A sobering fifty years after Sam Cooke's untimely death, I mark this anniversary - December 11 - by re-publishing the entry on Sam in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia:
Cooke, Sam [1931 - 1964]
Sam Cook was born 22 January 1931 in Clarksdale, Mississippi, but grew up in Chicago, one of eight children of a Baptist preacher; they formed the Singing Children when he was nine. Later he moved over to the Highway QCs and then replaced R.K. Harris as lead tenor of the Soul Stirrers. With this innovative and contemporary gospel group he began recording in 1951 (though his singing at this point is often overrated: his version of Thomas Dorsey’s great song ‘Peace In The Valley’, pallid and unmemorable, cannot compare with those by ELVIS PRESLEY and LITTLE RICHARD).
He ‘went secular’ in 1957, becoming Sam Cooke and starting a long and splendid run of hits, almost all his own compositions, many of which have been covered time and again by artists of the stature of VAN MORRISON. He was a consummate vocalist and a bright, lithe, sexy young man, whose TV appearances helped make black sexuality visible to young white America. He may have learnt his trade in gospel but church-going modesty was not his style.
Sam Cooke was very popular but never popular enough. Most of his work is of undimmed excellence: great records by a terrific songwriter and a masterful soul singer of panache, integrity and expressive generosity. In 1960-63 he was in his prime, not least in live performance (try One Night Stand: Sam Cooke Live At The Harlem Square Club, 1963).
By the end of 1963, Cooke had notched up eighteen Top Thirty hits since 1957; but pop success was not enough. Earlier that year he had heard Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ and is reported to have felt shaken that it had been ‘a white boy’ who had written so potent a song - a song that eloquently, if implicitly, addressed the urgent issues of political struggle that so deeply involved his own race. He began performing the Dylan song himself (a version is captured on the album Live At The Copacobana, 1964), but his more profound response was to write the moving, thoughtful and dignified ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ (originally called ‘My Brother’) which he recorded on January 30, 1964.
Despite the quality of the song and Cooke’s recording of it, it was slipped out as an album track (on Ain’t That Good News) and its release as a single was long delayed. On December 11, 1964, Cooke died after being shot in unclear circumstances in an LA motel. He was 33 years old. Two weeks later, and with one verse edited out, ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ was released… as the B-side of ‘Shake’.
Dylan mentions the song in Chronicles Volume One; the context is complex but this is what he writes: ‘Sometimes you know things have to change, are going to change, but you can only feel it - like in that song of Sam Cooke’s, “Change Is Gonna Come”…’ And in an interview in 2001, he reveals an awareness of Cooke’s early gospel group the Highway QCs, recalling that when he was ‘12 years old, listening to the radio… at midnight the gospel stuff would start, and so I got… to be acquainted with the Swan Silvertones and the Dixie Hummingbirds and, you know, Highway QCs…’
Dylan cut a version of Cooke’s ‘Cupid’ with GEORGE HARRISON in a New York City studio in May 1970 (which would have been effective had Dylan remembered more than a handful of the words) and attempted Cooke’s hit ‘Chain Gang’ at March and April 1987 studio sessions for the Down In The Groove album. (These remain uncirculated.)
‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ was revisited by THE BAND on their Moondog Matinee album of oldies in the 1970s, and on Dylan’s 1978 world tour, on which various of his back-up singers were given solo spots (with Dylan and the band playing behind them), CAROLYN DENNIS sang ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ in Hitler’s old Zeppelinfeld stadium at Nuremberg that July 1 and again at Blackbushe Aerodrome in England two weeks later.
Matching song to venue with his usual quiet shrewdness, Dylan finally performed a respectful version of ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ himself live at the home of early-60s R&B and black aspiration, the Apollo Theater in Harlem, NYC, on March 28, 2004, forty years after the creation of the song for which his own work had been a catalyst.
In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine asked 172 prominent music-industry figures, including artists such as JONI MITCHELL, to vote for the all-time 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Sam Cooke’s ‘Change Is Gonna Come’ came in at no.12 - two places higher than ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’.
Dylan, however, was at no.1 with ‘Like A Rolling Stone’.
[The Soul Stirrers: ‘Peace In The Valley’, nia, CD-reissued on Sam Cooke: My Gospel Roots, Xtra 26471, UK, 2005. Sam Cooke: One Night Stand: Sam Cooke Live At The Harlem Square Club, 1963, NYC, 12-13 Jan 1963, RCA PL85181, Rome, 1985; ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, NYC, 7-8 Jul 1964, Live At The Copacobana, Victor LPM /LSP-2970, NYC, 1964; ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’, 30 Jan 1964, RCA 8486, NYC, 1964. Bob Dylan: ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’, NYC, 28 Mar 2004, broadcast on NBC TV’s program ‘Apollo at 70: A Hot Night In Harlem’, NY, 19 Jun 2004; Chronicles Volume One, 2004, p.61; interview for WTTW-TV, Chicago, 27 Oct 2001. The Band: ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’, Bearsville NY, Mar-Jun 1973, Moondog Matinee, Capitol SW-11214, 1973. Bob Dylan, Rolling Stone poll seen online 7 Aug 2005 at www.rollingstone.com/rs500moretext.]