A Change Is Gonna Come

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"A Change Is Gonna Come"
Single by Sam Cooke
from the album Ain't That Good News
ReleasedDecember 22, 1964
RecordedJanuary 30, 1964
StudioRCA, Hollywood, California
LabelRCA Victor
Songwriter(s)Sam Cooke
Producer(s)Hugo & Luigi
Sam Cooke singles chronology
"Cousin of Mine"
"A Change Is Gonna Come"
"It's Got The Whole World Shakin'"

"A Change Is Gonna Come" is a song by American singer-songwriter Sam Cooke. It initially appeared on Cooke's album Ain't That Good News, released mid-February 1964[1] by RCA Victor; a slightly edited version of the recording was released as a single on December 22, 1964. Produced by Hugo & Luigi and arranged and conducted by René Hall, the song was the B-side to "Shake".

The song was inspired by various events in Cooke's life, most prominently when he and his entourage were turned away from a whites-only motel in Louisiana. Cooke felt compelled to write a song that spoke to his struggle and of those around him, and that pertained to the Civil Rights Movement and African Americans.

Though only a modest hit for Cooke in comparison with his previous singles, "A Change Is Gonna Come" is widely considered one of Cooke's greatest and most influential compositions and has been voted among the greatest songs ever released by various publications. In 2007, the song was selected for preservation in the Library of Congress, with the National Recording Registry deeming the song "culturally, historically, or aesthetically important."[2] In 2021, it appeared on Rolling Stone's list of the Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, ranked at number 3.[3]


On October 8, 1963, en route to Shreveport, Louisiana, Cooke called ahead to the Holiday Inn North to make reservations for his wife, Barbara, and himself, but when he and his group arrived, the desk clerk glanced nervously and explained there were no vacancies.[4] While his brother Charles protested, Sam was furious, yelling to see the manager and refusing to leave until he received an answer. His wife nudged him, attempting to calm him down, telling him, "They'll kill you," to which he responded, "They ain't gonna kill me, because I'm Sam Cooke."[4] When they eventually persuaded Cooke to leave, the group drove away calling out insults and blaring their horns. When they arrived at the Castle Motel on Sprague Street downtown, the police were waiting for them, arresting them for disturbing the peace.[4] The New York Times ran a UPI report the next day, headlined "Negro Band Leader Held in Shreveport,"[5] but African-Americans were outraged. In 2019, then-Shreveport mayor Adrian Perkins apologized to Cooke's family for the event, and posthumously awarded Cooke the key to the city.[6]

In addition, upon hearing Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" in 1963, Cooke was greatly moved that such a poignant song about racism in America could come from someone who was not black, and was also ashamed he had not yet written something like that himself.[7] However, his image and fears of losing his large white fan base had prevented him from doing so.[8] Cooke loved Dylan's song so much it was immediately incorporated into his repertoire.[9] He was further influenced by the message of the dream in Martin Luther King Jr's I Have a Dream speech at the civil rights march on Washington that year. Toward the end of 1963, according to Cooke, the Change composition came to him in a dream.[10]

Recording and production[edit]

Following Christmas 1963, Cooke invited J.W. Alexander to his home to preview a new song he had just written, one Cooke was very excited about. When he arrived, Cooke ran through the number on his guitar twice, the second time going over it line by line.[11] Both were very excited to record the song, with Alexander viewing it as more personal and political than anything he had yet attempted. He warned Cooke that he might not profit off the song as he had with lighter, poppier songs, but Cooke did not care.[12] He explained to Alexander that he hoped the song would make his father proud.[12] "It was less work than any song he'd ever written," biographer Peter Guralnick says.[9] "It almost scared him that the song—it was almost as if the song were intended for somebody else. He grabbed it out of the air and it came to him whole, despite the fact that in many ways it's probably the most complex song that he wrote. It was both singular—in the sense that you started out, 'I was born by the river'—but it also told the story both of a generation and of a people."[9]

