How Martin Luther King Jr. Influenced Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’
This week 50 years ago, Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ was released. An excerpt from Peter Guralnick’s superb recently rereleased biography of the singer examines what inspired him to write the song.
The March took place on August 28. Close to half a million people converged on Washington and rallied at the Lincoln Memorial in what was widely referred to as the largest political demonstration to date in American history. The Brooklyn chapter of CORE walked 230 miles, and three teenage members of the Gadsden, Alabama, Student Movement walked and hitchhiked all the way. Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, Burt Lancaster, Paul Newman, and director Billy Wilder were all a prominent part of the Hollywood contingent, with SNCC’s Freedom Singers, Josh White, Odetta, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Peter, Paul and Mary (singing Dylan’s new civil rights song, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” currently number two on the pop charts) providing entertainment in a free morning concert at the Washington Monument emceed by Sammy Davis Jr. Introduced at the rally itself later in the day by A. Philip Randolph, Mahalia Jackson was the last “entertainer” scheduled to perform before Martin Luther King’s climactic speech, and, at Dr. King’s request, she began with the old spiritual “I’ve Been ’Buked and I’ve Been Scorned.”
“The button-down men in front and the old women in back came to their feet screaming and shouting,” wrote journalist Lerone Bennett of the reaction to Mahalia’s performance. “They had not known that this thing was in them, and that they wanted it touched. From different places, in different ways, with different dreams, they had come and now, hearing this sung, they were one.” With the crowd’s response ringing in her ears, Mahalia delivered perhaps her most enduring and uplifting “hit,” W.H. Brewster’s classic composition “How I Got Over,” and then Rabbi Joachim Prinz, a German refugee, briefly took the stage before, at twenty minutes to four, A. Philip Randolph introduced Martin Luther King as “the moral leader of our nation.”
King spoke of freedom and justice. He delivered, as historian Taylor Branch wrote, “a formal speech, as demanded by the occasion and the nature of the audience,” not just the several hundred thousand who had brought all their hopes and dreams to Washington but a national television audience that could watch his speech “live” on any of the three major networks. They had come to the nation’s capital, they had come to this historic site, King declared, to collect on a promise, a promise made one hundred years earlier with the Emancipation Proclamation. They had also come “to remind America of the fierce urgency of now.” This was no time for empty rhetoric. This was no time for delay. Now was the time “to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”…
It was a moving speech, it was a speech that touched every base and raised the crowd to a height of emotion that “carried every ear and every heart,” wrote William Robert Miller, a pacifist colleague of Bayard Rustin “along that rise of intensity and into the emotional heights as well.” But then as he got to the end of his allotted seven minutes and the conclusion of the prepared text, King seemed to be lifted up by the crowd, and, rather than stick to his prosaic written summation, he began to preach.
“Tell them about the dream, Martin,” Mahalia Jackson was heard to call out, recollecting the speech he had given at a massive civil rights rally organized by the Reverend C.L. Franklin in Detroit just two months earlier. “I have a dream,” he declared, “that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” He had a dream, he said, that his children would come to see a world in which men and women were measured by their character, not their color. He went on to detail every aspect of his dream, morally, thematically, spiritually, geographically, with each segment ending “I have a dream today.” It was, wrote King biographer David Levering Lewis, “rhetoric almost without content, but this was, after all, a day of heroic fantasy. And so it continued with increasing effect [until] the antiphonal response of the multitude was almost deafening.”
If America was ever to fulfill its promise and become a truly great nation, King declared, quoting and echoing the song “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” then freedom must ring all across America, from every hill and valley, from every city and town, from every mountainside. When that day came, then all of God’s children, black and white, could come together “and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we are free at last!’”
It is impossible to calculate the full effect that watching this on television, listening on the radio must have had on Sam. These were people that he knew. This was the world from which he came. Mahalia had called the Highway QCs “her boys” when Sam was just starting out, at the age of seventeen, and the Soul Stirrers had cut a new version of “Free At Last” for SAR no more than six months ago. He and Alex [his friend and business partner, J.W. Alexander, who had formerly sung with the Pilgrim Travelers] had been talking with student sit-in leaders in North Carolina on the spring tour. And when he first heard “Blowin’ in the Wind” on the new Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album J.W. had just given him, he was so carried away with the message, and the fact that a white boy had written it, that, he told Alex, he was almost ashamed not to have written something like that himself. It wasn’t the way Dylan sang, he told Bobby Womack. It was what he had to say. His daughter was always telling him he should be less worried about pleasing everyone else and more concerned with pleasing himself—and maybe she was right. But like any black entertainer with a substantial white constituency, he couldn’t help but worry about bringing his audience along.
