Sam Cooke's Swan Song of Protest 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.
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Sam Cooke's Swan Song of Protest

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Sam Cooke's Swan Song of Protest

Sam Cooke's Swan Song of Protest

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ANDREA SEABROOK, Host:

Unidentified Man: Ladies and gentlemen, (unintelligible).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDINGS)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RESPECT")

ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

JOHNNY CASH: Hello, I'm Johnny Cash.

RAKIM: (Singing) I know you got soul. Brothers and sisters, hey, hey.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SEABROOK: We have three cast members to tell the story of "A Change Is Gonna Come." There's the author.

PETER GURALNICK: My name is Peter Guralnick. I wrote a biography of Sam Cooke.

SEABROOK: The sibling.

COOKE: My name is L.C. Cooke. I'm the brother to wonderful and great Sam Cooke.

SEABROOK: And the queen of soul.

ARETHRA FRANKLIN: This is Aretha Franklin, and I was a very old and dear friend of Sam's.

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

FRANKLIN: I first met Sam in my father's church - the New Bethel Baptist Church out in Detroit, Michigan. And Sam and The Soul Stirrers - that is the group - which he led for many years, a gospel - giant gospel group, came to the church for a program that we would have.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JESUS I'LL NEVER FORGET")

SAM COOKE: (Singing) Jesus.

THE STIRRERS: (Singing) Jesus, I'll never forget.

COOKE: (Singing) What you've done for me?

STIRRERS: (Singing) What you've done for me.

FRANKLIN: We would have weekly after-church services, and he and The Soul Stirrers and a number of other people came to the church for the program. And of course, L.C., his brother, was with him that day.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

THE SOUL STIRRERS: (Singing) I'll never forget.

COOKE: And so one day, I (unintelligible) him, I said, what are you doing with these sticks, man? He said, I'm putting these sticks in the ground to get myself accustomed to singing to people. He said these sticks represent people to me. He said, therefore, I'll never be scared to sing before a crowd. He said, I'm preparing myself because like I told you, I'm never going to have a nine-to- five job. And believe me, he never had one.

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

COOKE: (Singing) It's been too hard living, but I'm afraid to die. And 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 is gonna come. Oh, yes, it will.

GURALNICK: SOUNBITE OF SONG, "BLOWING IN THE WIND"

BOB DYLAN: (Singing) How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?

GURALNICK: He was absolutely fascinated by the song. He was inspired by the song. And he's challenged by it in the sense that he told J.W. that this was a white boy who had written that he was ashamed not to have written something like that himself. The direct inspiration for "A Change Is Gonna To Come" came from his rest in Shreveport, Louisiana, for attempting to register at a motel, which had accepted his reservation and then turned him away at the door. He was thrown in jail. He refused to be turned away from the hotel. He was so persistent in protesting this. That his wife and his brother Charles said, Sam, they're going to kill you is you keep this up. And he goes, they're not going to kill you. I'm Sam Cooke.

(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. It's been a long, a long time coming, but I know change is gonna come. Oh, yes, it will.

GURALNICK: Once it came out, it was adopted almost immediately by the civil rights movement. It became a kind of anthem, and Sam donated it, actually, to a tribute to Martin Luther King's Southern Christian leadership conference in the summer of '64.

COOKE: He always had a message in the song. He always had a story to tell you. And "A Change Is Gonna Come" tells you a story. And plus, you know, over hundred and ten people have recorded that song.

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

OTIS REDDING: Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) In a little tent, oh, just like the river I've been running ever since.

FRANKLIN: (Singing) It's been long, long time coming, but I know, I know, that change is going to come.

GURALNICK: Being the great artist that Sam Cooke was, he inspired many, many male vocalists to emulate and, of course, on the R&B circuit, which was the rhythm and blues circuit, most male singers picked that song up. Everybody across the country - male and female vocalists - were singing "A Change Is Gonna Come."

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

FRANKLIN: But it was just a tremendous, tremendous moment for me, particularly, feeling the way that I felt about him. Not so much in a romantic sense but I just adored him as a person - as a man. Young man of a religious background and upbringing who had very strong principles and morals and good looking too, I mean, please. What else could you ask for? And he could sing. He was one of the greatest male singers of all time. 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.

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

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

COOKE: He can just touch to black people. He touched white people. He touched everyone. And when you get a song that touched everybody, then you got something.

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

COOKE: (Singing) Then I go to my brother...

COOKE: And believe me, Sam made it.

SEABROOK: Our feature was produced by Ben Manila. Hear more at npr.org/music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU SEND ME")

COOKE: (Singing) Darling, you send me. I know you send me. Darling, you...

SEABROOK: I'm Andrea Seabrook. Have a great week.

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