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Sam Cooke's Swan Song of Protest

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Recorded one year earlier, Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" was released as a 7" single near the time of the singer's death in December 1964. (Hulton Archive / Getty Images)closemore
Recorded one year earlier, Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" was released as a 7" single near the time of the singer's death in December 1964. (Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

Though only a modest hit by his standards, Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" became an anthem of the 1960s civil rights movement, and would come to be heralded as his magnum opus.

Released as a single around the time of Cooke's death in December 1964, the song became a sensation within the black community.

One of the pioneers of soul music, Cooke began his career in music as a gospel singer. His brother, L.C. Cooke, recalls that Sam always had his heart set on becoming a professional musician.

"He said, 'I'm preparing myself, 'cause like I told you, I'm going to be a singer — I'm never gonna have a 9 to 5 job,'" L.C. Cooke said. "And believe me, he never had one."

In 1963, having already scored many hits in the secular pop marketplace, Sam Cooke first heard Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind." Amid the civil rights movement, Cooke was inspired to create his own protest song, according to Peter Guralnick, Cooke's biographer.

As a black singer from the South, racial segregation affected Cooke personally. In October 1963, he was arrested and thrown in jail after refusing to be turned away from a Shreveport, La., hotel which had initially accepted his reservation. In December 1963, Cooke recorded "A Change Is Gonna Come."

Though Cooke didn't live to see its success and reception, "A Change Is Gonna Come" cemented his reputation as a soul-music legend. The song was covered hundreds of times, including by Aretha Franklin.

"He was one of the greatest male singers of all time," Franklin says. "You put him in the category with Caruso and Pavarotti and these other great names. Sam Cooke, bar none, was one of the greatest singers of all time."

Independent producer Ben Manilla spoke with Franklin, Guralnick and L.C. Cooke about Sam Cooke's masterpiece, added earlier this year to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress.

Copyright NPR 2016.

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