Sam Cooke + Aretha Frankllin: Running Ever Since

Sam Cooke: A Change Is Gonna Come
From Ain’t That Good News (RCA, 1964)

Aretha Franklin: A Change Is Gonna Come
From I Never Loved a Man (Atlantic, 1967)

I recently crashed at a friend’s place after staying up to an ungodly hour. Both of us were groggy later that morning but instead of firing up some coffee, the first order of business was putting on some music and he put on Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” I was still hazy but Cooke’s piercing vocals cut through any fog and demand you acknowledge the power and poignancy of their meaning. My friend leaned back in his chair and wistfully offered, “I don’t think there’s a better way to start the day than this.” I didn’t disagree.

Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” is one of those watershed songs that leaves the musical landscape transformed. Once you’ve heard it, understood what the song meant to the social times and more importantly, bore witness to the terror, fragility and transcendent hope in Cooke’s voice, it’s impossible to undo the shift in perception and consciousness that moment provokes. Here is a song that simultaneously threatens to destroy you and heal you and this duality seeps into every gut-wrenching note Cooke can squeeze out.

Indeed, Cooke himself was purportedly afraid of the song, afraid what people would think once they understood that the “change” he spoke of wasn’t meant for himself but was an allegory for America itself. Cooke feared the possible repercussions for crafting a song with such a subtle but potent political message. Though he recorded it in 1963 and would include it during his shows, he didn’t make a major push to have it released as a single and indeed, its life on the record charts came only after Cooke had been killed; the single dropped just 11 days after his death in late 1964.

At the same time, as lore also has it, Cooke was compelled to record the song after hearing Dylan’s “Blowin In the Wind” and felt that he should play a role, as an artist and icon, in trying to voice an opinion and sentiment on what was happening during those tumultuous times.

As both an idea as well as performance, it’s impossible to listen to this and not wonder what would have happened had Cooke not died in ’64. Especially as the rest of the R&B world began to move towards embracing the social movements of the era, what role would Cooke have ended up playing as one of soul’s elders?

What’s helped with the recogniton the song’s received is how it’s become a staple for later soul artists to cover. My friend’s philosopohy is basically, “I don’t need/want to hear any other version save Cooke’s” and I can respect that – there’s something definitive about the original that deserves to be treated as a singular achievement.

However, I do have a soft spot for Aretha’s version and to me, it’s a worthy complement to Cooke’s original for a few reasons. Quite poignant is that Franklin was a friend and contemporary of Cooke’s. She says as much on the added prelude to the song – “there’s an old friend that I once heard say something that touched my heart and it began this way…”

More than that, she breathes her own spirit into the song in such a way where it feels more distinct than, say, hearing Jerry Butler or even Otis Redding cover the song, even though both men deliver powerful versions. It’s the way that Aretha inflects her notes, adds her own, subtle touches to the arrangement, and perhaps most importantly, that’s Aretha at the piano herself, playing alongside a notably hushed Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. It conveys even more of a sense of intimacy and truly, love that Aretha is extending to her late friend. Thus, the song feels like a dedication, an elegy, and an anthem all that once, simultaneously paying tribute to Cooke and his original vision but allowing Aretha the space to put her own definitive mark on the song as well.

I don’t try to choose between which version I like better. I just play both.