It was a dilemma for them all. Julian Bond, the young SNCC Communications Director, was one of the few black activists who had made the connection between the music and the Movement explicit. “I, too, hear America singing,” Bond had written in the June 1960 edition of The Student Voice, the first issue of the SNCC newsletter, “But from where I stand/I can only hear Little Richard/And Fats Domino….” Roy Hamilton had attended the March on his own and was so inspired by it that he wrote to CORE national director James Farmer, “I still feel that there is something more that I can personally contribute… Don’t hesitate to call on me.”
But he didn’t hear back for almost five months, and then it was from an assistant community relations director, who suggested that he give her a ring so they could discuss just what he might have in mind. “We didn’t count,” was the matter-of-fact assessment of Lloyd Price, like Sam, an independent businessman and solid Movement supporter. “They wanted high-profile artists like Sammy, Harry Belafonte, Louis Armstrong, artists [who appealed to whites and the black middle class] like Nat ‘King’ Cole—but what could have been more high-profile than rock ’n’ roll singers selling millions of records and playing interracial music, interracial dances?”
“I’m going to write something,” Sam told J.W. But he didn’t know what it was.
Sam had begun his new tour, with Bobby “Blue” Bland, Little Willie John, Baby Washington, Freddie Scott, and the white rock ’n’ roll star Dion, on September 14, 1963. They played Nashville the following day, just after getting word of the Birmingham church bombing in which four little girls had been killed. It was like a constant assault, an almost stupefying catalogue of mindless racial insult and injury. “What murdered these four girls?” declared Martin Luther King in an uncharacteristically angry public outburst. “The apathy and complacency of many Negroes who will sit down on their stools and do nothing and not engage in creative protest to get rid of this evil.” It hung like a shroud over the whole tour—the cops in Louisville who stopped the show because two white girls in front got up and started dancing, the teenage white boy in Charlotte, North Carolina, they chased up the aisle simply because he was having a good time. “It was not only against Sam or the black acts,” said J.W., “it was against the music. Period.” And, of course, it was against the mixing of the races that the music inevitably provoked.
The traveling show arrived in Shreveport at 7:30 in the morning after an all-night drive. Sam had called ahead to make reservations for Barbara and himself at the brand-new Holiday Inn North just outside of town, but when they pulled up in the Maserati, with Charles and Crain trailing in the packed Cadillac limo, the man at the desk glanced nervously at the group and said he was sorry, there were no vacancies. Charles protested vehemently, but it was Sam who refused to back down. He set his jaw in the way that Barbara knew always meant trouble, and, long after the clerk had simply gone silent, Sam kept yelling at him, asking, Did they think he was some kind of ignorant fool? He had just as much right to be there as any other damn body. He wanted to see the manager. He wasn’t going to leave until he got some kind of damn satisfaction. Barbara kept nudging him, trying to get him to calm down. They’ll kill you, she told him, when the desk clerk’s attention was distracted. “They ain’t gonna kill me,” he told her, “because I’m Sam Cooke.” Honey, she said, down here they’d just as soon lynch you as look at you, they don’t care who you are. Finally the others got him out the door, but he sat in the car fuming, staring at the desk clerk who just stared coldly back, and when he drove off, it was with the horn of the Maserati blaring and all four occupants of both cars calling out insults and imprecations.
The police were waiting for them when they arrived at the Castle Hotel on Sprague Street, the colored guesthouse downtown where the rest of the group was staying. They were taken to the police station, where they were charged not with attempting to register at the Holiday Inn but with creating a public disturbance. They were held for several hours and finally let go, but not before the contents of Crain’s small suitcase had been carefully scrutinized and counted: it amounted to $9,989.72 in coins and wrinkled bills and represented, Crain told a skeptical police captain, “the receipts collected from recent performances.” The Maserati’s horn had stuck, Crain explained to even greater skepticism, because there was a short in the electrical system that caused it to go off whenever the automobile turned sharply to the left. Crain posted a cash bond of $102.50 apiece shortly before 1:30 P.M., and they returned to the Castle Hotel.
They finished out the tour without incident, while newspapers across the country picked up the story. The New York Times ran an AP report the following day headlined “Negro Band Leader Held in Shreve- port,” but the black weeklies told a tale of racial outrage, and over the succeeding weeks, months, and years, a kind of myth grew up around the incident in which nearly every major R&B singer imagined himself to have been with Sam and presented variations of the story that in their more extreme versions had Sam (and sometimes others) forced by the police to disrobe and sing their hits or, conversely, allowed the larger stakes of integration to be confronted, with Crain holding enough money in his briefcase “to buy the damn motel.” It was a measure of Sam Cooke’s standing not just in the world of rhythm and blues but in the black community at large, with the indignity that had been inflicted on him felt in a manner that reflected how much Sam was admired and loved. But for Sam it was one more reminder of just how fragile was the black man’s place in the white man’s world, just how tenuous were the bonds of status, safety, and human dignity in a fundamentally racist society.
