He was only 33 when his life was taken from him in 1964. But in those three decades, Sam Cooke managed to get a lot accomplished. In essence, he was a soul music pioneer, but he was also an inspired songwriter, a savvy businessman and persistent Civil Rights leader. For Cooke, being a star was the easy part; changing the world was what he truly wanted. And that was what took a toll on him. Some even say it was the reason he lost his life.
As the song goes, Cooke was born “by a river, in a little tent,” but the rest of his life’s biography has lots of missing pieces. How did he go from a tent by the river to the floor of a Los Angeles motel? With opposing theories on why and how his life was taken, you can ultimately be the judge.
This is the brief life and mysterious death of Sam Cooke.
Guests at the three-dollar-a-night Hacienda Motel in Los Angeles didn’t hear the shots that were fired just after 3 a.m. on the morning of December 11th, 1964. The sad fact of the matter is that gun violence was all too common in this part of South-Central L.A. Even the cops of the area were pretty blasé about homicides. Still, LAPD officers responded to the call of a reported shooting at the motel.
They weren’t surprised to find a man lifeless, bloody and naked (except for a sports coat and one shoe) propped up against the door of the motel manager’s office. But this wasn’t some homeless man or wanderer. This was the well-known blues singer named Sam Cooke.
Norman Edelen, one of the few men of color who served in the LAPD precinct in 1964, explained (to PEOPLE), that the attitude then was, “Oh well, another ***** got shot.” It took hours before the authorities learned the dead man’s identity. Only then did the shock set in.
33-year-old Sam Cooke, the soul forerunner who brought gospel to American popular music with songs like You Send Me, Wonderful World, and Another Saturday Night was lying there on the floor after a bizarre and unexpected turn of events. And to this day, those events remain unclear, even after more than six decades have passed.
Cooke spent the last night of his life at Martoni’s, a chic L.A. restaurant and hub for Hollywood’s musical elite. The singer was joined by Al Schmitt, his close friend and longtime producer, as well as Schmitt’s wife Joan. Everybody in the Italian restaurant had their eye on Sam Cooke. In his fancy Sy Devore suit, the R&B singer was dashing.
His recent album, Live at the Copa, was climbing the charts, and he was on the brink of entering the big leagues. Well-wishers kept stopping by their table, interrupting their dinner conversation. Cooke, who was already three or four martinis in, eventually got pulled away to the bar.
When their meals arrived, Schmitt went to fetch Cooke from the bar. He found him laughing and having a good time with a group of friends and music industry associates. Cooke, who was seen merrily waving around a wad of bills of about $5,000 (profits from a set of recent concert dates), was buying.
He told Schmitt that he and his wife should go ahead with their meal – that he would be back at the table soon. Sitting at a booth near the bar (with three guys) was a baby-faced 22-year-old Asian girl. The famous singer caught her eye.
He apparently noticed and recognized the girl. He’d seen her around. One of the guys she was sitting with was a guitar player Cooke knew. The guitarist introduced the two. Her name was Elisa Boyer. Before long, Cooke and Boyer were cozied up in a booth.
According to Schmitt, that was the last time he saw his friend. Cooke and Schmitt had made plans to meet up at the club PJ’s later that night. But “Sam never showed up,” Schmitt told PEOPLE.
“So, I went home. I was told later he got there about 15 minutes later, just before closing time, and they wouldn’t let him in. He was with this girl.” Cooke and Boyer left Martoni’s around 1:00 a.m. in Cooke’s brand-new red Ferrari.
They reportedly headed to PJ’s, where they were going to meet Schmitt and his wife. But by the time they arrived, the Schmitts were gone. In the club, Cooke got into a heated argument with someone who was hitting on Boyer. She then asked her famous companion to take her home, leaving the club at around 2:00 a.m.
According to Boyer, Cooke raced down Santa Monica Blvd. and, against her protests, he pulled onto the freeway. She later told the police that she asked Cooke to take her home again, but he told her: “Don’t worry now. I just want to go for a little ride.”
She said he stroked her hair and told her how pretty she was. After exiting the highway at Figueroa Street, near LAX, Boyer asked once again to be taken home, but he took her to the Hacienda Motel instead. According to her account, Cooke then got out of the car and went up to the motel office.
Boyer said that Cooke walked up to the glass partition at the manager’s office while she waited for him in the car. He reportedly registered a room under his own name with the motel clerk, Bertha Franklin. Franklin looked at Boyer in the car and apparently told him that he would have to sign in as Mr. and Mrs. Cooke.
