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Sam Cooke And The Song That 'Almost Scared Him'

Sam Cooke in 1964, performing on the ABC variety show Shindig! just a few months before his death that December. (Getty Images)

Fifty years ago this week, Sam Cooke strolled into a recording studio, put on a pair of headphones, and laid down the tracks for one of the most important songs of the civil rights era.

Rolling Stone now calls "A Change Is Gonna Come" one of the greatest songs of all time, but in 1964 its political message was a risky maneuver. Cooke had worked hard to be accepted as a crossover artist after building a sizable following on the gospel circuit. And the first thing to know about the song, Cooke biographer Peter Guralnick says, is that it's unlike anything the singer had ever recorded.

"His first success came with the song 'You Send Me.' I mean, this was his first crossover number under his own name, and it went to No. 1 on the pop charts, which was just unheard of," Guralnick says. "As he evolved as a pop singer, he brought more and more of his gospel background into his music, as well as his social awareness, which was keen. But really, 'A Change Is Gonna Come' was a real departure for him, in the sense that it was undoubtedly the first time that he addressed social problems in a direct and explicit way."

It's hard to imagine today what it meant for a black artist to achieve crossover in 1963. It did not come easily, and the last thing Sam Cooke wanted to do was to alienate his new audience. But he also came from the gospel world. He could not ignore moral outrage right in front of him.

Soon, Cooke was jarred by another civil rights anthem: Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind," which Guralnick says Cooke loved but wished had come from a person of color — so much so that he incorporated it into his repertoire almost immediately.

When he first played it for Bobby Womack, who was his protégé, he said, 'What's it sound like?' And Bobby said, 'It sounds like death.'

In the fall of 1963, Cooke faced a direct affront: He and his band were turned away from a Holiday Inn in Shreveport, La.

"He just went off," Guralnick says. "And when he refused to leave, he became obstreperous to the point where his wife, Barbara, said, 'Sam, we'd better get out of here. They're going to kill you.' And he says, 'They're not gonna kill me; I'm Sam Cooke.' To which his wife said, 'No, to them you're just another ...' you know."

Cooke was arrested and jailed, along with several of his company, for disturbing the peace. Guralnick says "A Change Is Gonna Come" was written within a month or two after that.

"It was less work than any song he'd ever written," Guralnick says. "It almost scared him that the song — it was almost as if the song were intended for somebody else. He grabbed it out of the air and it came to him whole, despite the fact that in many ways it's probably the most complex song that he wrote. It was both singular — in the sense that you started out, 'I was born by the river' — but it also told the story both of a generation and of a people."

Cooke was known to be a bit of a control freak in the studio, with a precise idea of how he wanted every instrument to sound. For this track, however, he gave total latitude to the arranger, René Hall. Hall took the charge seriously, and wrote what was essentially a symphonic arrangement within a three-and-a-half-minute framework.

"Each verse is a different movement: The strings have their movement, the horns have their movement. The timpani carries the bridge. It was like a movie score. He wanted it to have a grandeur to it," Guralnick says.

"A Change Is Gonna Come" was released on the album Ain't That Good News in March of 1964. The civil rights movement picked up on it immediately, but most of Cooke's audience did not — mostly because it wasn't selected as one of the first singles and because Cooke only played the song before a live audience once.

"It was a complex arrangement with something like 17 strings," Guralnick says. "I think part of him felt, 'I'm not gonna do it if I can't to justice to it.' But the other part was that it had this kind of ominousness about it.

"When he first played it for Bobby Womack, who was his protégé, he said, 'What's it sound like?' And Bobby said, 'It sounds like death.' Sam said, 'Man, that's kind of how it sounds like to me. That's why I'm never going to play it in public.' And Bobby sort of rethought it and said, 'Well, it's not like death, but it sounds kind of spooky.'"

It was more than spooky. Just before the song was to be released as a single in December of 1964, Sam Cooke would be shot to death at a motel in Los Angeles.

Guralnick says "A Change Is Gonna Come" is now much more than a civil rights anthem. It's become a universal message of hope, one that does not age.

"Generation after generation has heard the promise of it. It continues to be a song of enormous impact," he says. "We all feel in some way or another that a change is gonna come, and he found that lyric. It was the kind of hook that he always looked for: The phrase that was both familiar but was striking enough that it would have its own originality. And that makes it almost endlessly adaptable to whatever goal, whatever movement is of the moment."

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Once again, thanks for listening. This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

When times are rough, a lot of people have a list of things they know, without fail, remind them that life is wonderful. Sam Cooke is so high on my list.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A CHANGE IS GONNA COME")

SAM COOKE: (Singing) I was born by the river, in a little tent, oh, and just like the river, I've been running ever since. It's been a long, a long time coming, but I know a change gonna come, oh, yes it will...

RATH: If that doesn't give you the chills, there might be something wrong with you. Sam Cooke recorded "A Change is Gonna Come" 50 years ago this week. The story of the song is as amazing and unsettling as the song itself. The first thing you should know about "A Change is Gonna Come," it is unlike anything else Sam Cooke ever recorded. Biographer Peter Guralnick.

PETER GURALNICK: His first success came with the song "You Send Me." I mean, this was his first crossover number under his own name, and it went to number one on the pop charts, which was just unheard of.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU SEND ME")

COOKE: (Singing) Oh, you send me...