Cooke handed the song to his arranger René Hall, with no specific instructions as to what he personally wanted, but to give it “the kind of instrumentation and orchestration that it demanded.”[13] Previously, the duo had collaborated on arrangement, but this was the first occasion in which Hall was granted complete control of the eventual arrangement, and he composed it as he would a movie score, with lush, symphonic strings.[13] "I wanted it to be the greatest thing in my [life]—I spent a lot of time, put out a lot of ideas, and then changed them and rearranged them," said Hall.[13] Cooke was well known as a perfectionist and "control freak" in the recording studio, so giving Hall total latitude was unprecedented.[9]

AFO drummer John Boudreaux was intimidated by the orchestral arrangement and refused to leave the control room; session player and close collaborator Earl Palmer was working next door and filled in for the song. Luigi Creatore asked Cooke to provide one more take, and the eighth take was "nearly perfect."[14] Luigi was very pleased with the song, considering it among his best, both very serious and still uniquely his own. Cooke had initially imagined that Luigi, first and foremost a pop hitmaker, would not respect the socially conscious song.[14]


Each verse is a different movement, with the strings carrying the first, the horns the second, and the timpani carrying the bridge.[9] The French horn present in the recording was intended to convey a sense of melancholy.[13]

Cooke incorporated his own personal experiences as well into the song, such as encounters in Memphis, Shreveport and Birmingham, to reflect the lives and struggles of all African-Americans of the time.[12] The lines "I don't know what's up there / Beyond the sky" could refer to Cooke's doubt for absolute true justice on earth.[12] The final verse, in which Cooke pleads for his "brother" to help him, is a metaphor for what Alexander described as "the establishment". The verse continues, 'But he winds up knocking me / back down on my knees.'"[12]


"A Change Is Gonna Come" was recorded on January 30, 1964, at RCA Studios in Hollywood, California.[15] The engineer present was Wally Heider, and the session was conducted and arranged by René Hall. The musicians also recorded "Falling in Love" the same day. Credits adapted from the liner notes to the 2003 compilation Portrait of a Legend: 1951–1964.[15]


Cooke first performed "A Change Is Gonna Come" on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson on February 7, 1964. Cooke's new manager, Allen Klein, was infatuated with the song and persuaded Cooke to do away with promoting his most recent single, "Ain't That Good News", and perform "Change" instead, feeling that that was the statement he needed to make before a national audience.[16] Cooke objected, noting that the album's release was a month away and that he had no time to pull together an arrangement within such a short time frame.[16] Klein arranged for RCA to pay for a full string section and Cooke performed the song that Friday on The Tonight Show after performing "Basin Street".[17] An NBC timekeeper logged down the number as "It's a Long Time Coming," but the network did not save the tape of the performance.[16][17] Klein and Alexander both felt it would become a milestone moment in Cooke's career, but it was overshadowed by the Beatles' performance on The Ed Sullivan Show on CBS just two days later.[17]

The song was issued on March 1 as a track on Cooke's album Ain't That Good News. It would not be issued as a single for another nine months.

Cooke elected not to perform "A Change Is Gonna Come" again in his lifetime, both because of the complexity of the arrangement and because of the ominous nature of the song.[9] When shown to his protégé Bobby Womack, his response was that it sounds "like death." Cooke responded, "Man, that's kind of how it sounds like to me. That's why I'm never going to play it in public." Womack clarified his thoughts, that it wasn't deathly, but rather "spooky," but Cooke never performed the song again.[9]

In December, "A Change Is Gonna Come" was prepared for single release, with the verse and chorus preceding the bridge ("I go to the movies…") deleted for radio airplay.[18] The civil rights movement picked up on "A Change Is Gonna Come" with near immediacy.[9] On December 11, 1964, two weeks before the song was released, Sam Cooke was fatally shot at a Los Angeles motel.[19] Cash Box described the single as "a moving, string-filled ‘message’ tune."[20]


