Harbinger of a Change

Harbinger of a Change

Sam Cooke's magnum opus "A Change Is Gonna Come"

by Meredith Rutledge-Borger

Sam Cooke was one of the most influential performers in the history of American popular music. His work cut across the genres of gospel, R&B and pop, and Cooke is credited as being one of soul music’s primary architects. 

Cooke was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in 1931, and his family moved to Chicago when Cooke was a toddler. He started singing in the church, and joined the most popular gospel group in the country, the Soul Stirrers, when he was still a teenager. His career with the Soul Stirrers was enough to secure his place in the annals of music history, but his ambition and talent would take him much further.

With the release of “You Send Me” in 1957, Cooke embarked upon a career in secular music that transcended the boundaries of R&B and pop. He was a pioneering figure in African-American entrepreneurship, gaining remarkable artistic control of his music and the business surrounding it. Recognizing the importance of owning publishing rights to music, he founded his own record label, SAR, with J.W. Alexander and Roy Crain in 1961, despite being courted aggressively by the leading record labels of the day. He became one of the most financially successful black artists up to that point.

His extraordinary voice and unforgettable melodies appealed to black and white fans, and the popularity of his music helped introduce many other black performers to mainstream audiences. In February 1964, World Heavyweight Champion Cassius Clay proclaimed, "Sam Cooke is the world's greatest rock and roll singer – the greatest singer in the world." Cooke was also a force in harnessing the power of music for a socially conscious cause.  

He recognized the growing popularity of the early folk rock balladeers and the changing political climate in America, using his own popularity and marketing savvy to raise the consciousness of his listeners with such classics as “Chain Gang” and “A Change Is Gonna Come.” His inspiration was often born of adversity.

Cooke’s infant son drowned in a swimming pool accident in early 1963, sending Cooke into a deep depression. In the wake of his son's passing, Cooke became more interested in politics and African-American history. His songwriting became more introspective –  even one of the more upbeat and light-hearted of his songs from this period, “Another Saturday Night,” has a mournful feel. An incident at a Shreveport, Louisiana, motel, where Cooke and his touring entourage were refused rooms because of their race, may have been the starting point for the composition of “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Hearing Bob Dylan’s “Blowin' in the Wind” gave Cooke added impetus. 

"A Change Is Gonna Come" had beauty, simplicity and a first-person honesty that perfectly and brilliantly captured the spirit of the American Civil Rights struggle. Cooke would eventually assign all proceeds of the song to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Dr. Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights advocacy group.

When the song was released as a single, just weeks after Cooke’s untimely death on December 11, 1964, the third verse was edited out – I go to the movie / And I go downtown / Somebody keep telling me, "don’t hang around" – as it spoke too much truth to power, cutting too close to the bone of segregated 1964 America. The single reached Number 31 on the pop chart and Number Nine on the R&B chart in January 1965. 

“A Change Is Gonna Come” was voted Number 12 in Rolling Stone magazine's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time," and voted Number Three in Pitchfork Media's "200 Greatest Songs of the Sixties." The song is also among 300 songs National Public Radio deemed the most important ever recorded and was selected by the Library of Congress for the National Recording Registry. Barak Obama paraphrased “A Change Is Gonna Come” in his presidential victory speech, and a recording of “A Change is Gonna Come" by the British artist Seal entered the charts in November 2008. After a “long time coming,” indeed, the change that Sam Cooke predicted and never got to see finally came home to America.