As for the real Mrs. Cooke, well, she was at home with their children. Barbara Campbell Cooke — his second wife — was surely aware of her husband’s late night “adventures.”
The couple married in 1958, and they actually had three children. The third, Vincent, tragically drowned in the family swimming pool in 1963. It’s been reported that Cooke also fathered (at least) three other children out of wedlock.
As for Cooke’s first wife, she was a singer-dancer by the name of Dolores Elizabeth Milligan, who took the stage name “Dee Dee Mohawk.” They married in 1953 and divorced in 1958. She was killed in a car accident a year later.
But back to that night in 1964…
Cooke drove around to the back of the motel. But what happened after Cooke and his gal entered the motel remains shrouded in mystery. According to Boyer, he “dragged” her into the motel room, pinned her onto the bed and began to tear off her clothes.
She told the police that she knew where it was headed. She went into the bathroom and tried to lock the door, but it was broken. She then tried the window, but it was painted shut. When Cooke entered the bathroom, she made a run for it.
Boyer ran out to grab her clothes from a pile on the floor, accidentally picking up Cooke’s clothes, which contained his wallet and cash. The first thing she claimed she did was pound on the motel manager’s door. 55-year-old night manager, Bertha Franklin, didn’t answer.
Boyer then ran half a block, dumped her belongings on the ground and got dressed. She left Cooke’s stuff on the ground, found a phone booth, and made a frantic call to the police, telling the dispatcher that she had been kidnapped. Meanwhile, Cooke allegedly flew into a rage when he saw that Boyer, his clothes and his cash were gone.
Filled with anger and alcohol, Cooke wrapped himself in his sports coat, put on his one remaining shoe and confronted the motel manager. He banged on the door: “Is the girl in there?” he shouted. In Cooke’s eyes, she was shielding Boyer.
According to Franklin, when she said no, he began ramming the door with his shoulder. The door frame got loose, and the latch gave in. He charged in, looking around for Boyer. Franklin recalled the encounter growing violent. He grabbed Franklin’s wrist, asking her, “Where is the girl?”
Cooke allegedly flew into a fit of rage and started restraining her. She later testified that he had grabbed both of her arms and twisted them. Now, Franklin may be shorter than Cooke, but she outweighed him by about 30 pounds.
She told the police that she started kicking him. “I tried to bite him through the jacket,” she described. “I was fighting, biting, scratching, everything.” The motel manager then grabbed her .22 pistol and fired three shots. The first two missed, but the third tore right through Cooke’s heart and lungs.
“Finally, I got up, when I kicked him … I ran and grabbed the pistol off the TV, and I shot … at close range … three times,” Franklin recalled. The bullet entered his left side, passing through his left lung, his heart and right lung. Stunned, Cooke gasped: “Lady, you shot me!” before falling onto the ground. Talk about famous last words.
At around 6:00 a.m., Cooke’s wife turned widow, Barbara, was hysterical. She was trying to shield their two young kids from reporters and fans who were causing a scene in front of their house.
Five days later, Boyer and Franklin recounted each of their stories in a hurried proceeding that barely allowed Cooke’s lawyer to ask even one question. At the time of his death, Cooke had a blood alcohol level of .16. His credit cards were missing, but in his sports jacket pocket was a money clip with $108.
Ultimately, the LAPD marked Cooke’s death a “justifiable homicide.” In 2017, a documentary came out called Lady You Shot Me, and in it, forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril H. Wecht used the term “justifiable homicide.”
According to Wecht, Cooke’s death was not justifiable homicide since Cooke was wearing only a sports coat and “had no weapon and Franklin was not in fear of her life.” Most people who knew the talented singer refused to accept either Franklin or Boyer’s stories – which became the official story.
To Cooke’s friends, family and fans, such a violent and unreasonable incident seemed so unlike the gentleman they knew and loved. The way they see it, his death was the result of a set-up. Their story was that Boyer was a prostitute who was working in cahoots with the motel manager in order to rob Cooke.
The Hacienda Motel, after all, was a well-known hub for pimps and prostitutes which offered $3-per-hour rates. According to this theory, Boyer lured him there. Why else would he drive so far out of his way, passing motel after motel – the kinds that were more suited to his superstar stature?
While there’s no clear evidence to support this story, it should be noted that Bertha Franklin was a former madam with a criminal record. The truth about Elisa Boyer came out a month later when she was arrested on prostitution charges in Hollywood. In 1979, she was found guilty of second-degree murder from another shooting (reportedly the death of a boyfriend).
