Just how the hell did Sam Cooke really die?
Jul 16, 2003 (Updated Jan 7, 2005)
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Out of all the reasons that people have been fascinated with soul music and its history, few stand out more than the amagalmation of its roots. The church orthodoxy and ritual in which the genres vernacular was based on; the sexual ecstasy that the music was railing against yet was in tandem with; and the harrowing trauma that has come with the black experience make for a emotionally volatile combination. Its greatest practitioners have felt each factors demanding pull, and many of them have crumbled in the face of them; resulting in some of the most tragic stories in the history of pop culture. Aretha Franklin, Les Miserables Fantine reincarnated as a gospel/soul singer, whose greatest work encompassed a joy and pathos that most were in awe of yet few could understand. Sly stone, once a humanitarian preacher in a psychedelic rock stars clothing, having his soul torn to bits and pieces by the paternalistic hippie left, the obdurant Black Panthers and his own drug use. Donny Hathaway, the eclectic genius whose songs were prayers to keep sane, killing himself because of crippling schizophrenia. And possibly the most famous soul tragedy of them all, The oedipal struggle between Marvin Gaye, modern pops answer to Billie Holiday, and his demonic father.
Contrary to popular opinion, the shooting death of Sam Cooke was not a tragedy, but not for any nefarious act that he did. From a breeze through of the facts, it would be easy to assume otherwise. Cooke, the preeminent R&B star from the late 50s through the early 60s, being shot to death in a seedy motel, just as he was about to branch into a whole new artistic horizon. Bertha Franklin, his alleged shooter, telling the public that Sam had raped a woman and she had came to her self defense, struggling with an enraged Cooke that was intent on killing her, only shooting him to save herself. The police telling the press that they had conducted an investigation and decided not to press charges. All were ugly revelations that cast a dark light on Sam Cooke who made his career on image, business sense, and gospel roots. It makes for a great story with plenty of room for rock critic hyperbole. The only problem with the story is that none of its true.
In the early to mid 50s Sam Cooke came into the national spotlight, armed with acute business sense, deep gospel roots and one of if not the greatest voice that a soul singer has ever had. Otis Redding could outshout him, Gaye did more with what he had as a vocalist, and Al green maybe could caress a lyric better. Yet no one had the total vocal package, resounding clarity, and ability to move people through bending a single note than him. His works with the Soul Stirrers brought a whole new emotional brevity to gospel and set the blue print for 4-5 part harmony for every single vocal group that came afterword. He had risen to national prominence with watered down pop records that were a product of his time, with Cooke nullifying his gospel roots in order to crossover to a white pop audience, wary of R&B singers and frightened of anything resembling black male sexuality.
But in 1962-1963 he snapped. Grieving for the loss of his daughter in a pool accident and seeing the success that ray Charles was having by being his black and beautiful self, Cooke underwent a torrent of changes to take control of his career. He demanded and got to form his own record label. The three records that he made afterword, showed more of his gospel roots. Cooke also Fraternized with and supported Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. He signed on Allen Klein as his manager and got a unprecedented deal, in which he would get his master tapes, site fees, gate revenues for live concerts, 10 percent of all records and singles sold, and back royalties; resulting in Cooke making over a million dollars a year. And a few weeks before his death he cut " A change is gonna come" a slave narrative disguised as a protest song; performed with a chilling intensity that cant be described in the written word.
All of these separate events had one thing in common; they angered a lot of white executives. In order to gain national preeminence Cooke had made a Faustian bargain with RCA records. He would get his pop stardom he was craving and RCA would have its musical Lawn Jockey; a token symbol that they could use to deflect criticism that they didnt seek out black artists and mistreated the ones that they had. His role was to perform nice pop songs, smile, look groomed for a white audience, and be a making money machine; not sing barn burning soul and make as much money as he possibly can. And When Cooke broke from his role, he faced a terrible wrath. Yet as much as Cooke becoming an angry black man had an important part in the animosity against him, it wasnt the only reason that he was marked. In gaining a ruthless independence, he was setting a dangerous blue print for young artists (black or white) to turn the industrys financial tricks on itself. If what Cooke was doing became a trend, it would cost the record industry a tremendous amount of money.
