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Sam Cooke's towering 'Change'
Aretha Franklin and biographer Peter Guralnick trace the rise of a soul ballad that became a civil rights anthem and a Songwriters Hall of Fame classic

By Peter Gerstenzang
Special to MSN Music

It's just as much prophecy as it is song, a fever dream, a prediction so eerily accurate, that the man who wrote and recorded it must have done so in some sort of visionary state. Plus, it fairly overflows with contradiction. It's gorgeously symphonic, yet sung by a man with a gritty, gospel voice. It promises a better life, but only if we can remake the hellish one that we're living. Finally, it hints of heaven, a place usually thought of as peaceful final destination but here seems to be Shakespeare's frightening "undiscovered country," a place the singer seems terrified to ascend to. It is "A Change Is Gonna Come," written and first recorded by Sam Cooke. Still, paradoxes aside, on June 13, the song, now marking its half century, will be receiving the Towering Song Award at the Songwriter's Hall Of Fame annual induction ceremony.

If you look at the preceding Towering Song inductees, "Change" is an anomaly. Sure, the song has the requisite stats. Cooke's opus has been covered by more than 500 different artists including giants such as Solomon Burke, Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding. Bettye LaVette and Jon Bon Jovi sang it together when President Obama was first inaugurated. Still, something seems strange when you read the list of the other recipients of this prestigious award. With the possible exception of George M. Cohan's bit of jumping jingoistic jive, "You're a Grand Old Flag," none of the other Towering tunes are remotely political. Certainly, none have anything to do with the ever-explosive issue of race in our country, a dilemma that, since we elected a black man for president, has again reared its ugly, white-hooded head. "A Change Is Gonna Come," is like no other honoree. It's not "It Was a Very Good Year," "Bridge Over Troubled Water" or, goodness knows, "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." Yet, it's a bold, wonderful choice.

Bing: Listen to Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come"

Peter Guralnick has certainly thought about the song, in part because this top-flight music writer wrote "Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke," a definitive biography of the seminal gospel, soul and pop icon and entrepreneur. While penning the book, Guralnick examined Cooke's weightiest creation from a number of different angles. Why, I ask him, does he think the string and French-horn laden, "Change," has such universal appeal, considering that this epic seems specifically to be the provenance of a troubled black narrator recounting, among other things, the problems he's endured in the bigoted South — not to mention the song's palpable aura of death, about Cooke's not making it through those tumultuous '60s (which sadly, he didn't; his life was cut short with his shooting death in 1964).

"I think that one of the ways Sam wrote almost all of his songs, was that they had both a personal center, but also the ability to translate into a much broader experience," says Guralnick. "That was true of 'Another Saturday Night' [a top 10 pop and No. 1 R&B Cooke single from 1963] for example, which transmutes from personal experience (new guy in town can't get a date), to one that both blacks and whites can relate to. But with 'Change,' I don't think he wrote it as something personal. He wasn't 'Born in the river/By a little tent.' So, it has specific references, but they're not autobiographical ones. It's really the story of the civil rights generation. And anybody in that generation, I think, immediately understood what he was talking about."

Insightfully, Guralnick mentions that, although "A Change is Gonna Come" is a plea for long-overdue racial equality, there's another, more disturbing aspect to the song, that anyone listening to it can relate to. A small word with big connotations: "doubt."

"It's the existential anxiety that gives the song its most intriguing twist," Guralnick says. "Although the song is often used as a statement of hope, there is doubt embedded within it. A sense of melancholy and foreboding, as well. That's one of the things that makes it a profound song; it doesn't endorse happy endings. Sam sings at one point about dying, but he's afraid to because, 'I don't know what's up there, beyond the sky.' It's funny. Sam really set out to surpass or match Bob Dylan's 'Blowin' in The Wind.' So, he's writing a song with a sense of purpose. But there are roadblocks here."

Guralnick ends with a sharp-eared observation as to why "Change" has held up so well these past 50 years: "One of the reasons the song has proved so adaptable is the chorus: 'A change is gonna come.' That gives it such a universal quality. Sam left it open enough so that everybody could relate to it. Hoping that a change is going to come, everybody can understand that. From 'regular' people to President Obama, who quoted it in one of his speeches. The song is hopefulness in a minor key."

If you're looking for perspective on this towering, unsettling song, there's nobody better to talk to about it than Sam Cooke's dear friend, Aretha Franklin. She not only recorded her own churchy version of "A Change Is Gonna Come," she knew Cooke before the song took shape in his ever-evolving head.

Bing: More on Aretha Franklin's version of "A Change is Gonna Come" 

"I first met Sam at my father's church, The New Bethel Baptist Church," says Franklin. "He was singing with the Soul Stirrers [the legendary gospel group in which Cooke was featured]. One day at church, I just happened to look back. And Sam and his brother, (Soul Stirrer) L.C. Cooke, were coming down the aisle. They were so attractive, I could've started shouting then."

I ask the singer if she ever heard Cooke sing "A Change is Gonna Come," before the rest of us, if Sam ever strummed his guitar and sang a snatch or two.

"No, he never did, never did," says Franklin. "I heard it on the radio like everyone else."

Which begs the question, what did Lady Soul think when she finally did hear the tune? It had to provoke some painfully conflicted emotions, considering Sam had been shot and killed in December 1964, with the song released as a single posthumously. On one hand there's the aching orchestral beauty of this tune (courtesy of arranger Rene Hall) and the fact that Cooke's writing had reached new heights and complexities. But the fact that this soul master (and Aretha's friend), was gone, had to figure into Franklin feelings about this beautifully-bereft song.

"The single came out after the 'incident' [Cooke was shot at a Los Angeles motel during a heated – and disputed – confrontation with the office manager that remains controversial and largely unresolved to date]. All I can say is, when I first heard it, I didn't have a good feeling about it. It was very eerie."

I ask Franklin if Sam's song reminded her at all of her friend Dr. Martin Luther King's famous "I Have a Dream Speech," a powerfully moving vision of a better future the author would help foment, but might not personally be a part of. Did Cooke's tune give her the same sort of frisson as that speech?

"It wasn't quite that. Nothing specific about him not living to be old. But, there was just something in the heavenly music that was relative to what had happened to Sam. I couldn't quite put my finger on it. Maybe the word I'm looking for is 'ethereal'?

Franklin's regard for the song can be summed up in another more tangible way. So enamored of "A Change Is Gonna Come," she decided to cover it on her pivotal Atlantic debut album "I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You," which marked her own breakthrough as a major R&B artist. Still, as remarkable a singer as she is, I ask if recording this tune was not just haunting but daunting — if Cooke's version of the song was so definitive, it was frightening to essay it. She says it wasn't. And aside from its upcoming award and the meaning scholars try to find in the song, Franklin's take on "A Change is Gonna Come" is simple, unpretentious and perfect.

"I wasn't afraid to sing it. I just thought it was a great song. And we were looking for great songs. That was one of them. I never heard it so much as an anthem for civil rights. But really? I think I heard it for what it was. As a terrific piece of music."

More: Learn about the Songwriter's Hall of Fame

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