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When Sam Cooke wrote “A Change is Gonna Come”, it was a risky departure from the singer’s sensational line of more than 30 crossover pop hits. Not only did it mine Cooke’s gospel roots, it was political too. It was the kind of pairing that could, in the America of 1963, jeopardise Cooke’s presence on white radio playlists.
Cooke had always admired Bob Dylan’s civil rights song “Blowin’ in the Wind”. He pulled it straight into his own live repertoire, but still, as biographer Daniel Wolff wrote, something troubled him: “Geez, a white boy writing a song like that?” A 2005 biographer, Peter Guralnick, said that Cooke was “almost ashamed not to have written something like that himself”.
During his long tours across America, Cooke wrote the song that would be referenced, decades later, in the 2008 “Yes we can” speech made by the first black president-elect of the US: “It’s been a long time coming,” Barack Obama told ecstatic crowds in Chicago. “Change has come to America.”
The anthem on which Obama drew — “It’s been a long, a long time coming / But I know a change gon’ come, oh yes it will” — was released posthumously, as a B-side, in December 1964. That month, Cooke was shot dead at 33 by the manager of a $3-a-night motel, under circumstances that are still disputed. Cooke had once asked his friend Bobby Womack what he thought of the song. “It sounds like death,” said Womack.
Cooke had cut the song first as a track for the album Ain’t that Good News. But between album and single, the song lost a controversial verse alluding to segregation. Ironically, for what was to become a civil rights anthem, he was forced to drop the rebuke: “I go to the movie and I go down town / Somebody keep telling me, don’t hang around” — lines written after Cooke was arrested at a Holiday Inn when he and his band were denied entry.
Singer Otis Redding, who told a reporter that he wanted to “fill the silent void” left by Cooke’s killing, quickly picked up the song for his album Otis Blue. Redding’s account, called simply “Change Gonna Come”, is sparer than Cooke’s symphonic original — and sticks (though loosely, and more wordily) to Cooke’s single.
Rolling Stone magazine ranked “A Change is Gonna Come” at number 12 in its list of 500 greatest songs ever written. In 1992, the film director Spike Lee used the song in his movie Malcolm X, deploying it brilliantly in the moments leading up to the activist’s assassination.
Covers have ranged from those by Aretha Franklin and Al Green — both steeped in the church — to Seal and Van Morrison. It is a frequent and often incongruous visitor to TV talent shows, although a 2009 American Idol finalist, Adam Lambert, invested the song with substance by performing it in make-up and changing a line to “my change is gonna come”. Lambert, whose open homosexuality had been stoutly ignored by the show, went on to top the Billboard charts, as well as touring in the Freddie Mercury spot with Queen. Lou Reed performed it in 2011 at a benefit for the Clinton Foundation, changing the opening “I was born by the river in a little tent” to a more plausible “in this little apartment”.
Obama returned to the song at his inauguration, when Bettye LaVette and Jon Bon Jovi credibly sang it as a duet. It remains to be seen if the number will feature at the next presidential inauguration.