So it was a source of intrigue that on December 11, 1964 Cooke was found shot dead in the Hacienda Hotel, a small place close to the Watts section of Los Angeles California. The police reports that came from the crime scene were ugly. Cooke was reported to be found lying slumped on the floor with bullet wounds all over his body, one shoe missing, all his credit cards stolen, and a huge welt on his head that indicated a struggle. Bertha Franklins tale of self defense was a sad yet compelling story: She rescuing Lisa Boyer from Cooke, who was raping her, struggling with him to save her own life, shooting Cooke several times and hitting him with a broom stick to make sure he was dead. The LAPD bought her story, refused to press any charges and Franklin walked away a vigilante hero, depicted as a poor woman who shot an evil menacing rapist.
The problem is that the police report and the particulars of the case turn that compelling story and plausible theory into a grotesque lie. The examination of Cookes case files by Dr Rodney Muhammad, Show that the LAPD was either on the take or did an investigation that went beyond any definition of absurdity. Records show that Franklin changed her story four times upon extensive questioning, with her story evolving from self defense, to a robbery, to a crime of passion, to a case of mistaken identity. Yet there were no charges of perjury or any action taken against her. There was no questioning or physical examination of Boyer to see if she had been raped. It was reported that his car was running and a Muhammad Speaks newspaper was on the back seat. There was also blood and black skin on the outside of the motel and inside Cookes car.
Yet the most damming evidence against the LAPD version of events lied in Cookes pathology report. Where as the official story was that Cooke died from several bullets; the report said only bullet in his body was between the 3rd and 4th rib precisely where there would be no bone to obstruct the passage way between the bullet and his heart; a shot that would kill him instantly. That kind of precise shooting was a trademark for both LA mob gunmen and the nation of Islams henchmen. The most glaring fact that destroys the police argument is the welt on Cookes head. The report said that it came as a result of the pressure of a huge blunt object, not the wooden broom stick that Franklin said she hit him with several times over. That meant that there would be no way that she could have gave him that bruise after she shot him; because, to quote Dr Muhammad, "the volume depletion of blood and fluid due to the massive internal bleeding, (not enough fluid left to make a head blow swell) and the heart had stopped pumping altogether which would result in an aborted inflammatory response." (Muhammad, R. (2001, June 28). Review of the pathology report. [Essay posted on Web site Sam Cooke.tripod.com]. Retrieved March 10, 2002 from the World Wide Web http://samcooke.tripod.com/crime_scene.htm )
What was even more grotesque was the ambivalent attitude that RCA had about the facts of the Case. Sams wife Barbara turning down a request from Klein to demand a more through investigation, is often used as an indicator that she knew the details of Sams life and didnt want to deal with him any longer. Yet Bobby Womack, the man Barbara married two months after Cookes death, said that "She was just so hurt and outdone that he had went out that way. She was ready to tackle the first thing that was the closest thing to him, that he liked. And that was me." (George, N. (1986) The death of rhythmn and blues. New York: Harper and row. Pg. 107). Every time Hugo and Luigi Perletti,( Cooke'ss original pop songwriting team), were asked by Gerri Hirshley about Cookes death, they responded with " he was a wild guy", with Luigi even going as far to subtly say that he provoked his own death by embracing his black roots. (Hirshley, G. ( 1985). Nowhere to run: the story of soul music. Los Angeles: Oday. Pg. 142)
Im not certain who killed him. My gut says it was the mob fronted by the record industry, but I cant be 100% sure. Cooke had dumped J.W Alexander for Klein, and was one of the few black celebrities that supported post-Elijah Muhammad Malcolm X, so The Nation of Islam had motive to kill him as well. There is a theory that Sams wife and Womack had something to do with his death, but the questions about her mental state after his shooting, and the track record of intermarriage between the Cooke and Womack family, (Sams daughter married bobbys brother), puts that theory in doubt. The only thing that I do know is that there is no way that a sane on non biased person can believe the LAPD version of Cookes shooting; and that it was no tragedy. There was no fatal flaw that Cooke had to cause the event. He had no self destructive tendencies that led him to get shot. What happened was many things; an abomination, a sadistic act, and a condemnation of the times and society that he lived in. It should be called anything but a tragedy; for it is too benign a word to describe what happened on December 11 1964.
Wolff, Daniel (1996, Feb) You send me the: the life and times of Sam cooke. New york: Quill publishing