He called Alex right after Christmas and invited him out to the house. He told him that he had a song that he wanted Alex 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, Alex 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 Alex 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 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 Alex, 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 Afro-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 recorded it on January 30, 1964. He had given the song to his long-time arranger René Hall with no specific instructions other than to provide it with the kind of instrumentation and orchestration that it demanded. René 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.’ ” René wrote the arrangement as if he were composing a big movie score, with a symphonic overture for strings, kettle- drum, 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.
He and Alex brought the dubs from the previous week’s sessions to New York, where Allen [Allen Klein, his new manager, who had just negotiated a half-million dollar deal—with full artistic control—with RCA for him] heard the material for the first time. Sam arrived in town on February 4 to promote the new single, “Ain’t That Good News” and “Basin Street” from the December sessions, and to appear on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show at the end of the week. Allen was delighted with everything that Sam played for him; the range of material, Sam’s willingness to take chances were exactly what he had been hoping might result from this new artistic freedom. But when he heard “A Change Is Gonna Come,” he asked to hear it again. And again. “It was just my favorite record. It was chilling. And he was telling a story. A personal story. It wasn’t complicated, and it wasn’t repetitious. Simple words. [But] it was a great piece of poetry.”
Sam took in the praise without comment. Despite any reservations he might have expressed to Bobby, he knew the song was probably the best thing he had ever written, and it was, of course, an integral part of the album. But when Allen said that he wanted Sam to sing it on The Tonight Show—the hell with the single, this was the statement that he needed to make—Sam raised every objection he could think of. The album wasn’t going to be out for another two months. The Tonight Show was only three days away. He didn’t have an arrangement with him. And besides, he couldn’t present the song the way it needed to be presented without exactly the same instrumentation that he had on the record; the Tonight Show band, as good as it was, wasn’t going to be able to give him a French horn, three trombones, and a thirteen-piece string section.
Allen met every one of his arguments with a forceful counterargument. René could send the arrangement. He would get RCA to pay for a full string section and all the extra musicians Sam needed, and if RCA vice president Joe D’Imperio wouldn’t spring for it, Allen would pay for it out of his own pocket. Sam could sing “Basin Street” to promote the single. But he had to remember one thing: he was promoting himself at this point, Sam Cooke, not RCA. Joe and the record label were behind him all the way: look at the full-page ad in Billboard the previous week. Big things were in the offing. They were going to get LP sales. They were going to get the supper clubs and Vegas, just like Sam wanted. But to get all those things, Sam had to believe in himself. And, not entirely coincidentally, he had to do the song on Johnny Carson.
Sam did The Tonight Show on Friday, immaculate in a dark suit and skinny tie, with a neatly coiffed Afro very much at odds with the conventional image of the Negro entertainer on national TV. He performed “Basin Street” on an economical “New Orleans” stage set, relaxed and confident at the start but letting loose as the song built to its big finger-snapping climax, until at the end he was practically strutting—but in a distinctly Sam Cooke way. It was a masterful performance, and a clearly appreciative Johnny Carson acknowledged it not only with verbal praise but by shaking his shoulders in imitation of Sam’s showmanship. “You’re going to stand there for the rest of the show,” he called out to Sam from his desk, before announcing to the audience that, of course, Sam Cooke would be back in the second half.
Joe D’Imperio was so nervous that he walked out into the hall before Sam took the stage to sing what an NBC timekeeper marked down in the logbook as “It’s a Long Time Coming.” Allen and J.W. remained in the audience, each convinced in his own mind that this was a moment that would surely go down in history as well as serving as a milestone in Sam’s career. Unfortunately, the tape appears to have been lost, so one can only imagine the way in which Sam must have transformed the number in live performance, caught in a single spotlight perhaps, his face alight not just with the inspirational fervor of the song’s final declaration of belief but with the fierce determination and unrelenting anger embodied in each of its verses. “It almost scared the shit out of me,” he told his drummer June Gardner afterward.
But for Allen Klein, there were no such ambiguities. To Allen, this was the reason he had ventured into the entertainment business in the first place; it offered an opportunity for self-expression, certainly, but more than that, it provided vindication not just for his belief in Sam (though that was a big part of it) but for his own involvement in the process. It was his business acumen, his own unflagging zeal for the creative business solution, that had freed Sam to do this. And when Sam sang the line about “my brother,” Allen didn’t hear the note of rejection in the following line, all Allen heard was Sam’s plea (“I go to my brother and I say, ‘Brother, help me, please’ ”), and he identified with the situation, he believed that Sam meant him to be that brother, but unlike the brother in the song, he would never turn his back on Sam, he would never knock him to his knees.
Adapted from DREAM BOOGIE by Peter Guralnick. Copyright © 2005 by Peter Guralnick. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company. The enhanced e-edition featured extensive bonus materials including an audio interview from J.W. Alexander and Bobby Womack, a video tour of Sam’s Chicago with his brother L.C. Cooke, and the great soul singer and songwriter William Bell.