American Routes Shortcuts: A Tribute to Sam Cooke
This is American Routes, our program devoted to Sam Cooke. Sam’s ambitions in music were matched by his quest for knowledge. Longtime friend LeRoy Crume, who remained with the Soul Stirrers after Sam left, was in the back of a limo with him in those days.
LeRoy Crume: We would be riding down the highway, and he’d always have a magazine or book in his hand. When I first came to the Soul Stirrers I was still reading comic books. I would read Superman and Captain Marvel, and all that kind of stuff. Sam said, “Crume, man, you got to get away from that stuff and read something educational.”
Peter Guralnick (biographer): And in the sense of self-improvement, he directed his reading more and more towards a sense of Black history, of African history, of African-American history. He was absolutely familiar not just with Langston Hughes, but with James Weldon Johnson, with Countee Cullen, with the whole range of African American literature; of poets and novelists.
NS: Sam’s growing awareness came at a time he and other Black musicians were experiencing troubles on the road. In 1963, Sam Cooke arrived at the brand new Holiday Inn in Shreveport, Louisiana, after an all-night drive. Peter Guralnick says he was told there was no vacancy, even though he had made a reservation.
PG: He not only challenged them, he just kept shouting at them. He was swearing at the night manager. His brother Charles said, “Sam, you’ve gotta go.” And Charles was not one to avoid confrontation at all. His wife Barbara told Sam in this situation, “Sam, they’re going to kill you.” And Sam said, “They’re not going to kill me. I’m Sam Cooke.” And Barbara said, “Honey, to them you’re just another n-word.” And in the end he drove off, leaning on the horn of his Maserati, and was arrested by the time he got to the Black hotel on the other side of town, not for trying to integrate the hotel, but for disturbing the peace. Then he bailed himself out and did the show.
NS: A couple of months after the Shreveport incident, Sam Cooke began recording songs for a follow up to Night Beat. He called one of them his civil rights song. “A Change is Gonna Come” would become his greatest masterpiece.
PG: Now, its immediate inspiration was very clear, and it came from conversations that he and JW had had with some of the sit-in demonstrators in North Carolina in the spring of ’63, just around the time of the Birmingham Children’s March. The other sources of inspiration were, on the one hand, Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind.” What blew him away was the fact that it expressed, as he saw it, both so poetically and so directly something which he felt that he should have said, and that a Black man should have written.
NS: Some believe that the incident at the Shreveport Holiday Inn had weighed heavy on Sam Cooke’s mind.
PG: He just felt that he had been disrespected in the most blatant kind of a way. He wrote the song “A Change is Gonna Come” within weeks of that arrest in Shreveport. And while he never pointed the incident as an inspiration, I just can’t help but believe it brought the whole situation home for him so directly and so personally.
NS: Sam Cooke reluctantly released his most memorable song as a flipsideto the upbeat dance song, "Shake."
PG: Unlike almost any other song he wrote, he didn’t know where it came from. He said it was the easiest song he ever wrote. On the one hand, it was almost like it wrote itself. On the other hand, in many ways he was afraid he was going to alienate a part of his audience, and yet he couldn’t deny the song.
To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 5 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.