There are a lot of reasons that Sam Cooke is still remembered, but there was no finer moment in his songwriting career than “A Change Is Gonna Come”, a song that became a watershed moment for the Civil Rights Movement. Inspired in part by Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind”, Cooke took to writing his own protest song, one that would be much more ambitious and striking.
As one of the formative artists of the R&B/ Soul music circuit that was beginning to take off into the mainstream in the late 50’s, Cooke was more than just a singer. He was forced out of the gospel group The Soul Stirrers after the overtly secular “You Send Me” was released as a solo act. The pressure for crossover appeal into the pop charts was immense, and tethered Cooke to being a more conservative performer than his departure from the Soul Stirrers would have suggested. Cooke’s initial discography was tame, engineered to bring the black musician to a wider white audience. In the span of a little over a year, Sam Cooke recorded two live albums, one at New York City’s prestigious Copacabana club, the other at the Harlem Square Club, a small club in Miami. The image he presented to the majority white audience in At The Copa was demonstrably distinct from the one that plays out in front of a majority black audience in Live at the Harlem Square Club. In Copa, Cooke was in lounge-singer form, pandering and polite, while Harlem Square finds the most passionate and raucous energy Cooke ever committed to tape. So much so that Live at the Harlem Square Club wouldn’t be released til some 20 years later, as his managers feared it contrasted too much with the pop image he was trying to cultivate. “A Change Is Gonna Come” is the first and only time those two worlds would meet.
From the outset, the Cooke original is almost cinematic in touch, evoking a sunrise as the orchestra builds and Cooke enters. It was intimate, with inspired imagery and pathos rarely heard from Cooke, who wouldn’t live to see it released as a single.
Because of its singular nature, “A Change Is Gonna Come” has seen its share of covers. Most defer to the original composition rather than making major departures. Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding’s covers are chief among these safe renditions of Cooke’s work, perhaps due to Franklin’s friendship with Cooke and Otis Redding’s idolization of him. Then there’s Baby Huey.
Born James Ramey, Baby Huey was the band leader of Baby Huey and the Babysitters, who would release only one album with Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom Records in 1970. Titled The Baby Huey Story: The Living Legend, the record wasn’t initially successful, and Baby Huey unfortunately died of a drug-related heart attack before the record was finished. Nevertheless, Baby Huey’s version of “A Change is Gonna Come” is an essential reading of the song. At 9:30, it’s also the longest, and the melancholy that Cooke hints at becomes resonant, imploring . The arrangement trembles and shakes, threatening to come unbound, as Baby Huey’s shrieks – intermittent and percussive – add to the composition where others were afraid to even dare.
It’s a fantastic portrait of what Baby Huey had to offer. Brooding and energetic, a larger than life performance by a larger than life performer who didn’t even make it beyond the age of 26.
- Sam Cooke may have also been influenced by the Hammerstein and Kern composition “Ol Man River” especially the key line “it’s been too hard livin’/ but I’m afraid to die” which may as well be a transliteration of “I gets weary and sick of tryin’ / I’m tired of livin’ and scared of dyin’,” from the Show Boat tune. Thanks to this New Yorker story by David Cantwell for the tip on that one.
- The whole The Baby Huey Story: The Living Legends is worth checking out. While Baby Huey passed away before finishing enough vocal tracks, Curtis Mayfield does an excellent job producing a cohesive record. It’s an oft-sampled record too, especially the Mayfield penned “Hard Times”. “Mighty Mighty” is another favorite that is a light reworking of Mayfield’s “Mighty Mighty (Spade and Whitey)”.