The Complicated Legacy of Sam Cooke
Saturday night at the Let the Good Times Roll Festival, Shreveport Mayor Adrian Perkins apologized for Sam Cooke's treatment in Shreveport back in 1963. If you don't know the full story behind Cooke's treatment and abuse, you can read it here. In fact, that harrowing experience, inspired Cooke to write "A Change Gonna Come". Perkins also presented a key to the city to his daughter Carla in honor of all of Sam's accomplishments.
However, some in the community didn't feel Perkins' apology was necessary or right. I've heard and seen many say everything from "We need to let the past stay in the past" to "Why are we honoring a rapist?". Which are fair points.
Sam did die under mysterious circumstances. We'll talk about that in a second. And Cooke's unfortunate Shreveport experience did happen in 1963. However, I think for anyone to move forward, you have to address the past. If you don't acknowledge the past and remember it, you become susceptible to making the same mistakes.
As far as Sam Cooke's legacy...that's where things get a bit messy. Here's what I know, Sam came up in the gospel circuit before breaking into the mainstream. He became one of the biggest pop stars in the world. His success broke molds and barriers in the music business for people of color.
On the flipside of that, Sam was robbed blind by one of his managers. His first wife died in a tragic car wreck. His son Vincent tragically died in 1963 sending him into a deep depression and alcoholism.
That brings us to his death. Cooke was shot and killed at a seedy motel in Los Angeles December 11th 1964. According to the investigation, Cooke was with a woman who claimed he attempted to sexual assault her. She escaped the hotel room. When Cooke went to look for the woman, he had a violent encounter with the hotel manager. During that encounter, the woman shot Cooke and killed him. That's the official story.
However, like most things in the 60s, its not exactly that simple. Many believe, including those that worked in LA law enforcement at the time, that's not the truth of Cooke's killing. The working theory for most is that Sam was either gunned down by the mob or those who took issue with a black man gaining power and independence. During the 60s, the record industry was run by the mob...so its not hard to point the finger at them.
Plus, the LA Police Department during this period were well known for not exactly using their full resources to investigate murders involving black folks. And there's the whole issue of the alleged sexual assault victim being in possession of all of Sam's money and belongings....you know, some would say kind of like a robbery. Etta James and others say that Cooke's body was mangled....beaten well beyond the capabilities of the older woman who allegedly took Sam's life.
So...who knows if we'll ever know the truth about Sam's death. Maybe it went down exactly as police say....maybe it didn't. What I do know is that Sam Cooke made great music. He made life changing music. He provided the soundtrack for the Civil Rights movement and made life better for black musicians who were getting screwed over by recording companies and songwriters.
And to me, that is Sam Cooke's legacy. He brought the world joy and left it better than he found it. How many people can you say that about?