The news has been announced today of the death of Joe Cocker, from cancer, at the age of 70. I’m not going to pretend that it affects me deeply: Cocker’s music, and his gravel-throated vocals, were not really to my tastes, but like so many I love the single that enabled him to give up being a gas-fitter in Sheffield, the 1968 cover version of the Beatles’ ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’, from the legendary Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.
There were cover versions galore of Beatles’ songs throughout the Sixties, with many bands owing a brief chart career to being first to release a near carbon copy of a track off the Fab Four’s latest long-player, but the object was to come as close as was humanly possible to reproducing what Messrs John, Paul, George and Ringo had made of things.
That wasn’t what Cocker did. Instead, he ripped up and threw away the jolly, almost oafish sing-along arrangement that backed Ringo Starr’s more or less flat vocals, turning the song into a blues rock extravaganza, with guitar from the Yardbirds’ Jimmy Page shortly before that band turned into Led Zeppelin, drums from Procol Harum’s B. J. Wilson, organ by Tommy Eyra, and backing vocals from reknowned session sisters Sonny and Sue.
The two versions are radically different, almost impossible to reconcile as the same song. Indeed, Cocker’s re-arrangement was so out there, it was parodied by Bill Oddie on the classic radio comedy, I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again, by applying an identical arrangement to ‘On Ilkley Moor Ba’ Tat’.
After pulling up the song to play on YouTube, I found myself path-tracing: choosing a song from the sidebar, moving from one to another, seeing where the options took me. And it’s brought me here, to Sam Cooke, to this. Go on, play it, go off and listen, for this is more than a song of great beauty, of superb singing, from inside the depths of a man’s soul. It’s a landmark song, a song that, on the eve of change, looked into the heart of the need for that change, and back into what was and had been for far too long.
Sam Cooke came from Clarksdale, Mississippi, in the South: the South of segregation, repression, Jim Crow, the Ku Klux Klan. He’d originally been a star of gospel music but crossed over into secular pop, scoring an American No. 1 with his debut single, the sweet, smooth, ‘You Send Me’.
Cooke wrote the song in response to hearing Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowing in the Wind’, to hearing a white singer singing about racism. In part it was inspired by Cooke’s experiences in being refused accommodation at a whites-only motel, but the song, in both its words and its voice rises above a single incident to take into its hands a belief that it cannot be like this for much longer, that A Change Is Going To Come.
After recording the song, Cooke performed it once on TV, an impromptu broadcast at his manager’s urging: the tape wasn’t retained and Cooke, spooked by the music and the vision he’d laid, never sang the song again in his life. He was shot and killed in controversial circumstances ten months later.
In a way it’s as extraordinary as Otis Redding’s ‘Sitting on the Dock of a Bay’: a very late piece of music that sees the singer in a reflective mode about his life as a black man in the turbulent, Civil Rights Sixties, a song unlike the music he would regularly perform. But whilst Redding looked within, Cooke looked without. For Change was, indeed, about to come, on the heels of Cooke’s death, with the faith and optimism that permeates this song.
But that was fifty years ago, and A Change Is Gonna Come is still not what it should be, which is history. Prophecy yes, for change has come, and we are a world away from the overt, licit racism of those times, but we have not come so far that we do not need to go further yet, and that is without the growing tendency these past four and a half years to want to slide back, to go back to those times and embrace them as somehow good, somehow better. That there were things in those times that were better than those we have now is true: but it was not the racism, the grinding of people into poverty and humiliation because their skin did not look like ours.
Listening to this song fills me with awe. It read the air, it smelled the wind, it spoke of hope in that moment when hope seemed the last thing to have. It still rings with meaning today, and with Xmas about to swallow us up, let’s take time to recall that.
And to hope that we too can say, with true hope in our hearts, that a Change is Gonna Come.