Home » City News » Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come”

Sam Cooke, from Clarksdale, Mississippi.

Sam Cooke, from Clarksdale, Mississippi.

“A Change Is Gonna Come”

(WIKIPEDIA, research source)   One of the most important songs ever, written Sam Cooke from the album “Ain’t That Good News”.  It was released on December 22, 1964, and it was the “B” side of Sam’s single “Shake.” It was recorded on January 30, 1964 at RCA Studios in Los Angeles.

The song grew out of personal events in Cooke’s life, which most acutely included an event where he and his band were turned away from a whites-only motel in Louisiana.  Out of his anger, Cooke was inspired to write a hopeful song that spoke the civil rights and freedom struggles of his time. It was released on his final album.

The song has since become a Civil Rights anthem, and contains the refrain, “It’s been a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come.”  (The line though “I was born by the river in a little tent, and just like that river I’ve been running ever since” still gives this writer goosebumps!)

It was not Sam’s bestseller, but “A Change Is Gonna Come” is known as his best composition and has been voted among the best songs ever released throughout the entertainment industry. In 2007, his song was selected for preservation in the Library of Congress on the National Recording Registry.


On October 8, 1963 Cooke called ahead to the Holiday Inn near Shreveport, LA to make reservations. When he and his wife and band arrived, they were turned away.  Sam made an issue out of it with the motel clerk, and when they came to another motel nearby they were arrested for disturbing the peace by police who were waiting for them.

The New York Times ran a news article the next day headlined “Negro Band Leader Held in Shreveport.”  Because of this national coverage, the story became widespread, and frequent retelling of it led to myth, exaggeration and much rumor about it.

Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” released earlier in 1963 also moved Sam about doing a song about racism in America.  Understanding that this came from a white man, Sam became moved that he had not yet written a civil rights song yet himself.  Prior to the Shreveport incident, Sam feared a civil rights song might not resonate with his largely white following.

45 rpm cover of "A Change is Gonna Come."

45 rpm cover of “A Change is Gonna Come.”

(Check out Sam’s page on the City of Clarkdale website here.)

Recording and production:

Sam wrote the song around the change of 1963 into 1964.  He first previewed it with a musician friend, and both became excited to record it.  It was understood that it was more political than anything Sam had done prior.

Early concerns were that “A Change is Gonna Come” was not as commercial as Sam’s well received earlier hits, but Sam was for more interested in the civil rights message in his song than wide commercial acceptance. Another thing that was important to Sam is he felt this song would honor his father, and thus make him proud.  Cooke biographer writes that Sam thought it took less work to write it than most songs Sam had penned, and that it came to him in a quick whole.  It told the story of both an era and of a people.

Sam Cook Arts & Culture District sign in historic downtown Clarksdael.

Sam Cook Arts & Culture District sign in historic downtown Clarksdale.

Cooke gave his manager control to record the song, with little other instruction than to do it with whatever production the song needed.  He and his manager, had worked in the studio together before, but this was the first time Sam gave up control.  Thus “A Change is Gonna Come” evolved into a movie score like production with symphonic strings.

Much time and creative thought went into the production.  Some of the core musicians were not familiar with the orchestral arrangement.  Some refused to leave the control room.  One drummer was replaced by the legendary drummer of the Wrecking Crew, Earl Palmer, who happened to be working in a session in the studio next door.  Sam nailed his vocal in the 8th take.

Each verse of the song has a different movement: horns carry the first, strings the second, and the timpani carries the bridge.  The inclusion of a French horn was intended to convey a sense of civil rights melancholy amid struggle, and appropriately so.

In addition to the incident outside Shreveport, other encounters in Memphis and Birmingham led to the song.  Some have concluded that some of the lyrics address a doubt of true justice, and the final verse likely refers to that doubt; where instead of a brother helping, he winds up knocking the civil rights them back down on it’s knees.

Who Recorded and Played on it:

"A Change is Gonna Come" sheet music.

“A Change is Gonna Come” sheet music.

“A Change Is Gonna Come” was engineered by acclaimed Wally Heider.  The session was conducted and arranged by René Hall.

