Los Angeles, December 10, 1964, 9 p.m.
Everybody in Martoni’s Italian restaurant had their eye on Sam Cooke. In his Sy Devore suit, the 33-year-old R&B singer cut a dashing figure. With his recent Live at the Copa album climbing the charts, Sam was on the brink of stepping up to the big leagues, a crossover figure on par with Nat King Cole and Sammy Davis, Jr.
He was having dinner with producer Al Schmitt and Schmitt’s wife, Joan. Well-wishers kept stopping by the table, interrupting their conversation. Sam, who’d already had three or four martinis, eventually got pulled away to the bar.
When their orders arrived, Al Schmitt went to get Sam and found him laughing it up with a group of friends and music business associates. Sam was buying, and he flashed a wad of bills, what looked like thousands of dollars. He told Al that he and his wife should go ahead with their meal.
At a booth near the bar, there was a baby-faced 22-year-old Asian girl, sitting with three guys. Sam caught her eye. He’d seen her around. One of the guys, a guitar player Sam knew, introduced them. The girl’s name was Elisa Boyer. Before long, the pair were cozied up in a booth.
They left Martoni’s around 1 a.m. in Sam’s brand new red Ferrari and headed to a nightclub called PJ’s, where they were going to meet the Schmitts. By the time they arrived, the Schmitts were gone. In the club, Sam got into a heated argument with some guy who was hitting on Boyer. She asked Sam to take her home, and they left at 2 a.m.
According to Boyer, Sam raced down Santa Monica, and against her protests, pulled onto the freeway. She later told police that she asked again to be taken home, but Sam said, “Don’t worry now. I just want to go for a little ride.” He stroked her hair and told her how pretty she was.
They exited the highway at Figueroa Street, near LAX. Boyer asked again to be taken home, but Sam drove straight to the Hacienda Motel. He got out of the car and walked up to a glass partition at the manager’s office while Boyer remained in the car. He registered under his own name with the clerk, Bertha Franklin. Franklin eyed Boyer in the car, and told Sam that he’d have to sign in as Mr. and Mrs.
Sam drove around to the back of the motel. Boyer claimed he then dragged her into the room, pinned her on the bed and started to tear her clothes off. “I knew he was going to rape me,” she told the police. She went into the bathroom and tried to lock the door, but the latch was broken. She tried the window but it was painted shut. When she came out, Sam was already undressed. He groped her, then went into the bathroom himself. Boyer, wearing a slip and a bra, picked up her clothes and fled.
The first thing she said she did was pound on the night manager’s door. Franklin didn’t answer. Boyer ran half a block, dumped her clothes on the ground and got dressed. Tangled among her clothes were Sam’s shirt and pants. She left them on the ground, found a phone booth and called the police.
Meanwhile, Sam, wearing one shoe and a sports jacket, had come out of the room, frantically looking for Boyer. He drove the Ferrari back to the manager’s office, and banged on the door of Franklin’s office. “Is the girl in there?” he yelled. According to Franklin, when she said no, Sam began to work at the locked door and ram it with his shoulder. The frame ripped loose and the latch gave. Sam charged in, looking around for Boyer. He grabbed Franklin’s wrist. “Where is the girl?” They got into a tussle.
Franklin, though shorter than Sam, outweighed him by about 30 pounds. She told the police, “He fell on top of me … I tried to bite him through that jacket: biting, scratching and everything. Finally, I got up, when I kicked him … I run and grabbed the pistol off the TV, and I shot … at close range … three times.”
Two of the bullets missed. But the third entered his left side, passed through his left lung, his heart and his right lung. Sam fell back and in astonishment, said what would be his last words: “Lady, you shot me.”
Franklin claims that he got up again and ran at her. She hit him over the head with a broom handle. This time, he stayed down. When the police arrived, Sam Cooke was dead.
At 6 a.m., Sam’s widow Barbara greeted the news with hysterics, trying to shield their two young children from reporters and fans who were gathering at their house.
Five days later, at the coroner’s inquest, Boyer and Franklin recounted their stories in a hasty proceeding that barely allowed Sam’s lawyer one question. Tests showed that at the time of death, Sam had a blood alcohol level of .16 (.08 is considered too drunk to drive). Sam’s credit cards were missing, but a money clip with $108 was in his jacket pocket. The shooting was ruled “justifiable homicide.” Case closed.
There are many problems here. Let’s start with Elisa Boyer. She testified that she met Sam at a “Hollywood dinner party” and that he sang a song at the party. No mention of Martoni’s or PJ’s. She said she was “kidnapped” by Sam and couldn’t escape because his car was going too fast. Yet when Sam went to the motel window to register, Boyer was left alone in the car. She could’ve escaped or yelled for help. Moreover, if it was Sam’s intention to rape Boyer, why would he have registered under his real name? Boyer said she mistakenly took Sam’s clothes from the room when she grabbed her own. Wouldn’t it make sense that she was merely trying to prevent his pursuit? And what about the wad of cash that she spied earlier in the night? Surely she knew right where it was.
The truth about Boyer came out a month later when she was arrested in Hollywood for prostitution. The Hacienda Motel, which offered $3-per-hour rates, was known as a hangout for hookers. What probably happened is that Sam paid for Boyer’s services, and when he stepped into the bathroom, she ran out with his cash and credit cards. In 1979, Boyer was found guilty of second-degree murder in the death of a boyfriend.
Bertha Franklin, an ex-madam with her own criminal record, was forced to quit her job after receiving several death threats. She filed a $200,000 lawsuit against Sam Cooke’s estate for punitive damages and injuries, but lost.
As for Barbara Cooke, her husband’s infidelity was nothing new to her. But she also had some action going on the side with a local bartender. On the day of Sam’s funeral, this guy was seen wearing Sam’s watch and his ring. Two months after Sam’s death, Barbara had dumped the bartender and married Sam’s friend and back-up singer Bobby Womack.
For Sam’s part, he was always a womanizer. As his friend Bumps Blackwell once said, “Sam would walk past a good girl to get to a whore.” There were all kinds of theories around his death—a drug deal involving someone close to Sam in which Sam tried to intervene, a Mafia hit, a set-up devised by a jealous Barbara Cooke. Many believed it was a racist plot in the entertainment business. As with any rising star (not to mention one of color in the early 1960s), Sam had made some enemies. As one woman friend of his said, “He was just getting too big for his britches for a suntanned man.”
Was Sam Cooke lured into a trap at the Hacienda Motel? Were Elisa Boyer and Bertha Franklin working in tandem? Was Barbara Cooke involved somehow? Or was it all just a tragic accident? Over the years, various investigators have made noises about reopening the case, but with most of the principle players dead and gone, it seems unlikely it will ever be solved.
—By Bill DeMain
Photos © Bettmann/Corbis
From Performing Songwriter Article “Heaven Only Knows,” Issue 93, May 2006