Sam Cooke was a preacher’s son. He was singing gospel professionally with his brothers and sisters at the age of six. At nineteen, as lead singer of the Soul Stirrers, he brought a new note of sexual excitement into the church every time he performed. Suave, sophisticated Cooke could have gotten by on sex appeal alone — but his looks were more than matched by his talent. He wrote his own songs and owned his own record label, and with a string of chart-topping hits, he became RCA’s top record seller after Elvis. But whatever Cooke’s material success, he could not help but come up against the intractable boundaries of race. In 1961, he took a stand against the color line by refusing to play a segregated show in Memphis. During his spring 1963 tour, he watched helplessly as fire hoses and dogs were turned on black children in Birmingham, Alabama. More and more he found himself drawn into the explicit language of protest, which would lead him to write the civil rights anthem and his masterpiece, “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
Nineteen-year-old Bobby Womack couldn’t believe his luck, playing behind Sam every night. The spring of 1963 tour was scheduled to cover twenty-four states plus Montreal and Toronto in just over seven weeks. Sam had three cars out on the road: the Cadillac, the Buick station wagon and a new custom-made Checker (a cross between a station wagon and a limo that could hold nine people and all their luggage), which he’d had specially built at the Checker taxi plant in Michigan.
The lineup included Johnny Thunder; the Crystals, “bad-girl” teenage temptresses, the fantasy objects of nearly everybody on the tour; and a touchingly amateurish Dionne Warwick, whom Sam had first met as a little girl on the gospel circuit. Rounding out the bill were baby-faced 250-pound Solomon Burke, the self-proclaimed “King of Rock ‘n’ Soul,” the Drifters and Sam’s old pal Dee Clark. The MC was Gorgeous George, who fascinated Bobby. (“He was such a good-looking guy, the girls would just drag him around like a rag doll. Sam said, ‘He can dress a guy into bad health.'”) Sam picked him up in Atlanta, along with Lotsa Poppa. According to Lotsa, “Sam said, ‘First thing, I want to put you on the tour ’cause you make me laugh. Next thing, I want to beat your butt in craps!'” It was, said Lotsa, “like a family. It wasn’t about money. It was about everybody enjoying their work and going out every night and just destroying the audience. The people got their money’s worth.”
The secondary acts and the musicians traveled for the most part in a big forty-six-passenger Greyhound bus, but all the headliners had their own cars. For Bobby, who had rarely traveled in the South except as a member of a family gospel group that never left the black community, playing for a mixed audience was a real revelation. “I guess the things I remember most is sitting on the bus, one guy get off and everybody be cool, see if we can get some food. And staying in them dumps. Sam said, ‘You know, it’s OK for me. I can live like I live, hang out here and then I can go back home. But [black] people that come to hear me sing can’t even [do] that.’ He’d say, ‘You can hang with them [white folks], they’ll let you hang with them — as long as they ain’t got to worry about you.'” But at the same time, he told Bobby, if it seemed like you were looking to move up in their world, not only would those white motherfuckers throw you out on your ass, your own people would begin to wonder if maybe you weren’t walking away from them. “He said, ‘It’s a hard spot to be in, knowing what the situation is and pretending everything is great.’ He just didn’t feel comfortable making music under those circumstances. But if you’re a true actor, you’re gonna play the role.”
Dionne Warwick, the gawky twenty-two-year-old with the odd, almost antiseptically classical voice, seemed ill at ease both on and offstage. She adopted a standoffish attitude with the rest of the troupe to cover her discomfiture, but one night, she ventured out to the party she knew was taking place in Sam’s room. Sam, whom she had known since the age of eleven, met her at the door “and promptly escorted me back to my room,” remembers Dionne. “That was the gist of my being involved in any of the activities. The one thing that stands out vividly in my brain was an auditorium we played, I believe it was in South Carolina, and the stage was in the middle, black on one side, whites on the other, and I asked Sam, ‘Well, what do you do?’ He says, ‘You do what you gotta do, that’s what you do.'”
