A Change Is Gonna Come: Sam Cooke; Al Green; Beyonce

Hello there! Our song this week is A Change Is Gonna Come. This is a gospel-inspired pop song that is deeply rooted in the civil rights movement. We will review the original version by Sam Cooke. We will then discuss a cover version by Al Green, and a second cover by Beyonce.

Sam Cooke, A Change Is Gonna Come:

Sam Cooke was one of the great early soul singers. We previously encountered Sam Cooke with his cover of The Platters’ pop classic The Great Pretender.

He and Ray Charles were probably the two greatest innovators in the field of soul music.  Below is my favorite photo of Sam Cooke. He is in the studio, smoking a cigarette, and the pattern of the smoke is fascinating.

Sam Cooke was born in Clarksdale Mississippi in 1931, and began his career in 1950 when he became the lead singer with the gospel group the Soul Stirrers.

The Soul Stirrers were the best-known gospel group in the country, and were famous for their beautiful harmonies. The handsome and charismatic Cooke was also a favorite of young girls.

In 1957, Cooke decided to leave the gospel field for a career in the field of pop music. Trading gospel for secular music was a difficult decision for many artists, and it must have been hard for Cooke.

However, Sam Cooke’s first pop song, You Send Me, went to #1 on both the Billboard R&B charts and also on the pop charts.

Sam Cooke was definitely an anomaly in rock and roll, particularly for an African-American artist. Most musicians at the time had only the haziest understanding of the economics of the music business, and hence were frequently signed to extremely unfavorable contracts.

Cooke, on the other hand, had a very clear understanding of the music business from his days in gospel music. He wrote most of his own songs, started his own record company and also formed a music publishing company.

Sam Cooke had been inspired by Bob Dylan’s protest song Blowin’ In The Wind. Prior to hearing this song he had been reluctant to write overtly political songs, for fear of alienating his primarily white audience.

However, when Cooke heard Blowin’ In the Wind, he felt ashamed that it had not been written by a black artist. Cooke immediately began incorporating Blowin’ In the Wind into his own repertoire of songs.

For reasons that will become clear, there is no live video of Sam Cooke singing A Change Is Gonna Come. So here is a clip of Cooke singing Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ In the Wind.

This performance took place on the TV program Shindig! in Sept. 1964. As you can see, Sam Cooke converts Dylan’s protest anthem from a rather slow folk tune to a much more up-tempo pop version. Nevertheless, Cooke retains the very direct political message of Dylan’s song.

The impetus for the song A Change Is Gonna Come stemmed from an incident in October, 1963. Sam Cooke and his party had phoned and made reservations at the Holiday Inn in Shreveport, LA. However, when they arrived at the motel and it became apparent that they were black, the desk clerk told them that the motel had no vacancies.

Cooke became incensed and demanded to see the manager. After an argument, the group was turned away from the whites-only motel. And when Cooke and his party arrived at another motel, the group was arrested for disturbing the peace.

The lyrics to A Change Is Gonna Come are firmly grounded in the gospel tradition. In this tune, Sam Cooke describes the frustrations of dealing with the discrimination and humiliations of living in the “Jim Crow” era.

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 time, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will.

It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die
‘Cause I don’t know what’s up there, beyond the sky
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

I go to the movie and I go downtown
Somebody keep tellin’ me don’t hang around
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will.

Not only was Cooke happy with his song, but he imagined that it would make his father proud of him. Apparently he wrote the song almost effortlessly, with the words and melody coming to him right out of thin air.

Sam Cooke gave the song to his collaborator Rene Hall. He asked Hall to give the song a lush orchestral treatment, and gave Hall complete freedom to work out the arrangement. This was highly unusual for Cooke, who had a reputation as a control freak.

Hall worked out an arrangement for a full orchestra.
Each verse is a different movement, with the horns carrying the first, the strings the second, and the timpani carrying the bridge. The French horn present in the recording was intended to convey a sense of melancholy.

Sam Cooke’s biographer Peter Guralnik says that as Cooke’s career evolved, 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.”

A Change Is Gonna Come was recorded in January, 1964. Sam Cooke gave a live performance of the song on the Johnny Carson TV show in February, 1964. Unfortunately, the network did not save the tape of the show.

Poster advertising the 1992 Spike Lee movie Malcolm X.

Poster advertising the 1992 Spike Lee movie Malcolm X.

Sam Cooke’s manager Allen Klein and his business partner J.W. Alexander were convinced that Cooke’s performance of A Change Is Gonna Come would be a milestone in his career. However, this did not happen.

