In the 1950s and 1960s, if you wanted to party, you put on Sam Cooke.
Heck, even today Cooke’s songs can be heard at many family barbecues, housewarmings, and more. He is a staple of soul radio and an iconic American artist.
But Cooke’s death in 1964 remains shrouded in mystery and darkness. He was only 33 years old.
Let’s explore the life and death of the King of Soul.
Beginnings, hit songs
Sam Cooke was born on January 22, 1931 in Mississippi.
Later, Cooke and his family moved to Chicago, where he began singing as a child.
In 1950 he joined the Soul Stirrers as lead singer. He went solo in 1957, releasing a number of hit songs including “You Send Me”, “A Change Is Gonna Come”, “Cupid”, “Chain Gang”, “Twistin’ the Night Away”, ” Bring It On Home”. to me” and more.
During his eight-year career as a professional solo artist, Cooke released 29 singles that charted in the Billboard Top 40.
Cooke has contributed to the careers of other legends including Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, etc. He also helped popularize the music of Otis Redding and James Brown. Writer Bruce Eder said he was “the inventor of soul music”.
Leader of the civil rights movement
Cooke was an integral part of the civil rights movement in America. He used his influence and popularity with white and black populations to fight for equal rights for African Americans. He even helped organize sessions with major figures, including Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X and Jim Brown.
In 1964 Cooke was shot and killed by the manager of a cheap motel in Los Angeles, California. After a police investigation, the courts concluded that his death was a justifiable homicide, although Cooke’s family never accepted the conclusion, nor the alleged circumstances surrounding his death.
Cooke was killed on December 11, 1964. It happened at the Hacienda Motel in South Central Los Angeles, located at 91st and South Figueroa Street. At the time, police came to the scene, responding to separate calls about a shooting and a kidnapping from the motel. It was there that they found the body of Cooke, who had suffered a gunshot wound to the chest that had pierced his heart.
Motel manager Bertha Franklin admitted she shot Cooke and said it happened in self-defense. But his account was quickly challenged by Cooke’s friends. Motel owner Evelyn Carr said she was on the phone with Franklin when Cooke came in and heard the gunshot and then called police.
Cooke had checked into the motel earlier that night. Franklin said Cooke started knocking on his office door, yelling, “Where’s the girl!” He was referring to Elisa Boyer, a friend of Cooke. Boyer had apparently called the police that night from a phone booth near the motel a few minutes before Carr.
Franklin allegedly told Cooke that no one was in his office. But the angry singer broke into her office, naked except for a shoe and a sports jacket. He would have grabbed her, wanting to know where Boyer was. The two fought, fell to the ground, and then the manager got up to take her gun. She said she shot Cooke in self-defense, allegedly in fear for his life.
According to Franklin, he said, “Ma’am, you shot me”, confused. He chased after her again, but, Franklin says, she hit him with a broomstick on the head and he fell and died.
Boyer told police she met Cooke earlier that night and the two spent time together. She said after they left a local nightclub together, she asked him to take her home. But, she says, he was drunk and he drove her against her will somewhere to have sex. She says they sped down the harbor highway, passing many hotels along the way.
They met at the Hacienda Motel, a black-owned business in Los Angeles, and Boyer said Cooke acted like he knew the place, a regular customer. Once they were in a room together, Boyer says, he sexually assaulted her, stripped her and forced her to lie on the bed. She says Cooke allowed her to use the bathroom, from which she tried to escape but the window was closed.
When Cooke later went to the bathroom, Boyer said, she ran, taking her clothes with much of hers. She ran to the principal’s office but got no help, so she ran outside, fearing Cooke, and called the police from the outside phone booth.
Was Boyer telling the truth?
Since then, Boyer’s story has been called into question. There are alleged inconsistencies between his version of events and the details given by diners at the Martoni restaurant, where Cooke was earlier in the night. Some suggest Boyer willingly went with Cooke to the motel, then snuck out of the room to rob him – not escaping an attempted rape.
According to employees at Martoni’s restaurant, Cooke was carrying a large sum of cash that night. However, an apparent search of Boyer’s purse by police revealed nothing but a $20 bill. A search of Cooke’s Ferrari found a money clip with $108.
Boyer and Franklin then took polygraph (lie detector) tests, and the jury in the ensuing court proceedings accepted their testimonies. The case has been closed.
The Cooke family
However, some of Cooke’s family and friends have dismissed Boyer’s, Carr’s and Franklin’s versions. They believe there was a plot to assassinate the now legendary singer.
Boxer Muhammad Ali said: “If Cooke had been Frank Sinatra, the Beatles or Ricky Nelson, the FBI would be investigating.”
Singer Etta James saw Cooke’s body before his funeral and questioned the veracity of the official version of events. She said the injuries she observed in Cooke went beyond the official account. James said she saw Cooke so badly injured and beaten that his head was almost separated from his shoulders. Her hands were broken and crushed, she said, her nose mutilated.
Since then, some have suggested that Cooke’s manager, Allen Klein, played a role in his murder. Yet, no concrete evidence supporting a criminal conspiracy has been given.
Cooke’s funeral was held on December 18, 1964. Some 200,000 fans lined more than four blocks to view his body.
Two singles and an album were released within a month of his death, including the song “Shake”, which reached the top 10 on the pop and R&B charts. The B-side, “A Change is Gonna Come”, was also released and is today considered one of the greatest songs of all time, an anthem of the civil rights movement.
Franklin said he received several death threats after shooting Cooke. She quit her job at the motel and did not reveal where she had moved. She then sued Cooke’s estate. In a 1967 case, a jury found in Franklin’s favor and awarded him $30,000 in damages.
Since his death, Cooke was a founding member inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. In 1994, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Many outlets have named him one of the greatest singers of all time.
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