Trisha Shetty (Editor)

A Change Is Gonna Come

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January 30, 1964

7-inch single

Rhythm and blues soul

December 22, 1964 (1964-12-22)

RCA, Hollywood, California

"A Change Is Gonna Come" is a song by American recording artist Sam Cooke, released on December 22, 1964 by RCA Victor. Produced by Hugo & Luigi and arranged and conducted by René Hall, the song was the B-side to "Shake". The song concerns African-Americans and contains the refrain, "It's been a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come." The song was inspired by various personal events in Cooke's life, most prominently an event in which he and his entourage were turned away from a whites only motel in Louisiana. Cooke felt compelled to write a song that spoke to his struggle and of those around him, and he recorded the song for its first release on his final album, Ain't That Good News.


Though only a modest hit for Cooke in comparison with his previous singles, "A Change Is Gonna Come" became an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement. The song is widely considered Cooke's best composition and has been voted among the best songs ever released by various publications. In 2007, the song was selected for preservation in the Library of Congress, with the National Recording Registry deeming the song "culturally, historically, or aesthetically important."


On October 8, 1963, Cooke called ahead to the Holiday Inn North to make reservations for his wife, Barbara, and himself, but when he and his group arrived, the desk clerk glanced nervously and explained there were no vacancies. While his brother Charles protested, Sam was fuming, yelling to see the manager and refusing to leave until he received an answer. His wife nudged him, attempting to calm him down, telling him, "They'll kill you," to which he responded, "They ain't gonna kill me, because I'm Sam Cooke." When they eventually persuaded Cooke to leave, the group drove away calling out insults and blaring their horns. When they arrived at the Castle Motel on Sprague Street downtown, the police were waiting for them, arresting them for disturbing the peace. The New York Times ran an AP report the following day headlined "Negro Band Leader Held in Shreveport," but African-Americans were outraged, leading to the creation of a myth surrounding the incident, exaggerating parts of the story and fabricating others.

In addition, upon hearing Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" in 1963, Cooke was greatly moved that such a poignant song about racism in America could come from someone who was not black, and was also ashamed he had not yet written something like that himself. However, his image and fears of losing his largely white fan base prevented him from doing so. Cooke loved the song so much it was immediately incorporated into his repertoire.

Recording and production

Following Christmas 1963, Cooke invited J.W. Alexander to his home to preview a new song he had just written, one Cooke was very excited about. When he arrived, Cooke ran through the number on his guitar twice, the second time going over it line by line. Both were very excited to record the song, with Alexander viewing it more personal and political than anything he had yet attempted. He warned Cooke that he may not profit off the song as he had with lighter, poppier songs, but Cooke did not care. He explained to Alexander that he hoped the song would make his father proud. "It was less work than any song he'd ever written," biographer Peter Guralnick says. "It almost scared him that the song — it was almost as if the song were intended for somebody else. He grabbed it out of the air and it came to him whole, despite the fact that in many ways it's probably the most complex song that he wrote. It was both singular — in the sense that you started out, 'I was born by the river' — but it also told the story both of a generation and of a people."

Cooke handed the song to his contributor René Hall, with no specific instructions as to what he personally wanted, but to give it “the kind of instrumentation and orchestration that it demanded.” Previously, the duo had collaborated on arrangement, but this was the first occasion in which Hall was granted complete control of the eventual arrangement, and he composed it as he would a movie score, with lush, symphonic strings. "I wanted it to be the greatest thing in my [life]—I spent a lot of time, put out a lot of ideas, and then changed them and rearranged them," said Hall. Cooke was well known as a perfectionist and "control freak" in the recording studio, so giving Hall total latitude was unprecedented.

AFO drummer John Boudreaux was intimidated by the orchestral arrangement and refused to leave the control room; session player and close collaborator Earl Palmer was working next door and filled in for the song. Luigi Creatore asked Cooke to provide one more take, and the eighth take was "nearly perfect." Luigi was very pleased with the song, considering it among his best, both very serious and still uniquely his own. Cooke had initially imagined that Luigi, first and foremost a pop hitmaker, would not respect the socially conscious song.


