Sam Cooke's Civil Rights Anthem 'A Change Is Gonna Come'

Frank Mastropolo

Excerpt from the new eBook 200 Greatest 60s Rock Songs

"A Change Is Gonna Come" has become a civil rights anthem and has grown in historical importance in the years since its release as the B-side to Sam Cooke's 1964 hit "Shake." The single was released posthumously days after Cooke, 33, was shot to death in Los Angeles in December 1964.

Cooke was inspired to write the song after he and his entourage were refused rooms despite having reservations at a Shreveport, LA Holiday Inn on Oct. 8, 1963. Cooke and his brother Charles loudly protested. Cooke and members of his entourage were arrested downtown for disturbing the peace.

Cooke was also motivated by Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind." Cooke biographer Peter Guralnick wrote in Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke that the singer "was so carried away with the message, and the fact that a white boy had written it, that . . . he was almost ashamed not to have written something like that himself."

"A Change Is Gonna Come" by Sam Cooke

When "A Change Is Gonna Come" was released as a single in late 1964, one of its most controversial lines was cut: "I go to the movies and I go downtown / But somebody keeps telling me, don't hang around." Only listeners of Cooke's album Ain't That Good News heard the original version.

"His first success came with the song 'You Send Me,'" Guralnik told NPR. "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.

"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. '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 was less work than any song he'd ever written. 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."

Frank Mastropolo is the author of 200 Greatest 60s Rock Songs and Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever.

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Frank Mastropolo is the author of Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever and New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows, and Songs That Make New York Rock, selected by Best Classic Bands as two of the Best Music Books of 2021 and 2022. The former ABC News 20/20 writer and producer, winner of the Alfred I. DuPont–Columbia University silver baton, has written a number of books on music, television, ghost signs, and New York City history. His photography is featured in the Bill Graham Rock & Roll Revolution exhibition. Mastropolo subscibes to that old Sicilian proverb, "Laugh and the world laughs with you. Prov and you provolone."

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