Written by Caitlin Vaughn Carlos
In the late fifties and early sixties, Sam Cooke had charted a new path in Black-pop music with Sweet Soul, a genre of crooner ballads and softer pop singles, infused with the influence of gospel, which broke through to mainstream audiences. The songs shared universal themes of love and life, which appealed to audiences on both sides of the color line. But in 1964, Cooke changed course, focusing on his own personal experience and addressing the injustices of racism. The result was a new type of protest anthem. Fully orchestrated and beautifully produced, it expressed a deep longing for equality and change, and became the lasting legacy of the Civil Rights Movement in music. That song was “A Change is Gonna Come.”
Samuel Cooke was born in Clarksdale Mississippi on January 22, 1931. He came from a background in gospel music, where he had launched his career replacing R.H. Harris as lead singer of the Soul Stirrers. He was encouraged to begin recording solo records by Specialty records producer, Robert “Bumps” Blackwell. Cooke’s music was part of a new movement in the late 50s, of a softer style of Black-pop records which emerged around the same time that Rhythm and Blues and Rock ‘n Roll were taking over the charts. Often called, “Sweet Soul” – these pop-ballads brought together gospel, with the crooning vocal styles of mainstream pop artists like Dean Martin or Al Martino.
Between 1957 and 1965, Cooke boasted 29 singles on the Top 40 charts including:
“You Send Me” (1957), “Chain Gang” and “(What a) Wonderful World” (both in 1960),
Twisting the Night Away” (1962), and “Another Saturday Night” (1963). These songs were powerful records, crossing the color line and appealing to mainstream audiences. Cooke was also important for the way he took control of the business side of his career. During his career he negotiated impressive deals with RCA Victor, in addition to establishing his own publishing company (Kags Music) as well as two record labels: Sar and Derby. By 1963, Cooke had proven that he knew how to write, record and produce hit records which would appeal to wide audiences. The songs were usually beautiful, sentimental ballads or light-hearted pop songs. But personal experience and a changing world inspired him to take his songwriting in a more serious direction, and in doing so, Cooke would write one of the most important songs of the Civil Rights Movement and an enduring classic for generations to follow…..”A Change is Gonna Come”
Cooke was no stranger to the injustices faced by Blacks in the United States as he was growing up, but in 1963, he experienced one of those moments which inspired him to move away from the universal themes of his songs to the more specific experiences of Black America. On October 8, 1963, Cooke had made reservations for himself and his bandmates to stay at a Holiday Inn in Shreveport, Louisiana, but when they arrived, they were turned away for the color of their skin. In an incident that made the New York Times, Cooke, his wife, and bandmates were arrested for “creating a disturbance.” The Times reported that police said Cooke and his group, “repeatedly blew the horn of their car, yelled and woke guests at the Holiday Inn after being turned away.” It was one of those moments which brought a lifetime of experience to a head, and Cooke was inspired to use his music in protest. “A Change is Gonna Come” is a direct response to the reality of his lived experience and a hope for the future envisioned by the Civil Rights Movement.
According to both Cooke’s business partner and close friend J.W. Alexander, and his younger brother, L.C. Cooke, “A Change Is Gonna Come” was also inspired by Bob Dylan’s musical contribution to the Civil Rights movement – “Blowing in the Wind.” In an interview with the BBC, L.C. Cooke explained: “I know you know ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ by Bob Dylan. Sam always said a black man should’ve wrote ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, it was unfair, so he said ‘Nah, if he can write a song like that surely, I can come up with something equally as good’, so he sat down to write ‘A Change Gonna Come’.” We also know Sam Cooke had engaged with Dylan’s song, performing live at the Copacabana in July of 1964.