Oh, and the $5,000 in cash that Cooke was seen spending on the last night of his life? It was never recovered. There were also other elements of the case that just didn’t add up. While Cooke had been shot with a .22 pistol, the gun that was registered to Franklin was a .32.
Then, there was the bullet that passed through Cooke’s body, which was taken into police evidence and for some reason went missing. His autopsy exposed a 2-inch bump on his head. In Franklin’s testimony, she claimed she dropped the gun after shooting him and proceeded to beat him with a wooden broom handle.
Still, the gun contained numerous bullets. If Franklin was, indeed, frightened for her life, why would she drop a loaded gun to simply hit him with a stick? Furthermore, Franklin appeared to have no marks nor injuries when she testified in front of cameras five days after the murder.
It’s quite noteworthy considering the fight she claimed occurred before firing those three bullets. But the incident wasn’t only “she said, she said.” There were also all the guests at the motel whom the police questioned. The guests at Hacienda told the police that they never heard gunshots nor sounds of any altercation.
When Cooke confronted Franklin, she had been on the phone with the motel’s owner, who testified to hearing the struggle on the other end of the line. Photos from the crime scene appear to show abrasions on Cooke’s body.
Singer Etta James, who viewed her dear friend’s body at his funeral, wrote in her memoir that his head was “practically disconnected from his shoulders.” She wrote: “That’s how badly he’d been beaten. His hands were broken and crushed…They tried to cover it up with makeup, but I could see massive bruises on his head. No woman with a broomstick could have inflicted that kind of beating against a strong, full-grown man.”
None of the injuries Etta James wrote about in her memoir were ever mentioned in Cooke’s autopsy report. All these discrepancies and holes in the story have led many to wonder if Cooke was actually killed elsewhere, by a third party.
If so, his body would have been dumped at the Hacienda Motel. Numerous theories and rumors swirled about the circumstances regarding Sam Cooke’s death. None of it made sense, especially to those who knew him. Some people blamed his business manager, Allen Klein, the notoriously ruthless industry shark who might have wanted control of Cooke’s millions.
A lot of the confusion that surrounds Cooke’s death stems from the fact that the LAPD only conducted a cursory investigation. It gives off the impression that the authorities just wanted to sweep the case under the rug. Cooke’s friend Muhammad Ali had something to say about that…
“If Cooke had been Frank Sinatra, the Beatles or Ricky Nelson, the FBI would be investigating,” Ali said. According to Norman Edelen (the former LAPD officer), the reason was simple: “The LAPD didn’t give a damn about Sam Cooke. They could not have been less interested in pursuing a full thorough investigation.”
In (not just) Edelen’s eyes, the whole thing smacked of the racism that permeated every level of the police force. Edelen explained that LAPD was under Chief William H. Parker, who had a “heavy-handed attitude about minorities.”
“It didn’t have to start with what particular code you violated, it started with what you looked like. That’s all there is to it.” Even the shiny package of show business wasn’t enough to earn Sam Cooke respect from the LAPD, at least according to Edelen. “Could they have done a real, good, deep investigation? Absolutely.”
The problem, as Edelen pointed out, was that it just “wasn’t worthy of the LAPD’s time.” He went so far as to say that that the authorities might have even been “glad he was dead.” And who knows? Perhaps the FBI were involved, too. Edelen didn’t rule out that possibility.
He explained that when you consider the FBI’s outlook on minorities and civil rights at the time, “they definitely could have been an influence.” Cooke was close with other high-profile Black figures, including Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, both of whom were under surveillance by the FBI.
At the time, the FBI was being led by the notoriously paranoid J. Edgar Hoover. Cooke grew deeply involved with civil rights, and just being close to Muhammad Ali made the singer a suspect. Each story revolving around Cooke’s death has its believability as well as its implausibility, including this conspiracy theory.
A racist plot against Sam Cooke may not be as fantastical as it may seem. There were (and still are) many who see a strong-willed Black man’s presence in the predominantly white popular culture as a threat. While he may not have been as openly political as Ali or Malcolm X, Cooke did use his celebrity to push for what he believed in: equality.
Cooke became one of the first Black singers of the era to wear his hair in the natural and unprocessed style – a powerful public embrace of his heritage. His 1960 hit Chain Gang was a concealed criticism of the oppressive prison-industrial system.
His 1964 song A Change Is Gonna Come went on to become an early Civil Rights anthem. Cooke also managed to find the time to create his own record label and publishing branch, which led the way for other artists to own their own work and earn a greater percentage of their profits.
