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Aged just 33, Sam Cooke, singer, songwriter, entrepreneur, and civil rights activist was shot and killed on the 11th December 1964. His legacy has been described as ‘complicated’ due to the murky circumstances that surround his death. But what really happened that night?

Gospel roots and crossover success

Born in 1930s Mississippi, the son of a Baptist Reverend, Cooke began his career in gospel music before achieving crossover success with a string of pop hits including ‘Cupid’, ‘Wonderful World’ and ‘Twistin’ the Night Away’.

With his soulful vocals and prolific songwriting abilities, Cooke was also an avid entrepreneur. He launched his publishing company, Kags Music, in 1958, and was one of the first black performers to found a record label in 1961.

Change Gonna Come

As a prominent black artist, Cooke refused to perform at segregated venues and became an active part of the civil rights movement. He was friends with Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, and when his family was turned away from a ‘whites-only’ motel in Louisana the experience inspired him to write the powerful civil rights anthem ‘Change Gonna Come’.

He married twice, first in 1953 to singer Dee Dee Mohawk who was killed in a car crash, and in 1958 to Barbara Campbell. Together they had 3 children, although tragically, his youngest son Vincent drowned in a swimming pool in 1963.

Same Cooke and Muhammad Ali

“Lady, you shot me!”

On December 11 1964, after a night out in LA, Cooke checked into the Hacienda Motel with prostitute Elisa Boyer. According to Boyer, she later ran from the room claiming Cooke had attempted to rape her. Cooke allegedly stumbled half-naked from the room, confronting the motel manager- Bertha Franklin- in her office demanding “where’s the girl?” Franklin claimed to have shot Cooke in self-defence. Cooke was noted to have exclaimed “lady, you shot me” before dying.

Justifiable homicide?

Based on Franklin and Boyer’s version of events, Cooke’s death was ruled to be ‘justifiable homicide’. Supporters of Cooke however pointed towards the inconsistencies of evidence, and suggested Cooke’s high profile and civil rights activism made him a target for assassination. Elvis Presley is known to have remarked, “you can only go so far… Sam got out of line, and he was taken care of.” 

Some have suggested that Cooke’s manager Allen Klein, who was set to gain financially from owning the rights to Cooke’s music, had a hand in his death. Others have suggested that Cooke’s death was the result of a botched robbery. In a further twist, Boyer was later sentenced to life imprisonment in 1979 for murdering her then boyfriend.

Legacy and in popular culture

Over 200,000 people lined the streets of Chicago and LA upon Cooke’s funeral, to mourn the death of the legendary King of Soul. On February 1, 1994, Cooke received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999. His death was the subject of a recent Netflix documentary The Two Killings of Sam Cooke.