neat. Everyone knew that “A Change Is Gonna Come” was a Major Statement, Cooke’s response to Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” And even before the Ain’t That Good News album came out, Cooke performed the song on The Tonight Show. The date was February 7, 1964—the day the Beatles arrived in America, so a good portion of the pop-music world was understandably distracted—and it was the only time Cooke did the song live. No video of that has turned up (the other song he did on the show was “Basin Street Blues,” and that’s floating around the internet). The first single released from the new album (“Another Saturday Night” had already been a top 10 pop, #1 R&B hit the year before) was the pop-gospel title track, followed by “Good Times.” Both just missed cracking the pop top 10. “Good Times” came out in July ’64, right after Cooke completed an engagement at New York City’s iconic nightspot the Copacabana.

That’s a big piece of the Cooke puzzle: the Copa. According to Peter Guralnick’s biography Dream Boogie, the booking was a daunting milestone for Cooke. He’d bombed there early on, in 1958, before he was ready to face that crowd, and there was much at stake. In the first half of the 1960s (and even afterward, especially if you were an artist on Motown), a black pop artist with crossover aspirations, and an eye towards longevity, needed to have Copa-ready chops. It’s easy to look back now and see where Cooke might have gone had he lived into the soul explosion, when Aretha and Otis and other Atlantic and Stax artists were thriving. He could have played the Whisky a Go-Go and the Fillmore, could have recorded in Memphis and Muscle Shoals. In 1963–64, the climate was different. In interviews, Cooke expressed a desire to be an entertainer on the level of Harry Belafonte (his labelmate at RCA) and Nat “King” Cole, and why not? You can see what RCA had in mind when they signed him. The first album he made for the label was Cooke’s Tour, a musical travelogue with songs like “Bali Ha’i,” “Arriverderci, Roma,” and “Jamaica Farewell.” (It was thematically similar to The Genius Hits the Road, Ray Charles’ first effort for ABC-Paramount, released later the same year, 1960.) Cooke’s Tour was followed by Hits of the 50s, Cooke crooning “The Great Pretender,” “Mona Lisa,” and Frankie Avalon’s “Venus.”

His ’64 nightclub set—released on the Live at the Copa album in October—begins with a taped introduction by Sammy Davis Jr. (who calls the headliner “A cat who’s going to set this town on its ear”), and Cooke goes into a Great Depression–era song that is the epitome of giddy optimism: “The moon belongs to everyone, the best things in life are free.” It is, one has to admit, a most entertaining LP: Cooke romps through the best of the early ’60s twist songs (“Twistin’ the Night Away”: you can hear where Otis Redding may have picked up his “GOT-ta! GOT-ta” schtick), through a “hootenanny”-styled “If I Had a Hammer,” through his hep versions of “Frankie and Johnny” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Cooke was so incredibly gifted, so effortlessly cool, that even though most fans prefer, with solid reasons, his rowdier 1963 set Live at the Harlem Square Club (released in ’85), Live at the Copa is a glimpse at a limitless future as a performer.

Ain’t That Good News was the last studio album released in his lifetime, and the first where he had creative control, and still it’s a stylistic jumble, not as focused as his previous one, the moody Night Beat. On Good News, he does the 1931-vintage “Home (Where Shadows Fall)” (Nat “King” Cole and Louis Armstrong are among the singers who recorded it), Irving Berlin’s “Sittin’ in the Sun,” and the folk tune “The Riddle Song” (“I gave my love a cherry…”). There’s usually an assumption that sappy material has been foisted on an artist by clueless A&R people, but you have to allow for the real possibility that Cooke simply liked these songs, and thought he could sing them well (he did). If you look at final albums and try to predict what might have happened afterward, this isn’t much of a guide. It’s satisfying to think of “A Change Is Gonna Come,” the song that has rippled through history, quoted in the inauguration speech of another charismatic, soul-stirring figure who grew up in Chicago, as the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. As to what that next one would have looked like, that’s guesswork.


Mitchell Cohen

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Mitchell Cohen

RockandRollGlobe contributing writer Mitchell Cohen began writing about music and films for various publications in the mid-’70s, including Creem, Film Comment, Take One, Fusion, Phonograph Record Magazine. He is the co-author of Matt Pinfield’s memoir All These Things That I’ve Done, and a contributor to the website Music Aficionado. Follow him on Twitter @mitchellscohen.

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