Just two days after Sam Cooke’s performance on Johnny Carson, the Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, and ‘Beatlemania’ dominated the pop music conversation.

The Beatles eclipsed any publicity that might arise from Sam Cooke’s performance on Johnny Carson. In addition, Cooke felt that his song was ‘spooky’ and ominous. As a result, he never again performed the song live.

Here is the audio of Sam Cooke’s version of the song A Change Is Gonna Come. The song was part of the soundtrack from Spike Lee’s 1992 biographical drama film Malcolm X. Above left we show the poster for that movie.

Included here is the clip from the scene in the movie where the song appeared. Here Malcolm X, played by Denzel Washington, is driving to a venue where he will appear. The somber mood of the song is matched by the tension in the movie scene.

In this movie, Spike Lee included a number of songs that were favorites of Malcolm X. A Change Is Gonna Come is clearly a great tune to match the aspirations and frustrations of a black activist.

In 1964, Sam Cooke was one of the biggest pop stars. He had moved to RCA Victor Records where he was having major commercial success, and he had hired the agent Allen Klein to represent him.

Allen Klein was a powerful agent who had a reputation for creating novel financial agreements that would provide artists with much greater returns for successful albums. Sure enough, Klein set up an arrangement that should have provided Cooke with a large and steady stream of income.

Alas, on Dec. 11, 1964, Los Angeles police responded to a report of a kidnapping and shooting at a seedy establishment called the Hacienda Motel. They found Sam Cooke shot to death by the night manager of the motel.

The “official” story was that Cooke had taken a woman to the motel against her will. The woman, believing that Cooke intended to rape her, fled from the motel room and then called the police.

The night manager, Bertha Franklin, claimed that a nearly-naked Cooke had burst into the motel office, demanding to know where the woman in his room had gone. When Cooke was unsatisfied with the manager’s statement that she knew nothing about the woman’s whereabouts, Cooke became so abusive that she shot him in self-defense.

A coroner’s inquest on the shooting accepted the testimony of Bertha Franklin, the woman who accompanied Cooke to the motel, and the motel owner. The inquest report ruled that the shooting was justifiable homicide.

Cooke’s friends and acquaintances were convinced that this story was fishy. They believed a much more likely scenario was that the woman at the motel and the night manager were in collusion to rob Cooke. However, no definitive evidence of such a plot has ever been uncovered.

Regardless of the exact circumstances, Sam Cooke was dead at age 33. Just two weeks following Cooke’s death, an album was released that contained A Change is Gonna Come.

Surprisingly, A Change Is Gonna Come was not initially a major hit, only reaching #31 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop charts. However, over the course of time it has come to be considered Sam Cooke’s best song, and one of the classic anthems of the civil rights era.

A Change Is Gonna Come has been covered by over 100 artists, including many of the greatest soul singers. The song has been covered by artists such as Solomon Burke, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Otis Redding, Billy Preston, Tina Turner, and the Allman Brothers.

In 2004, Patti LaBelle received a standing ovation for her performance of this song at the Nobel Peace Prize concert. This song has also been covered or sampled by a significant number of rap performers.

Unfortunately, for four decades following the record’s release, the single of A Change Is Gonna Come was plagued by legal problems, stemming from a dispute between Cooke’s music publisher ABKCO and his record company RCA Records.

The legal wrangles meant that for nearly 40 years, the record was unavailable for inclusion in albums or Sam Cooke retrospectives. For example, even though A Change Is Gonna Come was featured in the movie Malcolm X, the song could not be included in the soundtrack for the movie.

However, by 2003
the disputes had been settled in time for the song to be included on the remastered version of Ain’t That Good News, as well as the Cooke anthology Portrait of a Legend.

Of course, A Change Is Gonna Come is inextricably linked to the civil rights movement.  One remembers the prolonged struggle against the pernicious aspects of segregation in this country.  Looking over the disturbing trends that have arisen since our recent presidential election, one sees once again the rise of polarizing racial divisions.

Hate crimes are on the increase, and racist and nationalist sentiments are bubbling up from the alt-Right.  Even in our own relatively tolerant community in southern Indiana, we have seen swastikas spray-painted on synagogues and white supremacist flyers slipped under the doors of African-American faculty members.

Songs like A Change Is Gonna Come help us to remember this period of great injustice.  It would be absolutely terrible if, having worked so hard to move beyond those shameful times, we regressed back to the past.