Everybody remembered something different about that date, including the location. As Johnny Thunder recalled it, there was more applause from the white side than the black, a fact as puzzling as it was disconcerting. Sam’s drummer June Gardner recalled the music bringing everyone in the audience together, black and white. But Sam, who showed none of his anger to his fellow performers, always displaying that cheerfully cool facade by which he was determined to be known, recalled only the police dogs roaming the aisles on the black side of the auditorium, a clear signal on the part of the authorities that they were not going to let their “nigras” get out of hand. “Our people are not allowed to do nothing but applaud,” he told Bobby when they were alone in the car afterward. “If they stand up and scream, the dogs are gonna get ’em. People don’t know how to react, and then they can’t even leave until all the white people are gone.” “That’s some fucked-up shit,” Bobby agreed, without fully recognizing the dimensions of the problem — it was, he said in retrospect, “like waiting for war to break out. Sam said, ‘We the gladiators out here.'” And then in a rare moment of emotional unburdening, Sam declared, “I can’t do this no more.”
Sam was the one measure of success for them all. He was the coolest. He was the sharpest. You never saw his downside. He would show Thunder all the books he was reading while sipping on little cups of Beefeater gin, and while the rest of them were driving Cadillacs and Lincolns, he had his hip little Jaguar XKE sports car delivered to him on the road. “Some people are intimidated by people who have a smile all the time,” said Johnny. “They think they are covering [up] something. But [with Sam] the warmth of his presence just came through.”
The proof, in any case, was onstage. None of the rest of it would have made any difference if Sam hadn’t been able to deliver. “He had a wonderful way with an audience,” said Dionne. “You felt sometimes as if he was almost a part of the audience, he enjoyed doing what he did so very much. And that translated to the reception he got.”
Bobby watched Sam’s clandestine operations with fascination. For someone who was himself just trying to get laid, it was a frustrating experience to see Sam with all of his different women. “One time there [must have been] twelve of them standing at the bathroom door, each of them go in and spend five minutes and come out. Like they got their blessing or something.”
Bobby saw Sam with white chicks, with black chicks, with two beautiful blond twins, but the assignation that registered most strongly in his memory was one fueled by rage, not desire. Somewhere down in Texas, the program director for a local white station came by the motel with his wife. It was hot, and the men were drinking, and the program director started feeling woozy, so Sam suggested he lay down on the bed for a little while. Then Sam took his wife in the bathroom and turned on the shower, and they fucked without even taking off all their clothes. And when the man woke up, said Bobby, “that woman was fully dressed, like nothing had ever happened. She said, ‘Come on, baby, we got to go.’ I said, ‘Damn, that’s crazy.’ But Sam resented the fact that ‘these motherfuckers come down with their women and shit, and their women looking at me — yet I can’t stay [on their side of town], I gotta stay in this motel.'”
Bobby and Sam would talk about anything and everything, just the two of them riding along in the limo. Bobby would have Sam in stitches with stories about growing up in the Womack household in Cleveland, where “you weren’t allowed to do nothing but sing gospel. My father, man, you ask him about the facts of life — when you wake up from being knocked out, he say, ‘That’s the facts of life.’ We had a TV, but my father called it ‘the one-eyed monster.’ He say, ‘Why you watching that TV, the white man invented that, he stealing everything around you while you’re watching.'” Bobby would come up with the most naive questions, like: Why did they always stay in “motels,” not “hotels”? And Sam would patiently explain, carrying him through the etymology of the word, pointing out that “motel” was coded language for “mo’ tail,” until Bobby started nodding sagely and Sam just cracked up. He had fun with Bobby, maybe, because in Bobby he saw his younger self — that’s what Bobby thought some of the time. But above all Sam seemed to want to give him advice, to offer the kind of advice that he himself might have liked to have had when he was starting out.
Bobby still wore his hair in an upswept process, and Sam told him he was showing his ignorance. “You know, we’ll never be those people. We black, and we’ll stay black,” he said. “I’ll never straighten my hair again.” Bobby said he wanted a big Cadillac, just like R&B singer Johnnie Morisette. Sam and his business partner and friend, J.W. Alexander, both laughed at him — they told him to keep that pencil in his hand, his writing could get him whatever he wanted. “Sam always have a flask, he always sip on it,” says Bobby. “He start [to] reading black history, and you couldn’t get him out of it. He never got above people. He be driving down the street, and some cats gambling in an alley. He get out and say, ‘Hey, man, what the fuck is that shit? Let me shoot out.’ I’m saying, ‘Sam is going to get killed in that motherfucking alley. That’s no class. What’s he doing in there with the winos?’ But he say, ‘Man, I had uncles, I had people that ended up like that, ’cause they couldn’t ever get their niche, they didn’t go to school, or whatever. They ain’t gonna do nothing to you, ’cause they know they can ask you for it. It ain’t like you gonna lock all the windows and roll by them. This is where I come from, and if I get scared to come down here, then I’m in trouble.'”