Of course, this made Cooke unpopular in the eyes of the all-too-powerful record companies. For both social and economic reasons, Cooke posed a threat to the powerful, almighty structure of the record industry. And it definitely put him on the wrong side of some extremely influential figures.
“The whole circumstance of Sam Cooke’s death was so shady, Edelen noted. “And the LAPD were aware.” He continued: “The FBI could have easily told the LAPD to stay out of it. A lot of that stuff did happen.” But unfortunately, at the end of the day, the official version of the incident remains the same.
To date, there is no conclusive evidence that disproves the official story. The late singer was never able to give his side of the saga. His blood alcohol level was .16, which was then twice the legal driving limit. And the Hacienda Motel was only later known as the place for musicians to go who wanted to keep their extramarital excursions on the down low.
In Lady You Shot Me, Dr. Wecht stated that he doesn’t believe any of the other theories surrounding Cooke’s death. Journalist Peter Gulunick, who wrote about Cooke in the biography Dream Boogie, was also unable to uncover any information that challenges the idea that Cooke’s death was anything other an act of self-defense.
Cooke’s death shook the nation. His funeral was held on December 18, 1964, in Chicago, where 200,000 fans lined up through four city blocks to view his body. His body was then flown back to Los Angeles for a second service the next day, which included a performance of The Angels Keep Watching Over Me by Ray Charles.
Charles was actually standing in for Bessie Griffin, who was too grief-stricken to perform. Two singles and an album of Cooke’s were released in the month after his death. One of the singles, Shake, reached the top 10 of both the pop and R&B charts.
The B-side, A Change Is Gonna Come, became a classic protest song of the Civil Rights movement. In the aftermath of Sam Cooke’s death, Bertha Franklin received numerous death threats. She left her managerial position at the Hacienda Motel but didn’t publicly disclose where she moved.
No, she didn’t go to prison. In fact, she was cleared by the coroner’s jury and went on to sue Cooke’s estate, citing physical injuries and mental anguish because of the attack. She sought $200,000 in compensatory and punitive damages. However, Cooke’s widow Barbara countersued Franklin on behalf of the estate, seeking $7,000 to cover the funeral expenses.
As for Elisa Boyer, she provided testimony in support of Franklin. In 1967, the jury ruled in favor of Franklin on both counts. Boyer was awarded $30,000 in damages. The summer after Cooke’s death, the neighborhood where he was killed went up in flames during the Watts riots.
The Civil Rights movement continued, and although Cooke’s song became an anthem, not much of change came. Still, it was, and still is, a song used for fighting injustice, and it’s played as often today as it was over six decades ago.
Samuel Cooke was six years old when he started singing. It was only 27 years later that he added an “e” to his last name. Soon enough, he was winning over both Black and white audiences across the country as the “King of Soul.”
Born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, to a minister, he was the fifth of eight children. His family followed his father to Chicago when Cooke was a toddler. Sundays were the holiest of days, in which the entire day was taken up by the Church, with Sunday school and multiple services.
His father, the Reverend Cook, led a congregation at the Christ Temple Church in Chicago Heights, and he always introduced his sermon with a song. Mr. Cook saw the musical talent of his children, so he organized them into a quintet, calling them the Singing Children.
Cooke was the second youngest, and he sang tenor (his four-year-old brother L.C. took bass. The Singing Children gained experience at their father’s church, and before long, they were singing at other churches, traveling as far as Indianapolis and Kankakee with the Reverend and their mother.
Cooke was apparently ambitious from a young age L.C. remembers his older brother saying, “Hey man, I ain’t never gonna work… I’m going to sing for a living.” Cooke longed to replace his older siblings as lead vocalist, but the Singing Children stopped performing before he had the chance.
After World War II ended, one of the Cook brothers enlisted in the air force, whereas the eldest sister entered married life. By then, Cooke was in high school – Wendell Phillips – the same school Nat “King” Cole had gone to. He once told L.C. that one day, he would be as famous as Cole.
Cooke started to perform solo, singing for passengers at the end of the streetcar line by his house, while L.C. passed a hat around to collect donations. Then, one day in 1947, two guys heard him singing. Well, legend has it that he was actually serenading a girl.
Anyway, the two guys asked Cooke to join a fledgling gospel quartet. They soon named themselves The Highway QCs. Within a year, they were performing in concerts with groups like the Soul Stirrers in Detroit and Memphis. By 1950, when the Stirrers’ lead vocalist quit, Cooke replaced him. He was 19, and he was on his path to stardom.