Sam Cooke was a brilliant singer and a great songwriter. He was poised to be extremely successful in the music business. In addition, he was also active in the civil rights movement at the time of his death. How sad that his brilliant career was snuffed out at a tragically early age.

Al Green, A Change Is Gonna Come:

Al Green is an American singer, songwriter, producer and preacher. He was born Albert Leortes Greene in 1946, the sixth son of a sharecropper in Arkansas. When he was 10 years old, he and his brothers formed a musical group, the Greene Brothers.

Unfortunately, when Albert was in his teens, his father caught him listening to pop artist Jackie Wilson. At that point, his religiously conservative dad kicked Al out of the family home. Below is a photo of Al Green, performing at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles in 2012.

However, Albert continued his efforts at a career in music. He was hired by producer Willie Mitchell, who urged Green to develop his own individual singing style, instead of copying artists such as Sam Cooke or Wilson Pickett.

The results were dramatic; Al Green created a style that highlighted his lovely high tenor voice. Al Green’s bio in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame states that he
essentially created a new kind of soul – one that combined the gritty, down-home sensibility of the Memphis based Stax-Volt sound with the polished, sweeter delivery of Motown. Over a fat, funky bottom, Green’s subtle and inventive voice would soar into falsetto range with beguiling ease. His finest recordings showcase a penchant for jazzy filigree and soulful possession rivaled by the likes of Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin.

Al Green had moderate success with his first album. His second album contained his first big single, Tired of Being Alone. That song reached #11 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop charts in 1971, and #7 on the soul playlists.

But Al Green’s third album really cemented his reputation in the pantheon of great soul singers. It contained the tune Let’s Stay Together, which reached #1 on both the pop and R&B charts, and which has become Green’s signature song.

In concert, Al Green frequently includes songs that pay tribute to his idols such as Sam Cooke, Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye. Here is Al Green singing A Change Is Gonna Come.

What a powerful, moving tribute!  Here, Al Green would be right at home in a black church. He turns his versatile voice to a gospel-inspired version of Cooke’s great civil-rights anthem.

Right after he sings the line “He winds up knockin’ me right back on my knees,” Al Green sinks to his knees onstage. I found this a compelling element in a virtuoso performance.

For a number of reasons, Al Green turned towards religion starting in the mid-70s. This was in part because of the suicide of his girlfriend Mary Woodson White in 1974.

Despite the fact that she was already married, Ms. White was apparently angry that Green refused to marry her. Following an argument between the two, White threw a pan of boiling grits at Green while he was bathing. Green suffered severe burns in the incident. White then shot herself to death with Al Green’s revolver.

A couple of years later, Al Green became an ordained minister. In 1979,
Green injured himself falling off the stage while performing in Cincinnati and interpreted this as a message from God. He then concentrated his energies towards pastoring his church and gospel singing.

For roughly 10 years afterwards, Green recorded nothing but gospel songs. In 1988, now known as the Reverend Al Green, he again began to release soul songs.

Al Green has received a number of honors for his work. In 1995, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Then in 2004, he was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, and also into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 2014, Green was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors.

Kudos to Reverend Al Green; “let’s stay together” for a long time.

Beyonce, A Change Is Gonna Come:

Beyonce Knowles-Carter is a noted pop singer and actress. She has sold an astonishing number of records, and in addition she has become a major cultural icon.

Beyonce Knowles was born in Houston in 1981. Her first name was her mother’s maiden name. At an early age, Beyonce was noted for both her dancing and singing ability. Below is a photo of Beyonce performing on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

Apparently, Beyonce was inspired to a career in music and dance by Michael Jackson. She also lists Diana Ross and Whitney Houston as performers whom she admired.

When she was just nine years old, Beyonce Knowles became the lead singer in a quartet called Girls Tyme. In 1995, her father quit his job as a Xerox sales manager to manage that group.

Girls Tyme struggled to obtain a record contract, and to gain fame as a musical group. They finally inked a record contract with Columbia Records, and shortly afterward changed their name to Destiny’s Child.

In 1997, their efforts began to pay off. Destiny’s Child had a song included in the soundtrack for the blockbuster movie Men In Black. The following year, a couple of single from their self-titled album hit the charts. As a result, the group won Soul Train awards for Best R&B/Soul Album, Best R&B/Soul or Rap New Artist, and Best R&B/Soul Single.

At this point, Destiny’s Child became a trio, with Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams joining lead singer Beyonce. Destiny’s Child became a pop-music powerhouse. Both their singles and albums shot to the top of the charts, and they dominated both Grammy and MTV awards shows.