Meanwhile, the civil rights revolution was erupting all around them. Even as the troupe was facing what Bobby called “K-9 dogs” patrolling the aisles to prevent race mixing or over-demonstrativeness on the part of the colored population, in Birmingham the vicious police dogs and fire hoses of Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor were thrown up against whatever forces Martin Luther King Jr. was able to rally in opposition to the most intransigent resistance to integration in any form in the South.
Sam declared, “We’re in the middle of a social revolution, and some violence is a part of it. There was violence in the American Revolution and in the French Revolution.” But for the time being, all he could do was follow the news with avidity as they played Raleigh, Richmond, Augusta, Memphis and Atlanta. Sam knew most of the players to one extent or another; he was acquainted with Martin Luther King Jr. and his father and brother. In describing his feelings to one and all, Sam found himself caught between anger and a sense of proprietary responsibility, joking with Dionne and Thunder in some measure to ease the pain of humiliation, but telling Bobby about the time when he was with the teenage gospel group the Highway QCs in Memphis, and no older than Bobby now, “and they come and slap me in the park, ’cause I was black and I wasn’t supposed to be there.” His father had taught him: When you’re in the right, don’t never back down. But when Bobby said, “Man, if all black people would just [get guns and] fight back,” Sam told Bobby, “We got to buy the guns from them.” Part of him felt like he and J.W. had figured out a way of operating in the white man’s world; they were gaining respect in the manner that mattered most, as businessmen, climbing the success ladder in the one way that permitted them to escape both detection and self-analysis. “I don’t care what the fuck you doing,” he told Bobby, “you can be oversold to your commitment to what you believe. Bottom line, if that fucker ain’t making no money with you, you gone.”
CASSIUS AND COOKE
Sam opened at the Apollo on November 22nd, 1963, the day that President Kennedy was shot. He was just finishing his first show of the afternoon, with the whole cast joining him in a reprise of “Having a Party” and throwing confetti into the crowd, when Apollo owner Frank Schiffman came out onstage to make the announcement. “Several women in the audience became hysterical,” the Amsterdam News reported. “There was noticeable sobbing throughout the theater — from men and women alike.” Schiffman wanted to close the theater for the day, but before he did, “I had to consult Sam. He was working on a percentage, and I wouldn’t have been able to do it without his consent. I went up to his dressing room, sort of framing words to say to him about it. Before I could open my mouth, he said to me, ‘Honest, I don’t feel like working today,’ [and] we closed the theater.”
There was widespread sorrow throughout the black community, the sense, as Mahalia Jackson put it, that “Negroes will mourn doubly the loss of the man who was their great friend.” Only Black Muslim leader Malcolm X, who maintained silence on the president’s death for ten days on orders from Nation of Islam founder and leader Elijah Muhammad, violated the tone of decorous respect, when, in impromptu remarks to reporters following a carefully scripted public address, he suggested that, after all the violence America had unleashed on the world, the assassination of an American president was no more than a case of “the chickens coming home to roost.”
Sam renewed his acquaintance with Cassius Clay, who had just signed for a title fight with Sonny Liston and was in town to promote I Am the Greatest, his Columbia LP, with an appearance on The Jack Paar Show. Cassius was staying at the Hotel Theresa, where he spent much of his time with Malcolm, whom he had come to know well over the last couple of years in his pursuit of Muslim teachings. Sam had known Malcolm for years, ever since the first time he had come to the Apollo as a headliner, and he had always appreciated him as an accomplished street-corner speaker — he had known people like Malcolm all his life, caught up in the grip of a hustle they needed for their own personal salvation. He had never much cared for Malcolm’s Muslim beliefs, but now, with Cassius Clay serving as a kind of catalyst, Sam finally began to recognize the greater truth of Malcolm’s message. Black pride and self-determination, the principle of ownership, the need, above all, to control your own destiny — these were lessons he had learned at his father’s knee. Never be satisfied with scraps from the white man’s table; it was better to die on your feet than live on your knees — this was the essence of Sam’s personal philosophy. And Malcolm wasn’t one of these one-dimensional cats whose sum and substance were his lessons, either. Behind his steely gaze, Sam could discern a bright glint of humor; from talking to him he could tell that this was a man who could think on his feet. And, like Sam, Malcolm clearly saw some indefinable potential, independent of religious instruction, in young Cassius Clay.