Each verse is a different movement, with the horns carrying the first, the strings the second, and the timpani carrying the bridge. The French horn present in the recording was intended to convey a sense of melancholy.

Cooke incorporated his own personal experiences as well into the song, such as encounters in Memphis, Shreveport and Birmingham, to reflect the lives and struggles of all African-Americans of the time. The lines "I don't know what's up there / Beyond the sky" could refer to Cooke's doubt for absolute true justice on earth. The final verse, in which Cooke pleads for his "brother" to help him, is a metaphor for what Alexander described as "the establishment" The verse continues, 'But he winds up knocking me / back down on my knees.'"


"A Change Is Gonna Come" was recorded on January 30, 1964 at RCA Studios in Hollywood, California. The engineer present was Wally Heider, and the session was conducted and arranged by René Hall. The musicians also recorded "Falling in Love" the same day. Credits adapted from the liner notes to the 2003 compilation Portrait of a Legend: 1951–1964.


Cooke first performed "A Change Is Gonna Come" on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson on February 7, 1964. Cooke’s new manager, Allen Klein, was infatuated with the song and persuaded Cooke to do away with promoting his most recent single, "Ain't That Good News", and perform "Change" instead, feeling that that was the statement he needed to make before a national audience. Cooke objected, noting that the album’s release was a month away and that he had no time to pull together an arrangement within such a short time frame. Klein arranged for RCA to pay for a full string section and Cooke performed the song that Friday on The Tonight Show after performing "Basin Street". An NBC timekeeper logged down the number as "It's a Long Time Coming," but the network did not save the tape of the performance. Klein and Alexander both felt it would become a milestone moment in Cooke's career, but it was overshadowed by the Beatles' performance on The Ed Sullivan Show on CBS just two days later.

Cooke elected not to perform "A Change Is Gonna Come" again in his lifetime, both because of the complexity of the arrangement and because of the ominous nature of the song. When shown to his protégé Bobby Womack, his response was that it sounds "like death." Cooke responded, "Man, that's kind of how it sounds like to me. That's why I'm never going to play it in public." Womack clarified his thoughts, that it wasn’t deathly, but rather "spooky," but Cooke never performed the song again.

Ten months later, "A Change Is Gonna Come" was prepared for single release, with the verse and chorus preceding the bridge ("I go to the movies…") deleted for radio airplay. The civil rights movement picked up on "A Change Is Gonna Come" with near immediacy. On December 11, 1964, two weeks before the song was released, Sam Cooke was fatally shot at a Los Angeles motel.

"A Change Is Gonna Come" became an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement, and is widely considered Cooke's best composition. Over the years, the song has garnered significant praise and, in 2005, 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."

Despite its acclaim, legal troubles have haunted the single since its release. A dispute between Cooke's music publisher, ABKCO, and record company, RCA Records, made the recording unavailable for much of the four decades since its release. Although the song was featured prominently in the 1992 film Malcolm X, it could not be included in the film's soundtrack. By 2003, however, the disputes had been settled in time for the song to be included on the remastered version of Ain't That Good News, as well as the Cooke anthology Portrait of a Legend.

A live rendition was included in the soundtrack to the 2001 Michael Mann film Ali. James Taylor recorded a version specially for an episode of the same title of the television drama The West Wing. The Allman Brothers Band captured their performance of the song on their 2003 DVD Live at the Beacon Theatre.