"A Change Is Gonna Come" became an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement, and is widely considered one of Cooke's greatest compositions. Over the years, the song has garnered significant praise. In 2004, it was voted number 12 by representatives of the music industry and press in Rolling Stone magazine's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.[21] It was then voted number 3 in Rolling Stone's 2021 edition of the list.[22] The song was ranked number 3 in the webzine Pitchfork Media's The 200 Greatest Songs of the 60s.[23] The song is also among 300 songs deemed the most important ever recorded by National Public Radio (NPR).[24] NPR called the song "one of the most important songs of the civil rights era."[9]

In 2007, the song was selected for preservation in the Library of Congress, with the National Recording Registry deeming the song "culturally, historically, or aesthetically important."[2]

The words “A change is gonna come” are on a wall of the Contemplative Court, a space for reflection in the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture; the museum opened in 2016.[25]

In other media[edit]

Otis Redding covered the song for his 1965 album Otis Blue, saying he wanted to "fill the silent void" created by Cooke's death.[26] His version, retitled "Change Gonna Come," is a more restrained arrangement without any orchestration.[26] Aretha Franklin covered the song in 1967, which is featured on her first top ten album, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You. The 5th Dimension covered it on their 1970 album Portrait, in a medley with the United States Declaration of Independence and People Got to Be Free, and released a popular single of the three songs.[27][28] Baby Huey covered it in a posthumous album released in 1971.

"A Change is Gonna Come" was featured in the 1992 Spike Lee-directed movie, Malcolm X, for the scene near the end in which Malcolm X (played by Denzel Washington) is driving to the ballroom where he is about to be assassinated.[29]

The song served as a sample for rappers Ghostface Killah (1996), Ja Rule (2003), Papoose (2006), Lil Wayne (2007) "Long Time Coming (remix)" Charles Hamilton, Asher Roth, B.o.B (2009), Nas's It Was Written album also features a similar opening as the song, On their album The Reunion hip-hop artists Capone-N-Noreaga used an excerpt from the song on the opening track which shares the same title as the Cooke original, and Bizzle (2011).

After winning the 2008 United States presidential election, Barack Obama referred to the song, stating to his supporters in Chicago, "It's been a long time coming, but tonight, change has come to America." A duet of the song by Bettye LaVette and Jon Bon Jovi was included in We Are One: The Obama Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial. In Washington DC, in the days leading up to the Inauguration of Barack Obama, this song could be heard played constantly in the city centre.

In 2004, Patti LaBelle performed the song on the annual Nobel Peace Prize Concert to a standing ovation.

The West Wing season 6 episode 7 first aired on December 1, 2004. The episode was called "A Change Is Gonna Come" and featured a tribute to Sam Cooke, where James Taylor performed the song for President Bartlet and other guests at a reception.

In 2010, Shinyribs performed the song on the Well After Awhile album.

On June 1, 2013, Beyoncé Knowles sang the song during The Sound of Change Live concert in London, as part of Chime for Change, an organization which supports total equality between women and men in all areas of life. Mark Sutherland of Rolling Stone magazine noted that Knowles belted out the song,[30] while Alice Vincent from The Daily Telegraph noted that the rendition of the song reflected the event's purpose.[31] Later, on July 20, 2013, Knowles performed the song during a stop in Detroit as part of her Mrs. Carter Show World Tour. The performance followed the city's recent file for bankruptcy. As Knowles performed, the screen behind her displayed photos of Detroit's landmarks and icons including Aretha Franklin, Aaliyah, Eminem, Anita Baker, Bob Seger, Kid Rock, the White Stripes, Berry Gordy Jr., Joe Louis. The montage ended with the declaration "Nothing Stops Detroit!" and Knowles closed the performance by saying "I love you, Detroit".[32][33][34] A spokesperson for the singer described the performance as a "unique tribute to the history of an incredible city and a celebration of the strong spirit of its people".[33] A black-and-white video of the cover was uploaded on Knowles' official YouTube channel on July 30, 2013. It closes with a quote from Henry Ford: “Failure is simply the opportunity to start over, this time more intelligently."[34] A reporter for The Huffington Post reported that the singer's "heartfelt" cover of the song "touched" her fans and the people who loved Detroit.[35] Latifah Muhammad of the Black Entertainment Television wrote that Knowles' "powerful" rendition of the song came right on time.[36] An editor for Essence described Knowles' cover as a "moving tribute to Detroit".[37] Jordan Sargent of Spin wrote, "It all might come off as a bit heavy-handed if it wasn't for the fact that, well, Beyonce absolutely slays the cover."[38] Lauren Moraski from CBS News described the tribute to the city as "touching".[39]