For the Clay-Liston title fight in Miami Beach on February 25th, 1964, Sam’s manager, Allen Klein, arranged for them all to stay at Miami’s resplendent Fountainebleau Hotel. By the time Sam, his wife, Barbara, and J. W. arrived, Allen was already registered and in his room. Sam was informed at the desk that there had been a mix-up about the reservations. Sam saw no reason to take the matter lightly. Miami Beach, like Las Vegas, had never made a habit of accommodating Negro guests. It might present the best in colored entertainers, but until very recently those entertainers had always come in through the back door. Sam called Allen, and his manager came down to the lobby and made a scene. “I just lost it. I screamed at them, ‘Don’t you know what prejudice is? How can you people, after all the discrimination we’ve been through, do the same thing?’ It was an embarrassment to me — Jewish place, Jewish people, and they didn’t want to give him a room?” Allen threatened to camp out in the lobby until they sorted this thing out. And in the end, the hotel came up with a nice suite on the second floor.
Malcolm, too, was in Miami, as a personal guest of Cassius Clay’s. Cassius had practically announced his conversion to Islam a month earlier, and public reaction was so strong that the fight promoter had threatened to cancel the fight unless Cassius agreed to eliminate any further public reference to the Black Muslims or have any visible contact with his mentor. So Malcolm was staying out of sight.
It was the same old story, Sam thought. Everyone wanted Cassius Clay to remain the “All-American boy” — and if he didn’t, the same black bourgeoisie that had opposed Martin and the Movement didn’t want the white world to find out about it. Fuck the white world. This was a young man who couldn’t be contained, who had embraced a despised doctrine of black separatism and self-determination out of religious conviction, but who still retained an irrepressible gift for showmanship and an abundant intellectual curiosity. Nor did it escape Sam’s attention that when the new British group, the Beatles, arrived in Miami for the second in a trio of phenomenally successful appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, who should they seek out at his dingy Miami training quarters but Cassius Clay? Whatever the outcome of the fight, there was no doubt in Sam’s mind that Cassius was going to shake up the world, with his wit, his ingenuity, his sheer force of will.
Cassius entered the ring, armed with that belief. He was nervous, he admitted afterward (“It frightened me, just knowing how hard [Sonny Liston] hit”), and he began by furiously backpedaling, ducking and dodging and moving from side to side. But then he dropped his hands to his sides, and, with a look of serene self-confidence, in a manner that could be compared with that of no other heavyweight in history, he danced. Watched today, it remains a thing of grace and beauty, but it is the expression on Liston’s face that is most revealing — a look of puzzlement that suggested, Sam said later, that Cassius won the fight right there. When the fight was over, with Liston refusing to answer the bell for the seventh, Sam was making his way to the ring.
Cassius was in the middle of an interview with a television announcer and ex-champ Joe Louis when he spotted Sam, almost disheveled with excitement, his tie removed, shirt open. “Sam Cooke!” the new champion called out with unabashed enthusiasm. “Hey, let that man up here.” The announcer did his best to ignore yet another in a string of uncontrollable developments (“I want justice! I want justice!” the new champ had just been calling out). “This is Sam Cooke!” Cassius shouts. “We see him. We see him,” says the announcer, looking utterly bewildered. “Joe, ask Cassius another question.” But Cassius is not to be deterred. “Let Sam in,” he insists with all the fervor he has put into the fight. “This is the world’s greatest rock & roll singer.” And Sam is almost catapulted into the ring as Cassius ruffles his hair and throws an arm around him. “Sam Cooke. Very good friend. Good vocalist,” says the announcer, while Sam and Cassius face off, “We gonna shake up the world!” the champ calls out one more time. “You’re beautiful,” says Sam, his face wreathed in smiles, his expression one of innocent mirth.
CHANGE IS GONNA COME
The first time Sam heard “Blowin’ in the Wind” on the new Bob Dylan album J.W. Alexander had just given him in the spring of 1963, he was so carried away with the message and the fact that a white boy had written it that, he told J.W., he was almost ashamed not to have written something like that himself.
“I’m going to write something,” Sam told J.W. But he didn’t know what it was.
