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Favourite songs: Sam Cooke

Many of my favourite songs were released in the 1960s. Nina Simone’s I Put A Spell On You. Beach Boys’ God Only Knows. Dusty Springfield’s If You Go Away. And Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come: one of the greatest songs of all time.

There are some vocal performances that I never get tired of. Otis Redding on Try a Little Tenderness, for example: quite possibly one of the best interpretations of a song, ever. But Sam Cooke’s performance on this song is really wonderful. There’s a simplicity to his performance that I really like. Could a current contemporary singer perform a song like this without resorting to showy vocal tricks?

A Change Is Gonna Come was the first time Cooke attempted to directly address social problems. He was inspired to write the song after he was turned away from a whites only motel in Louisiana, and then arrested later that evening for disturbing the peace. A big fan of Bob Dylan’s Blowin in the Wind, which he’d covered many times in his live shows, Cooke had feared that writing a protest song himself would alienate people. In the end, I guess he was just too angry to care.

Interestingly, after he performed the song in public for the first time on the Tonight Show in 1964, Cooke asked his friend Bobby Womack what the song sounded like: “It sounds like death” Womack replied. Cooke never performed the song in public again, deciding that the song was too gloomy to include in his live repertoire.

A few weeks before the song was released over Christmas, 1964, Cooke was shot and killed by the manager of a motel in Los Angeles. He was just 33. Two years later, when Otis Redding recorded the aforementioned Try a Little Tenderness, he cited Sam Cooke as one of his main influences.

While A Change Is Gonna Come didn’t receive a huge amount of attention at the time of release, it became an anthem for the American Civil Rights Movement, covered by numerous artists, including Cooke’s original inspiration for the song, Bob Dylan, who performed a slightly more croaky version of the song at the Apollo Theatre in 2004, almost 40 years after Cooke’s death.

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