While Dylan’s classic song approaches issues of injustice from an observational standpoint, Cooke’s song begins directly with personal experience. He sings:
I was born by the river
In a little tent
Oh, and just like the river, I’ve been running
Other verses express equally personal experiences – moments of doubt in one’s faith, and direct experiences of segregation. In fact, the third verse (I go to the movie/ and I go downtown / somebody keep tellin’ me “don’t hang around”) was even cut from the single version, because it was thought to detail the experience of segregation too directly. Otis Redding’s cover of the song, which was released in 1965, also doesn’t include the third verse, and this is likely because Redding was following Cooke’s single version (released in December of 1964). However, we do find the third verse included on the version of the song found on Cooke’s album, Ain’t That Good News, which was released in February of 1964, pre-dating the single by almost a year. And it’s the full version that we most often hear today.
The chorus of the song shares the text of the title, offering a longing and a hope for a better future. Unlike Dylan’s ephemeral answer of “blowing in the wind”, Cooke directly states a belief that things will change. The verses tell us all the reasons why they have to.
The song also stands apart from other Civil Rights Protests songs, because it’s not written in a folky style, one which works well for gathering around the guitar at a protest march. Instead it makes a dramatic and powerful statement through a fully orchestrated arrangement. The song opens with flowing strings, horns, and timpanis. The liner notes from the 2003 compilation album A Portrait of a Legend, researched, compiled and written by biographer, Peter Guralnick, boast a robust cast of a players performing on the track:
Chuck Badie – Bass
Norman Bartold, Rene Hall, Bobby Womack, and Clifton White – Guitar
Harold Battiste – Piano
Louis Blackburn, David Wells and John Ewing – Trombone
William Hinshaw – French Horn
Israel Baker, Arnold Belnick, Irving Lipschultz], Leonard Marlarsky, Jack Pepper, Ralph Schaeffer, Sidney Sharp, Darrel Terwilliger, and Tibor Zelig – Violin
Harry Hyams and Alexander Neiman – Viola
Emmet Sargeant – Cello
Earl Palmer – Drums
Emil Radocchia – Marimba, Tympani, Percussion
The track was recorded on January 30, 1964 at RCA Studio in Hollywood with David Hassinger as the engineer. Cooke produced the record along with the production duo, Hugo and Luigi (Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore). Rene Hall, who also played guitar on the track, is credited with arranging and conducting.
J.W. Alexander has stated that the song came quickly to Cooke and he was energized by its potential. Alexander recalled: “He was very excited…and when he finished it, he explained it to me — his reason behind the lyrics. Like, ‘I don’t know what’s up there beyond the sky’ — it’s like somebody’s talking about ‘I want to go to heaven, really, but then who knows what’s really up there?’ In other words, that’s why you want justice on earth. Or, you know, in the verse where he says, ‘I go to my brother and I say, Brother, help me please,’– you know he was talking about the establishment — and then he says, ‘That motherfucker winds up knocking me back down on my knees.’ He said, ‘I think my daddy will be proud.’ I said, ‘I think so, Sam.”
“A Change is Gonna Come” was recorded in January of 1964, and on February 7, Cooke premiered the song, singing it live on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. He never performed it live again. The recording of “A Change is Gonna Come” was first released on his album Ain’t That Good News, in late February, and it was in preparation to be released as a single. But on December 11, 1964, Cooke was fatally shot in the chest at Los Angeles Hotel. The shooting was declared justifiable homicide, as self-defense, but there has been much speculation to that conclusion ever since. A few weeks later, “A Change is Gonna Come” was released as a single, and immediately was picked up as an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement – speaking the truth of the African American experience and offering a powerful longing and hope for a brighter future
It has been covered by incredible artists like Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin; and was chosen for preservation in the Library of Congress, in 2007, for its ‘cultural,’ ‘historical,’ and ‘aesthetic’ significance. The song also experienced a revival around the presidential election of Barack Obama in 2008. In his election speech in Grant Park in Chicago, Obama referenced Cooke’s lyrics, exclaiming: “It’s been a long time coming…“but tonight, because of what we did on this date in this election at this defining moment, change has come to America.” And the song was brought to the national stage once again, performed at his inauguration by Bettye LaVette and Jon BonJovi. It remains a classic of its time, and an enduring track which reminds future generations to always look towards hope, social justice and equality.