In 2017, Greta Van Fleet released a cover of the song on their double EP From the Fires. Also, covered that year by Kimie for her 2017 album Proud as the Sun.

In 2019, Céline Dion performed the song as a part of a tribute to Aretha Franklin called "Aretha! A Grammy Celebration For The Queen of Soul". The tribute was broadcast by CBS in March 2019.[40]

In June 2020 a version of the song was recorded by Laurie Wright & Chris Faice with 100% of proceeds going to the Minnesota Freedom Fund.

Jennifer Hudson performed the song on the third night of the 2020 Democratic National Convention.

In the 2020 film One Night in Miami..., Leslie Odom Jr., portraying Cooke, sings the song in the movie's reenactment of Cooke's appearance on "The Tonight Show" in 1964.

Charts (Sam Cooke version)[edit]

Chart (1965) Peak
US Billboard Hot 100 31
US Billboard R&B Singles Chart 9
US Cash Box Top 100[41] 46

Certifications (Sam Cooke version)[edit]

Region Certification Certified units/sales
United Kingdom (BPI)[42] Gold 400,000

Sales+streaming figures based on certification alone.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Billboard". The Billboard Publishing Co. 22 February 1964.
  2. ^ a b Cannady, S. 2007, Recordings by Historical Figures and Musical Legends Added To the 2006 National Recording Registry: Library of Congress Accepting Nominations for the 2007 Registry, viewed May 9, 2017
  3. ^ "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time". Rolling Stone. 15 September 2021. Retrieved 6 December 2021.
  4. ^ a b c Guralnick 2005, p. 526.
  5. ^ "Negro Band Leader Held in Shreveport". The New York Times. 1963-10-09. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-06-05.
  6. ^ WENN (24 June 2019). "Sam Cooke receives posthumous apology from Louisiana mayor". Hollywood.com. Retrieved 2019-07-03.
  7. ^ Guralnick 2005, p. 512.
  8. ^ Guralnick 2005, p. 513.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Sam Cooke And The Song That 'Almost Scared Him'". NPR (National Public Radio). February 1, 2014. Retrieved April 14, 2014.
  10. ^ Ryan, Patrick (2021-01-17). "'One Night in Miami': The true story behind Sam Cooke's stirring 'A Change is Gonna Come'". USA Today. Retrieved 2021-01-17.
  11. ^ Guralnick 2005, p. 540.
  12. ^ a b c d e Guralnick 2005, p. 541.
  13. ^ a b c d Guralnick 2005, p. 547.
  14. ^ a b Guralnick 2005, p. 548.
  15. ^ a b Portrait of a Legend: 1951–1964 (liner notes). Sam Cooke. US: ABKCO Records. 2003. 92642.{{cite AV media notes}}: CS1 maint: others in cite AV media (notes) (link)
  16. ^ a b c Guralnick 2005, p. 550.
  17. ^ a b c Guralnick 2005, p. 552.
  18. ^ Guralnick 2005, p. 607.
  19. ^ "500 Greatest Songs of All Time". Rolling Stone. Archived from the original on 2013-03-07. Retrieved 2016-08-13.
  20. ^ "CashBox Record Reviews" (PDF). Cash Box. January 9, 1965. p. 14. Retrieved 2022-01-12.
  21. ^ "500 Greatest Songs of All Time". Rolling Stone. 2003-12-11. Archived from the original on 2018-07-06. Retrieved 2021-10-06.
