Sam Cooke started performing in 1937 in Chicago with his siblings as the “Singing Children.” He was six years old. At age 14 he became lead singer with the “Highway QCs,” a renowned gospel group, still active today. (His replacement in the “Highway QCs” was Lou Rawls, who was followed by Johnnie Taylor.) In 1950, Sam Cooke became lead singer in the gospel group the “Soul Stirrers,” replacing R.H. Harris, the founder of the group.
Cooke had 30 Top-40 hits between 1957 and 1964. His major records stand up well today. You may still enjoy “Cupid,” “Chain Gang,” “Wonderful World,” “Another Saturday Night,” and “Twistin’ the Night Away.” Cooke’s success in recording and nightclubs included his own stirring interpretations of Great American Songbook standards, along with Broadway show tunes. His composition “You Send Me” was his first major hit single. That came in 1957 and was the B-side to his rendition of George and Ira Gershwin’s “Summertime.”
“A Change Is Gonna Come” took root when Cooke heard Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” in 1963. He was impacted by Dylan’s expression of poignant feelings about racism and injustice. He said he was ashamed that he had not written such a song himself. His carefully constructed image and his fear of alienating his white fan base had held him back.
In late 1963, Cooke shared “A Change Is Gonna Come” with a few mentors and close associates. Cooke biographer Peter Guralnick says: “It was less work than any song he had ever written. It almost scared him that the song – it was almost as if the song were intended for somebody else. He grabbed it out of the air and it came to him whole, despite the fact that in many ways it’s probably the most complex song that he wrote.”
Sam Cooke wrote most of the songs he recorded and took a strong role in his song arrangements and recording sessions. In an uncharacteristic move, Cooke handed over his new song to René Hall, his arranger and orchestrator, with no specific instructions but to give it “the kind of instrumentation and orchestration that it deserved.” Hall put together a movie-like score, including lush symphonic strings with horns and timpani, in three distinct movements. The powerful lyrics and emotional performance were all Cooke’s.
Cooke’s first performance of the song was on February 7, 1964, on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. The original plan was to perform and promote the song “Ain’t That Good News” on the popular TV show, but Cooke’s new manager Allen Klein persuaded him to introduce “A Change Is Gonna Come” instead. Klein arranged for RCA to pay for a full string section, and Cooke performed the song along with “Basin Street” on the Friday night Tonight Show. NBC erroneously logged the performance as “It’s a Long Time Coming” and did not save the tape of the show.
Cooke’s team thought that the Tonight Show spot would become a milestone moment in Cooke’s career, but it was overshadowed by the Beatles’ first performance on The Ed Sullivan Show on CBS two days later. Cooke chose not to perform live “A Change Is Gonna Come” again, both because of the complexity of the arrangement and because of the ominous nature of the song.