Cover versions

Other notable artists who have covered the song include:

In recent years, the song has served as a sample for rappers Ghostface Killah (1996), Ja Rule (2003), Papoose (2006), Lil Wayne (2007) "Long Time Coming (remix)" Charles Hamilton, Asher Roth, and B.o.B (2009), and Nas's It Was Written album also features a similar opening as the song. On their album The Reunion hip-hop artists Capone-N-Noreaga used an excerpt from the song on the opening track which shares the same title as the Cooke original. British soul singer Beverley Knight says the song is her all-time favorite and has performed it live many a time; most notably on 'Later with Jools Holland'. On May 6, 2008, during the seventh season of American Idol, the song was sung by contestant Syesha Mercado as the remaining top 4. It was also sung by Joshua Ledet during the Top 7 episode of season 11 (2012), for which he received a standing ovation from the audience. 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. In Washington DC, in the days leading up to the Inauguration of Barack Obama, this song could be heard played constantly in the city centre.

In 2004, Patti LaBelle performed the song on the annual Nobel Peace Prize Concert to a standing ovation.

Julian Casablancas, lead singer of popular rock band The Strokes, has cited "A Change Is Gonna Come" as his favorite song of all time.

In 2009, Aaron Neville, along with the Mt. Zion Mass Choir, released a version of the song “A Change Is Gonna Come” on the compilation album Oh Happy Day.

American Idol creator/producer Simon Fuller selected the song for contestant Adam Lambert to sing in the season 8 finale in May, 2009. It was also covered by season 9 semifinalist Lilly Scott in March 2010.

In 2010, one of the finalists of the British The X Factor, Rebecca Ferguson, sang the song for her audition, impressing judges Simon Cowell, Louis Walsh and guest judge Nicole Scherzinger.

The song was performed in the 2011 Miss America Pageant by Miss Kentucky, Djuan Trent.

In 2011, jazz group Afro-Blue performed the song on The Sing-off by request of the judges. The same year, Everlast recorded a version of the song for his album Songs of the Ungrateful Living. Maverick Sabre covered the song on his 2012 album Lonely Are the Brave

On January 1, 2012 the song was the single to be played on the New Zealand radio station Solid Gold FM.

On June 1, 2013 Beyoncé Knowles sang the song during The Sound of Change Live concert in London, as part of Chime for Change, an organization which supports total equality between women and men in all areas of life. Mark Sutherland of Rolling Stone magazine noted that Knowles belted out the song, while Alice Vincent from The Daily Telegraph noted that the rendition of the song reflected the event's purpose. Later, on July 20, 2013, Knowles performed the song during a stop in Detroit as part of her Mrs. Carter Show World Tour. The performance followed the city's recent file for bankruptcy. As Knowles performed, the screen behind her displayed photos of Detroit's landmarks and icons including Aretha Franklin, Aaliyah, Eminem, Anita Baker, Bob Seger, Kid Rock, The White Stripes, Berry Gordy, Jr, Joe Louis. The montage ended with the declaration "Nothing Stops Detroit!" and Knowles closed the performance by saying "I love you, Detroit". A spokesperson for the singer described the performance as a "unique tribute to the history of an incredible city and a celebration of the strong spirit of its people". A black-and-white video of the cover was uploaded on Knowles' official YouTube channel on July 30, 2013. It closes with a quote from Henry Ford: “Failure is simply the opportunity to start over, this time more intelligently." A reporter for The Huffington Post reported that the singer's "heartfelt" cover of the song "touched" her fans and the people who loved Detroit. Latifah Muhammad of the Black Entertainment Television wrote that Knowles' "powerful" rendition of the song came right on time. An editor for Essence described Knowles' cover as a "moving tribute to Detroit". Jordan Sargent of Spin wrote, "It all might come off as a bit heavy-handed if it wasn't for the fact that, well, Beyonce absolutely slays the cover." Lauren Moraski from CBS News described the tribute to the city as "touching". In 2013 15-year-old Dwayne Cooke released a video of himself singing "A Change Gonna Come" on YouTube which has gone viral on Facebook and other social networking sites...

Media Usage

Many stations (like KSOC 94.5 in Dallas/Fort Worth, TX who changed from Urban AC to Urban Oldies on July 29, 2011 for example) have played this song signaling the end of its past format before beginning a newer one.


A Change Is Gonna Come Wikipedia

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