  22. ^ "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time". Rolling Stone. 2021-09-15. Archived from the original on 2021-09-15. Retrieved 2021-10-06.
  23. ^ "The 200 Best Songs of the 1960s". Pitchfork. 18 August 2006. Archived from the original on 2017-11-03. Retrieved 2021-10-06.
  24. ^ "NPR 100: Master List of top 300 Songs". news.npr.org. Retrieved 2021-10-06.
  25. ^ Keyes, Allison (2017). "In This Quiet Space for Contemplation, a Fountain Rains Down Calming Waters". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved March 10, 2018.
  26. ^ a b Norris, Sue (July 15, 2016). "The Life of a Song: 'A Change is Gonna Come'". Financial Times. Retrieved June 10, 2022.
  27. ^ William Ruhlmann. ""A Change Is Gonna Come - Sam Cooke"". Allmusic.com.
  28. ^ Joel Whitburn (1994). Joel Whitburn's Top Pop Singles 1955-1993. Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin: Record Research Inc. p. 208. ISBN 0-89820-105-5.
  29. ^ ""A Change is Gonna Come" – Sam Cooke (as used in Spike Lee's "Malcolm X")". Dave's Strange World. January 1, 2013. Retrieved August 22, 2019.
  30. ^ Sutherland, Mark (June 1, 2013). "Beyonce Leads a Charge of Powerful Women at Sound of Change". Rolling Stone. Wenner Media. Retrieved August 1, 2013.
  31. ^ Vincent, Alice (June 2, 2013). "Beyoncé, Sound of Change Live, Twickenham Stadium, review". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved August 1, 2013.
  32. ^ "Beyoncé dedicates 'A Change is Gonna Come' to Detroit". Rap-Up. July 21, 2013. Retrieved July 22, 2013.
  33. ^ a b Graff, Gary (July 21, 2013). "Beyoncé Pays Tribute to Motor City: 'Nothing Stops Detroit!'". Billboard. Prometheus Global Media. Retrieved August 1, 2013.
  34. ^ a b Graham, Adam (August 1, 2013). "Grapevine: Beyonce's 'Change' hits online". The Detroit News. MediaNews Group. Archived from the original on August 2, 2013. Retrieved August 2, 2013.
  35. ^ "Beyonce Releases Powerful Detroit Dedication, Cover Of Sam Cooke's 'A Change Is Gonna Come' (VIDEO)". The Huffington Post. July 30, 2013. Retrieved July 31, 2013.
  36. ^ Muhammad, Latifah (July 22, 2013). "Beyoncé Sings "A Change Is Gonna Come" in Detroit". Black Entertainment Television. BET Networks. Retrieved August 1, 2013.
  37. ^ "Must-See: Beyoncé Dedicates 'A Change Is Gonna Come' to Detroit". Essence. Essence Communications. August 1, 2013. Archived from the original on August 1, 2013. Retrieved August 1, 2013.
  38. ^ Sargent, Jordan (July 31, 2013). "Watch Beyonce Dedicate Moving Cover of 'A Change Is Gonna Come' to Detroit". Spin. Spin Media LLC. Retrieved August 1, 2013.
  39. ^ Moraski, Lauren (July 31, 2013). "Watch: Beyonce releases touching tribute to Detroit". CBS News. CBS. Retrieved August 1, 2013.
  40. ^ "All-Star Lineup To Pay Tribute At "Aretha! A GRAMMY Celebration For The Queen of Soul". grammy.com. Retrieved 2023-09-23.
  41. ^ Cash Box Top 100 Singles, February 27, 1965
  42. ^ "British single certifications – Sam Cooke – A Change Is Gonna Come". British Phonographic Industry. Retrieved November 3, 2023.


External links[edit]