However, at the end of 2001, Destiny’s Child went on hiatus as each of the members focused on solo projects. Beyonce’s first album, the 2003 release Dangerously In Love, debuted at #1 on the Billboard album charts, and has by now sold over 11 million records.  Her first solo effort established Beyonce as one of the major performers in soul music.

Here is Beyonce in a live performance of A Change Is Gonna Come. This took place in 2013 at an annual benefit concert called Chime for Change.

This particular concert took place in London. I am impressed by Beyonce’s performance. Her vocals are very polished, and she throws in a number of subtle vocal effects almost effortlessly.

As one of the most well-known and trend-setting artists on the planet, Beyonce Carter lends her talents here to a show designed to highlight the progress of women’s rights around the world.

However, the presence of Beyonce and other women artists such as Jennifer Lopez and Iggy Azalea also managed to generate controversy. There were a number of snide comments by British critics and commentators regarding the performers’ rather revealing costumes.

In particular, some critics complained that the dress worn by Beyonce and others was incompatible with the cause of women’s liberation. Well, I don’t know, it didn’t seem that outrageous to me, and it wasn’t like Beyonce was performing on a stripper’s pole.

Below is another live performance by Beyonce of A Change Is Gonna Come. Here, she is performing at a benefit for Detroit, just after that city declared bankruptcy.

This clip was taken on somebody’s smartphone, so neither the audio nor video is great. As my wife grew up in Detroit, we have a great fondness for that struggling city.

While Beyonce sings A Change Is Gonna Come, in the background are shown a series of photos from Detroit. One sees shots of assembly-line production of automobiles, and the logo of the United Auto Workers.

Various city landmarks are interspersed with shots of the Motown headquarters, follwed by brief clips of several iconic Motown performers. This is all backed by Beyonce’s powerful, versatile vocals.

Finally, right at the end, Beyonce declares “I love you, Detroit.” I found this a really moving clip. It would be great if we could see the Motor City prosper once again.

Since her first solo album, Beyonce has continued her reign atop the pop music scene. She is the only female artist to have each of her first six albums reach #1 on the Billboard album charts.

In April 2008, Beyonce married rap star Shawn “Jay Z” Carter. The two have formed a musical and cultural powerhouse. Their records sell like hotcakes, their tours are among the best-grossing in the industry, and they are involved in a vast number of commercial ventures.

Just how successful is Beyonce? In 2014, she became the highest-paid black musician in history. Forbes magazine named her the most powerful woman in entertainment for the year 2015.  Also,
Jarett Wieselman of the New York Post placed her at number one on her list of the Five Best Singer/Dancers … In The New Yorker, music critic Jody Rosen described Beyoncé as “the most important and compelling popular musician of the twenty-first century.”

Between her solo and Destiny’s Child efforts, Beyonce has sold over 160 million records.  In addition to her astonishing success as a musician, Beyonce has also carved out a successful acting career.

In 2002, Beyonce played Mike Myers’ sidekick Foxxy Cleopatra in the spy parody Austin Powers in Goldmember. In 2003 she co-starred with Cuba Gooding, Jr. in the film The Fighting Temptations.

In 2006, Beyonce was one of the stars in the film Dreamgirls, a movie loosely based on the career of the Supremes. Beyonce played Deena Jones (modeled after Diana Ross). Then in 2008 she portrayed singer Etta James in the film Cadillac Records.

Beyonce has also been active as a feminist and humanitarian. She performed the Etta James song At Last at the first dance by Barack and Michelle Obama at the Presidential Inauguration in January, 2009. She and husband Jay-Z were also active in fund-raising for the Obama campaign in 2012, and Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016.

The film for Beyonce’s sixth album Lemonade included appearances by the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, three black men who were killed respectively by a vigilante, or by the police.

She also collaborated with Michelle Obama’s campaign against child obesity. We have previously shown a video clip from the Chime for Change campaign sponsored by Gucci, whose aim is to increase female empowerment.

As she rolls along in her fabulous career, we wish continued success to Beyonce, her husband Jay-Z and their daughter Blue Ivy Carter.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, A Change Is Gonna Come
All Things Considered, NPR, Feb. 1, 2014: Sam Cooke and the Song That ‘Almost Scared Him’
Wikipedia, Sam Cooke
Wikipedia, Al Green
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Al Green bio.
Wikipedia, Beyonce

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. He and his wife share their college-town life with two delightful cats, Lewis and Clark. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
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