At the end of this week, there will be a lot attention given to the 50th anniversary of The Beatles first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.
The buildup has been underway for several weeks because that’s what music is about these days more than ever.
While those of a certain age remember where they were, another musically significant moment that same week in 1964 has gone by with relatively little notice.
As the Beatles were about to conquer America, Sam Cooke went into a recording studio and made his most important record and his last hit – “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
NPR marked the anniversary by talking with Peter Guralnick, whose book “Dream Boogie”, about Sam Cooke joins other works that have become the definitive story of Memphis music.
What Cooke recorded that day 50 years ago sounds like a time capsule, a slice of life from 1964 when things were just beginning to change. Yet it has endured where similar time capsules of the era like Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” have faded.
In McGuire’s case, it is the peril of dropping event names that are now in history books but were still red hot when McGuire sang the tune on television shows in what must have been some of the most galvanizing moments in the history of shows like Shindig and Hullabaloo.
Cooke sang about what he saw in every day life away from the cameras and before the house lights went down, on the road as a black entertainer. It has Cooke’s trademark vocal hooks from “You Send Me.” But it’s not light, fluffy pop music although it has strings and a complex arrangement. It’s also not preachy or drafted by the outline of the textbook on “message” songs.
That’s because there really wasn’t such a thing as message songs for pop singers or a black entertainer in any genre at the start of 1964.
Cooke wanted to be a crossover success. But prior to this song, it seems to have always been by having a dual identity — a smooth as silk show for the crossover audience and a rougher, hotter, more improvised show for the audience that followed him out of gospel.
It worked but on someone else’s terms.
But what Cooke found by the abrupt end of his career and his life was that both audiences were ready to handle a song that reflected the turmoil and change that many in America were feeling by late 1964.
Guralnick traces the origins of the song to a specific incident in which Cooke challenged the every day fact of segregation by law in Shreveport, got arrested and began writing the song the next month.
It probably came quickly because it was not the first time he had challenged segregation. Cooke, during a 1961 show in Memphis, had refused to perform to a segregated audience and as in other southern cities at about that time was willing to tell promoters that the show wouldn’t go on with him if that was the case.
The song is remarkable for the fact that it doesn’t talk about those specifics, something that must have required a lot of restraint to get to the larger frustrations and what fueled the commitment to change. It talks about the impact of those specifics and a range of other situations in a way that anybody in that range of situations can relate to.
Today, the song still has relevance even as it serves as a look back at a prophetic point in a turbulent time.
Fifty years is a long time for something as fragile as words set to a melody to endure. Much of that is because of the focus and gift of a young man in a different time. But we also have to take into account that what he sang about is not as distant as the number of years since it was recorded might lead us to believe.