Behind the Mysterious Death of Sam Cooke

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

In the 1950s and 1960s, if you wanted to get the party going, you put on Sam Cooke.

Heck, even today, Cooke’s songs can be heard at many family barbecues, house-warming parties, and more. He’s a staple on soul radio and a signature American artist.

But Cooke’s death in 1964 remains shrouded in mystery and darkness. He was just 33 years old.

Let’s explore the life and death of the King of Soul.

Beginnings, Hit Songs

Sam Cooke was born on January 22, 1931, in Mississippi.

Later, Cooke and his family moved to Chicago, where he began to sing as a child.

In 1950, he joined the Soul Stirrers as the lead singer. He went solo in 1957, releasing a number of hit songs, including “You Send Me,” “A Change Is Gonna Come,” “Cupid,” “Chain Gang,” “Twistin’ the Night Away,” “Bring It On Home to Me” and more.

During his eight-year career as a professional solo artist, Cooke released 29 singles that charted in the Billboard Top 40.

Cooke helped the careers of other legends, including Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and more. He also helped to popularize the music of Otis Redding and James Brown. Writer Bruce Eder said he was “the inventor of soul music.”

Civil Rights Movement Leader

Cooke was integral to the Civil Rights Movement in America. He leveraged his influence and popularity with both the white and black populations to fight for equal rights for African-Americans. He even helped to organize sessions with major figures, including Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, and Jim Brown.

Death, Mystery

In 1964, Cooke was shot and killed by the manager of a cheap motel in Los Angeles, California. After a police investigation, courts concluded that his death was a justifiable homicide, though Cooke’s family never accepted the conclusion, nor the alleged circumstances around his demise.

Cooke was killed on December 11, 1964. It happened at the Hacienda Motel in South Central L.A., located at 91st and South Figueroa Street. At the time, police came to the location, answering separate calls of a shooting and a kidnapping at the motel. It was there that they found Cooke’s body, which had sustained a gunshot wound in the chest that pierced his heart.

The motel’s manager, Bertha Franklin, admitted that she shot Cooke and said it happened in self-defense. But her account was quickly disputed by Cooke’s friends. The motel’s owner, Evelyn Carr, said she was on the phone with Franklin when Cooke intruded and she heard the gunshot and subsequently called the police.

Cooke had checked into the motel earlier that night. Franklin said Cooke had begun to bang on her office door, shouting, “Where’s the girl!” He was referencing Elisa Boyer, a friend of Cooke’s. Boyer had apparently called the police that night from a telephone booth near the motel some few minutes before Carr had.

Franklin reportedly had told Cooke no one was in her office. But the angered singer forced his way into her office, naked except for one shoe and a sports jacket. He allegedly grabbed her, wanting to know Boyer’s whereabouts. The two tussled, fell to the floor, and then the manager got up to get her gun. She said she fired at Cooke in self-defense, allegedly fearing for her life.

According to Franklin, he said, “Lady, you shot me,” confused. He went after her again, but, Franklin says, she hit him with a broomstick on the head and he fell and died.

Boyer’s Story

Boyer told police that she had met Cooke earlier that night and the two had spent time together. She said that after they left a local nightclub together, she asked him to take her home. But, she said, he was drunk and he drove her against her will somewhere to have sex. She says they sped down the Harbor Freeway, passing many hotels along the way.

They ended up at the Hacienda Motel, a black-owned business in L.A. and Boyer said Cooke acted as if he was familiar with the place, a repeat customer. Once they were in a room together, Boyer says, he molested her, stripping her down, forcing her on the bed. She says Cooke allowed her to use the bathroom, from which she tried to escape but the window was shut.

When Cooke later went to the bathroom, Boyer said, she ran, taking her clothing along with much of his. She ran to the manager’s office but got no help, so she ran outside, fearing Cooke, and called the police from the outdoor phone booth.

Was Boyer Telling The Truth?

Since then, Boyer’s story has come into question. There are alleged inconsistencies between her version of the events and details given by diners at Martoni’s Restaurant, where Cooke was earlier that night. Some suggest Boyer went willingly with Cooke to the motel, then slipped out of the room to rob him—not escaping an attempted rape.

According to Martoni’s restaurant employees, Cooke was carrying a large amount of money that night. However, an apparent search of Boyer’s purse by police revealed nothing but a $20 bill. A search of Cooke’s Ferrari found a money clip with $108.

Both Boyer and Franklin later passed polygraph (lie detector) tests and the jury in the subsequent court proceedings accepted their testimonies. The case was closed.

Cooke’s Family

Some of Cooke’s family and friends, however, have rejected Boyer’s, Carr’s, and Franklin’s versions. They believe there was a conspiracy to murder the now-legendary singer.

Said the boxer Muhammad Ali, “If Cooke had been Frank Sinatra, The Beatles, or Ricky Nelson, the FBI would be investigating.”

Singer Etta James saw Cooke’s body before his funeral and questioned the veracity of the official version of the events. She said the injuries she observed in Cooke were beyond the official account. James said she saw Cooke was so badly hurt and beaten that his head was nearly separated from his shoulders. His hands were broken and crushed, she said, his nose mangled.

Since then, some have suggested that Cooke’s manager Allen Klein had a role in his murder. Yet, no concrete evidence to support a criminal conspiracy has been given.

The Funeral

Cooke’s funeral was held on December 18, 1964. Some 200,000 fans lined up for more than four city blocks to view his body.

Two singles and an album were released in the month after his death, including the song, “Shake,” which hit the top 10 on the pop and R&B charts. The B-side, “A Change is Gonna Come,” was also released and is today considered one of the best songs of all time, an anthem of the Civil Rights movement.

Franklin said she received multiple death threats after shooting Cooke. She left her job at the motel and did not disclose where she had moved. She later sued Cooke’s estate. In a 1967 case, a jury ruled in favor of Franklin and awarded her $30,000 in damages.

Posthumous Accolades

Since his death, Cooke was a charter member inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. In 1994, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Many outlets named him one of the greatest singers of all time.

Photo by Ben Martin/Getty Images

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