Then one night, some sixth months later, right after Christmas, Sam called J.W., and invited him out to the house. He told him that he had a song that he wanted J.W. to hear. He didn’t know where it had come from. It was different, he said, from any other song he had ever written. He played it through once, singing the lyrics softly to his own guitar accompaniment. After a moment’s silence, J.W. was about to respond — but before he could, Sam started playing the song again, going through it this time line by line, as if somehow his partner might have missed the point, as if, uncharacteristically, he needed to remind himself of it as well. It was a song at once both more personal and more political than anything for which J.W. might have been prepared, a song that vividly brought to mind a gospel melody but that didn’t come from any spiritual number in particular, one that was suggested both by the civil rights movement and by the circumstances of Sam’s own life — J.W. knew exactly where it came from, but Sam persisted in explaining it nonetheless. It was almost, he said wonderingly, as if it had come to him in a dream. The statement in its title and chorus, “A Change Is Gonna Come” (“It’s been a long time comin’/But I know/A change gonna come”), was the faith on which it was predicated, but this faith was qualified in each successive verse in ways that any black man or woman living in the twentieth century would immediately understand. When he sang, “It’s been too hard living/But I’m afraid to die/I don’t know what’s up there/Beyond the sky,” he was expressing the doubt, he told J.W., that he had begun to feel in the absence of any evidence of justice on earth. “I go to the movies/And I go downtown/Somebody keep telling me/Don’t hang around” was simply his way of describing their life — Memphis, Shreveport, Birmingham — and the lives of all African-Americans.
“Or, you know,” said J.W., “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 was very excited — very excited. And I was, too. I said, ‘We might not make as much money off this as some of the other things, but I think this is one of the best things you’ve written.’ ‘I think my daddy will be proud,’ he said. I said, ‘I think so, Sam.'”
He didn’t go into the studio with it for nearly a month. He had given longtime arranger Rene Hall the song with no specific instructions other than to provide it with the kind of instrumentation and orchestration that it demanded. Rene was in no doubt as to the momentousness of the charge. “I wanted it to be the greatest thing in my [life] — I spent a lot of time, put out a lot of ideas, and then changed them and rearranged them, because here was an artist for whom I’d never done anything with my own concepts [exclusively], and this was the only tune that I can ever recall where he said, ‘I’m going to leave that up to you.'” Rene wrote the arrangement as if he were composing a big movie score, with a symphonic overture for strings, kettledrum and French horn, separate movements for each of the first three verses (the rhythm section predominates in the first, then the strings, then the horns), a dramatic combination of strings and kettledrum for the bridge (“I go to my brother and I say, ‘Brother, help me, please'”) and a concluding crescendo worthy of the most patriotic anthem, as Sam extends his final repetition of the chorus (“I know a change is gonna come”) with a fervent “Oh, yes it is,” and the strings offer a shimmering sustain, while the kettledrum rumbles and the horns quietly punctuate the underlying message of hope and faith.
It was all carefully considered. The French horn, Rene explained to J.W., who was as surprised as Rene himself by Sam’s singular abdication of control, would give it a mournful sound. The orchestral arrangement would match the dignity of the song. As Harold Battiste, who played keyboards on the session, observed, “All of us have a vision of what we think we are. Sometimes we have an idea about something that we think we need to try to reach. We may overshoot, but I guess we all trying to get that acceptance where Mama and Daddy say, ‘OK, yeah, it’s good.'”
Everybody executed his role flawlessly with the exception of drummer John Boudreaux, who was evidently so intimidated by the orchestral makeup of the session that he simply announced, “Man, I can’t go out there and play,” and refused to leave the control room, impervious to the pleas of his fellow musicians. Fortunately Earl Palmer was working next door, and he came and filled in. But otherwise the recording process went as smoothly as it might have for any of Sam’s little “story songs.” Then RCA A&R man Luigi Creatore, as though acknowledging the momentousness of the occasion, asked Sam to give him one more, and after a couple of false starts, the eighth take was nearly perfect.
Afterward, Sam told Bobby about the new song he had just recorded and played it for him in the darkened music room of his home, with Rene’s swelling arrangement booming out of the giant movie speakers. He explained it all to Bobby like he had explained it to J.W. But there was a note in his voice other than just pride of authorship. It was almost, Bobby thought, as if he were feeling some kind of premonition. He said, “The song just came to me. I never scuffled with the words or anything. It was like it was somebody else’s song. What do you think of it, Bob? Just tell me whatever comes to your mind.”
“It feels like death,” said Bobby, never overly troubled with the need for reflection and seemingly sensing the same premonition himself. “He asked me, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘No, I’m gonna take that back. It don’t feel like death, but it feels eerie, like something’s going to happen.’ He said, ‘Yeah, but that’s the same thing.’ I said, ‘It’s just the way it feel to me. The strings and everything is creepy, something’s going on, it sounds like somebody died.'” Sam nodded gloomily. That was why he was never going to sing that fucker in public, he said. And with the exception of a live performance on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, just one week later, he scarcely ever did.