Sam Cooke – lead vocals
SR Crain – backing vocals
Paul Foster – backing vocals
Jimmie Outler – backing vocals
Richard Gibbs – backing vocals
JJ Farley – backing vocals
René Hall – guitar
Norman Bartold – guitar
Arnold Belnick – guitar
Clifton White – guitar
Chuck Badie – bass guitar
Earl Palmer – drums
Harold Battiste – piano
William Hinshaw – French horn
Emil Radocchia – marimba, timpani, percussion
William Kurasch – trumpet
Louis Blackburn – trombone
John Ewing – trombone
David Wells – trombone
Harry Hyams – viola
Alexander Neiman – viola
Israel Baker – violin
Irving Lipschultz – violin
Leonard Malarsky – violin
Jack Pepper – violin
Ralph Schaeffer – violin
Sidney Sharp – violin
Darrel Terwilliger – violin
Tibor Zelig – violin
Emmet Sargeant – cello

Performances and releases:

45 rpm record label of " A Change is Gonna Come.:

45 rpm record label of ” A Change is Gonna Come.:

Cooke first performed “A Change Is Gonna Come” on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson on February 7, 1964.  Because of the complexity of the arrangement and the ominous nature of the song, Cooke elected not to perform it gain in his lifetime.

“A Change Is Gonna Come” was prepared for single release on December 22, 1964. The Civil Rights Movement picked up on it immediately, but Sam never know it; he was mortally wounded by a gunshot at a Los Angeles motel two weeks before “A Change is Gonna Come” was released.

“A Change Is Gonna Come” quickly became an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement, and is widely considered Cooke’s best composition.  It was voted number 12 by representatives of the music industry and press in Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and voted number 3 in the webzine Pitchfork Media’s The 200 Greatest Songs of the 60s.

The song is also among three hundred songs deemed the most important ever recorded by National Public Radio (NPR) and was recently selected by the Library of Congress as one of twenty-five selected recordings to the National Recording Registry as of March 2007.

The song is currently ranked as the 46th greatest song of all time, as well as the third best song of 1964, by Acclaimed Music.  NPR called the song “one of the most important songs of the civil rights era.”

Notable Artists who have covered it:

Word art for "A Change is Gonna Come."

Word art for “A Change is Gonna Come.”

Gerald Alston
Baby Huey
The Band
George Benson
Wayne Brady
Billy Bragg
Solomon Burke
John Boutte
Tony Carey
the Cold War Kids
Terence Trent D’Arby
Gavin DeGraw
Matt Doyle
Bob Dylan
The 5th Dimension
Aretha Franklin
the Fugees
Jeffrey Gaines
The Gits
Al Green
Greta Van Fleet
Deitrick Haddon
Morten Harket
Beth Hart[17]

Cam Cooke and Muhammed Ali.

Cam Cooke and Muhammed Ali.

Leela James
R. Kelly
Evelyn Champagne King
Patti LaBelle
The Manhattans
Allison Moorer
The Neville Brothers
Graham Parker
Billy Preston
James & Bobby Purify[18]
Prince Buster
Otis Redding
Michael Thompson featuring Bobby Womack
The Righteous Brothers (Bobby Hatfield solo)
Seal and Arcade Fire
Ben Sollee
The Supremes
Three Dog Night
Tina Turner
Luther Vandross
Cory Wells

A President Too:

Sam Cooke changed the world.

Sam Cooke changed the world too.

After winning the 2008 United States presidential election, Barack Obama referred to the song, stating to his supporters in Chicago, “It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, change has come to America.”

A duet of the song by Bettye LaVette and Jon Bon Jovi was included in We Are One: The Obama Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial.   Through the days leading up to the Inauguration of Barack Obama, it could be heard played constantly in the Washington C.C. City Centre.

Lyrics: (by Sam Cooke)

I was born by the river in a little tent
Oh and just like the river I’ve been running ev’r since
It’s been a long time, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die
‘Cause I don’t know what’s up there, beyond the sky
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

I go to the movie and I go downtown
Somebody keep tellin’ me don’t hang around
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

Then I go to my brother
And I say brother help me please
But he winds up knockin’ me
Back down on my knees, oh

There have been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will