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'One Night in Miami': The true story behind Sam Cooke's stirring 'A Change is Gonna Come'

Patrick Ryan, USA TODAY
·6 min read
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Spoiler alert! Contains details about the final scene of "One Night in Miami," streaming now on Amazon Prime.

"One Night in Miami" leaves you on a high note.

The civil rights-era drama (now streaming on Amazon Prime) depicts a fictionalized meeting between four Black legends – Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) – as they debate issues of activism and art in a Miami motel room.

The film culminates in a tearful performance of Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come" on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" in February 1964, intercut with scenes of Malcolm and his family escaping their burning house after a firebomb attack, and Cassius changing his name to Muhammad Ali upon joining the Nation of Islam. It's an electrifying moment, made even more powerful knowing the real history behind the song itself.

'I know the cost of my words': Leslie Odom Jr. finds his voice as Sam Cooke in 'One Night in Miami'

Sam Cooke was partly inspired by Bob Dylan

In summer 1963, Cooke was given a copy of Bob Dylan's new album, "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan," by his friend and business partner J.W. Alexander. As screenwriter Kemp Powers depicts in the movie, Cooke was deeply affected by one track in particular: "Blowin' in the Wind," the folk singer's meditative protest song that became an anthem for both the civil rights and Vietnam anti-war movements.

"(Cooke) hears a song, 'Blowin' in the Wind,' written by this young white kid and it shakes him up," Odom says. "He covers the song and records his own version (in 1964), but he can't quite shake the little bit of shame that he didn't write a song like that."

Cooke was similarly moved by the March on Washington in August 1963, where Martin Luther King Jr. made his now-iconic "I Have a Dream" speech. But it was an experience that October – when Cooke and his entourage were turned away from a whites-only Holiday Inn in Shreveport, Louisiana, despite having reservations – that is said to have "directly triggered" him to write "A Change is Gonna Come," says Peter Guralnick, author of "Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke."

"Sam refused to back down," Guralnick says. "His protestations were so long and loud that his wife, Barbara, was sure they were going to kill him. Eventually he was arrested and thrown in jail for disturbing the peace. He did the show that night, but he never forgot the experience."

Soul singer Sam Cooke performs at New York's Copacabana night club in this undated photo.
Soul singer Sam Cooke performs at New York's Copacabana night club in this undated photo.

His collaborator said 'it sounds like death'

Cooke said the lyrics to "A Change is Gonna Come" came to him in a dream just after Christmas of 1963, and he recorded the song that January. Singing over lush strings and funereal horns, Cooke nods to his religious upbringing – born in Mississippi and raised in Chicago by a minister father – and longs for the day when Blacks and whites are equals. With the lyric, "It's been too hard livin' / but I'm afraid to die," he achingly conveys the physical and emotional toll of discrimination.

"It was obvious to everyone how excited he was about the song, how proud he was of it – but it seemed like he was unsettled by it, too," Guralnick says. "When he asked his guitarist Bobby Womack about it, Bobby said, 'It sounds like death.' And to Sam, that may have echoed some of the eeriness about the way it had come about."

"Change" appeared on Cooke's 11th and final studio album, "Ain't That Good News," released in February 1964, but it didn't garner immediate attention. In fact, he is known to have only performed it once publicly during his lifetime and that was on "The Tonight Show." Having achieved crossover pop success with Top 10 hits including "Chain Gang" and "Twistin' the Night Away," he likely felt the song's mournful lyrics and complex arrangement weren't a good fit for his more upbeat club shows.

"It wasn't a huge hit and he was a huge hit artist. He was one of the most popular pop singers of his day, which is another reason why I think it's such a notable song," says Dr. Charles L. Hughes, author of "Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South."

"Change" was released as a single two weeks after Cooke's murder at age 33 on Dec. 11, 1964, and was quickly embraced by civil rights activists. It was later recorded by Otis Redding in 1965 and Aretha Franklin in 1967.

"By the end of the ’60s, it was a standard of R&B performers," Hughes says. "It was covered by several artists who either knew Cooke or were tremendously influenced by him and recognized its power. After that, it's just become part of the way we think about Sam Cooke in a way that is really wonderful, because it was where he was going but it's also not necessarily how it landed when it first was released."

The song resonates now more than ever

"Change" has memorably been performed by artists including Beyoncé, Jennifer Hudson, Celine Dion and Patti LaBelle in recent years. In 2003, Rolling Stone ranked it No. 12 on the magazine's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list, and in 2007, the song was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry for its historical and cultural importance.

Nearly 60 years after Cooke recorded the song, "Change" is as relevant and powerful as it was then, particularly in light of last summer's Black Lives Matter protests and the attack on the U.S. Capitol last week by pro-Trump rioters waving Confederate flags.

"Its central message is really at the core of the Black cultural experience in the United States," Hughes says. "On the one hand, Cooke is describing the depth of the horror, the depth of the violence, the depth of the challenge. He is trying to be honest and get us to be honest about what that has meant in a white supremacist country with a white supremacist history.

"On the other hand, he is trying to persevere. He's hopeful, but he's just trying to survive. He's saying 'a change is gonna come,' although his voice and the way it trembles suggests that maybe he's not quite as sure as he is on paper. Which is part of what makes him so brilliant: He demands that we insist on survival and trying to find a way to a better place, but also we have to be honest about what that means and how troubled it is."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'A Change is Gonna Come': How Bob Dylan inspired Sam Cooke anthem