GURALNICK: But as he evolved as a pop singer, he brought more and more of his gospel background into his music, as well as his social awareness, which was keen. But really, "A Change Is Gonna Come" was a real departure for him in the sense that it was undoubtedly the first time that he addressed social problems in a direct and explicit way.

RATH: It's hard to imagine today what it meant for a black artist to achieve crossover in 1963. It did not come easily. And the last thing Sam Cooke wanted was to alienate his new audience. But he came out of the gospel world. He could not ignore moral outrage right in front of him. Then he was jarred by another civil rights anthem, this one written by Bob Dylan.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLOWIN' IN THE WIND")

BOB DYLAN: (Singing) The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind. The answer is blowin' in the wind.

GURALNICK: And his reaction to it was that it was such a good song but it was a song that a person of color should have written, that he should have written. And he incorporated it into his repertoire almost from the time he first heard it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLOWIN' IN THE WIND")

COOKE: (Singing) What I want to know is how many times can a man turn his head, pretending that he just doesn't see. Oh, the answer, my friend, blowin' in the wind. The answer is blowin' in the wind.

RATH: It was also impossible for Sam Cooke to avoid offense to his personal dignity. In the fall of 1963, he was turned away from a Holiday Inn in Shreveport, Louisiana.

GURALNICK: He just went off. And he refused to leave. He became obstreperous to the point where his wife, Barbara, said, Sam, we better get out of here. They're going to kill you. And he says, they're not going to kill me. I'm Sam Cooke, to which his wife said, no, to them, you're just another, you know.

And Sam got arrested, was put in jail for disturbing the peace along with several of his company. And I think both the indignity of this and his anger, I think that was really as direct a cause of his writing the song, which he wrote within the next month or two, as anything else.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A CHANGE IS GONNA COME")

COOKE: (Singing) I go to the movie, and I go downtown, somebody keep telling me, don't hang around...

GURALNICK: It was less work than any song he had ever written. It came to him almost whole, despite the fact that in many ways, it's probably the most complex song that he wrote because it was both singular in the sense that he started out, I was born by the river but it also told the story both of a generation and of a people.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A CHANGE IS GONNA COME")

COOKE: (Singing) Then I go to my brother, and I say, brother, help me please. But he winds up knocking me back down on my knees. Oh...

RATH: Sam Cooke was a brilliant musician and a bit of a control freak. He knew exactly how he wanted every instrument to sound. But for this track, he gave total latitude to the arranger, Rene Hall.

GURALNICK: And Rene Hall was taken aback that Sam was turning the song over to him. But he took the charge seriously, and he wrote what was essentially a symphonic arrangement. Each verse has - is a different movement. The strings have their movement, the horns have their movement. The timpani carries the bridge. It was like a movie score. He wanted it to have a grandeur to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A CHANGE IS GONNA COME")

COOKE: (Singing) Oh, there've been times that I thought I couldn't last for long, but now I think I'm able to carry on...

RATH: Sam Cooke believed this was the best song he had ever written. "A Change Is Gonna Come" was released on the album "Ain't That Good News" in March of 1964. The civil rights movement picked up on it immediately, but most of his audience did not, mostly because it wasn't selected as one of the first singles and because Sam Cooke only played the song before a live audience once.

GURALNICK: It was a complex arrangement with something like 17 strings. But the other part was that it had this kind of ominousness about it. When he first played it for Bobby Womack, who was his protege, Bobby said: Sounds like death.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A CHANGE IS GONNA COME")

COOKE: (Singing) It's been too hard living, but I'm afraid to die...

GURALNICK: And Sam said, man, that's kind of how it sounds like to me. That's why I'm never going to play it in public. And Bobby sort of rethought it and said, well, it's not like death, but it sounds kind of spooky.

RATH: What happened afterward was more than spooky. Just before the song was to be released as a single in December of 1964, Sam Cooke would be shot to death at a motel in Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A CHANGE IS GONNA COME")

COOKE: (Singing) Oh, yes it will...

RATH: "A Change Is Gonna Come" is now much more than a civil rights anthem. It doesn't age. It's become a universal message of hope.

GURALNICK: Generation after generation has heard the promise of it. It continues to be a song of enormous impact. And the idea that a change is going to come was taken by President Obama in Grant Park the night of his election.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It's been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this stage, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A CHANGE IS GONNA COME")

COOKE: (Singing) It's been a long, a long time coming, but I know a change gonna come...

GURALNICK: We all feel, in some way or another, that a change is going to come. And he found that lyric. It was the kind of hook that he always looked for, the phrase that was both familiar but was striking enough so it would have its own originality. And that makes it almost endlessly adaptable to whatever goal, whatever movement is of the moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A CHANGE IS GONNA COME")

RATH: That was biographer Peter Guralnick talking about Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come," which was recorded 50 years ago this week. Guralnick's book is called "Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A CHANGE IS GONNA COME")

RATH: And for Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. Check out our weekly podcast. Look for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or use the NPR app on your smart device. And follow us on Twitter: @nprwatc. And I'm @arunrath A-R-U-N-R-A-T-H. Tomorrow, we have another great show: the economy, the Olympics, a tribute to Charlie Chaplin, plus the story of how one of America's finest composers died before he could finish his only opera.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: A jazz opera by the one and only Duke Ellington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: That story on tomorrow's show. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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