A Change Is Gonna Come

Sam Cooke’s Civil Rights Era Anthem

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking. (Photo by Julian Wasser//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Today’s national holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. brings to mind Sam Cooke’s song, “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Cooke’s civil rights anthem of perseverance and letdown was inspired by Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which he’d heard sung at the March on Washington and found himself marveling over a white man’s ability to write a song of such passion and understanding for the African American freedom struggle. Sam’s tune was also fueled by a nasty encounter with racism that he’d experienced in 1963 in Louisiana when he and his family were denied a Holiday Inn reservation that he’d made over the phone. In typical Jim Crow fashion, the hotel lobby exchange resulted in Sam being arrested for disturbing the peace.

Sam recorded the song the following January and premiered it on The Tonight Show on February 7, 1964, where the director’s script had it listed as “It’s Been a Long Time Comin’.” He sang it on The Mike Douglas Show a few days later, where he joined the host for a conversation about his background. But RCA (go figure) didn’t release it until December 22, eleven days after Cooke was shot to death in Los Angeles.


Otis Redding recorded it as “Change Gonna Come” on Otis Blue, which he recorded for Stax in a single, overnight session in April 1965. (The session actually required a break while the backing musicians, Booker T & the MG’s, played a local gig.) The album introduced Redding’s original, “Respect,” and included two other songs by Cooke, “Wonderful World” and “Shake.” (The latter was the A side of the RCA single that introduced “A Change Is Gonna Come.”) I’m moved by both versions, but I’ve always preferred Otis as a singer, and the prominence here of The Memphis Horns (Wayne Jackson, trumpet; Andrew Love, tenor sax) and guitarist Steve Cropper make this my favorite of the two. (Note that while Miles Davis had insisted as early as 1961 that black models, including his wife Frances Taylor, be shown on his album jackets, blondes were still the norm at most labels.)

Three years later, The Electric Flag’s debut album, A Long Time Comin’, was titled after Sam’s song and paid tribute to Otis on “You Don’t Realize,” which was “Dedicated with great respect to Otis Redding and Steve Cropper.” The song was composed by the band’s founder, Michael Bloomfield. and sung by its drummer, Buddy Miles.

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