In late January 1964 Sam Cooke entered a recording studio to record a song for his next album, Ain’t That Good News, Cooke’s final record before his death later that same year. Profoundly inspired by Bob Dylan’s 1963 civil rights anthem “Blowin’ In The Wind,” Cooke, a civil rights activist, wishing the song had been written by a black man, wrote in response, “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
Risky for its time, politically, it marked the first time Cooke had directly and explicitly addressed social issues. Cooke’s personal experiences including his 1963 arrest for disturbing the peace in Shreveport, Louisiana while trying to register at an all white motel inspired the track. The third verse “I go to the movie and I go downtown/somebody keep telling me don’t hang around” was later edited out of the single version as it was considered too explicit in its reference to segregation.
The soul of “A Change Is Gonna Come,” was in the pain and determined hope Cooke spoke to. Written less than a year after the drowning death of his 18 month-old son, Vincent, a still mourning Cooke spoke of his grief singing; “there have been times that I thought I couldn’t last long/but now I think I’m able to carry on.”
Cooke’s soulful, gospel vocals and the track’s distinct composition with each verse a different movement (strings for the first, horns in the second etc.), coupled with its heartfelt lyrics, “A Change Is Gonna Come” remains an affecting, timeless anthem.
Tragically Sam Cooke would never hear his single played on radio. Shot to death on December 11, 1964. The single version was released posthumously as a B-side to “Shake,” from Cooke’s last recording session before his death. Though “A Change Is Gonna Come” would peak at No. 31 on the pop charts, its impact reached far beyond the charts.