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The Mysterious Death of Sam Cooke

| December 11, 2013 | 24 Comments

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.

Franklin after shooting Cooke

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.

Elisa Boyer testifying during the coroner’s inquest, Dec. 16, 1964

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.

Cooke’s body carried out of motel

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

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Category: Best of PS

Comments (24)

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  1. Brenna says:

    Wow – this entirely speculative “article” is some serious victim blaming BS. Dude attacks two women and you still have to find some way to spin it. Just because the girl was a pro doesn’t mean that Sam Cooke had any right to assault her. Shame on you.

  2. Athena says:

    I knew Sam, quite well. Sam was a gentleman.
    I was 16 when I met Sam, of course I was star struck. Pretty soon I was in love. Sam treated me like a little sister. I wanted to be his girlfriend he, laughed at that proposal. Saying that I was a sweet little girl and should behave myself. At the time I looked and acted like a 16 year old. All the time thinking that I was real grown up.
    All I wanted was Sam and he would have no part of. He continued to act like my big brother. He helped me financial when I started college. I still love Sam, he is my hero. We were friend until he died. I was a virgin at the time, Sam knew this, I remember him telling me to save it for my husband.

  3. linda says:

    The Chilite’s son theory/statement sums it up best and that is Sam was murdered by the mob and beaten to death because of the impact he was making in the music industry. They viewed him as a threat. Therefore, lured him off and murdered him. What a shame. Rip Sam.

  4. Nessa4560 says:

    Here’s my 10c worth on the senseless, money motivated, robbery-gone-wrong death of the great Sam Cooke-
    1. Kidnapping claim—-The prostitute had many opportunities to “get away”- she was in two clubs with him and in the car rides between. She also jumped out of the Ferrari at the Hacienda and went into the foyer to watch Sam sign for the room. Why didn’t she take the opportunities?
    2. Rape claim—-The prostitute calls rape but why does Sam leave the rape scene to go to the bathroom letting her escape.
    3. The murder—-The motel owner, Carr is on the end of the phonecall to Franklin at the time of Cooke’s alleged breaking entrance. Why would she then stay on the pnone and only hang up to call the police after hearing the shots that she presumes are fatal.
    4. The murder scene—-Sam Cooke is found wearing nothing but his sports jacket and one shoe. This piece of information given by Franklin, is what I find the most unbelievable- This is my thinking—-Remember 1. Elisa walks into join Sam as he checks in at the foyer at 2.30am 2. The prostitute enters the room with him probably 2.35am 3. Shortly after arriving in the room, Sam goes to the bathroom and she runs off with his money (which she probably pick pocketed) when he goes to the bathroom. (I don’t believe his clothes have been stolen from their room, I reckon he wears them into the bathroom and then discovers his money and credit cards have been stolen) 4.The prostitute goes to the office to hide out with her accomplices, Franklin and Carr. 5. Sam jumps in his car, goes to the office to find her, because there would be no other reason for him to stop ( he had already paid for the room on signing). 6. Sam breaks in, because he wants his belongings- the women attack him and he ends up dead 7. They concoct a plan and story, steal his clothes and Elisa is sent to make the phone call down the block at 3.08am and Carr calls the police to let them know what she hears via the phone conversation shortly before Elisa.
    Of course, we will never know the truth but the version given by these surviving witnesses seem to have lots of holes… so thought I’d add a theory.

  5. PRINCEZZ says:

    I THINK THIS IS A CASE OF REVENGE WITH FRANKLIN BECAUSE SHE’S AN EX-MADAM OF SAM AN LETS NOT FORGET THAT SHE WAS FORCED TO QUIT HER JOB AFTER RECEIVING SEVERAL DEATH THREAT.FRANKLIN EVEN WENT AS FAR TO FILE A $200,000 LAWSUIT AGAINST MR COOKE ESTATE FOR PUNITIVE DAMAGES AND INJURIES BUT LOST.FILING A SUIT TO SUCH A WEALTHY PERSON AND LOST…….IN MY OPINION SHE HAD A ‘MOTIVE’ AND THAT WAS REVENGE TO KILL SAM COOKE AND SHE SAW THE PERFECT OPPORTUNITY WITH BOYER WHO WAS A WHORE IT WAS ALWAYS SAID THAT SAM IS A WOMANIZER. HIS FRIEND BUMPS BLACKWELL ONCE SAID “Sam would walk past a good girl to get to a whore.” FRANKLIN AND BOYER PLOT TOGETHER TO GET AT SAM BUT FRANKLIN WAS AFTER THE REVENGE AND BOYER WAS AFTER HIS MONEY.BOYER SAID SHE WAS KIDNAPPED SO MY QUESTION IS WHY WHEN HE GOT OUT THE CAR TO REGISTER FOR A ROOM AT THE ‘MOTEL HACIENDA’ SHE JUST SIT THERE IN THE CAR AND DIDN’T TRY TO SIGNAL ANYONE OR TRY AND ESCAPE OUT THE CAR? DID BOYER GET ANY KIND OF CHECK UP TO NO IF SHE WAS REALLY RAPPED AS SHE CLAIMED?
    WHEN HE REGISTERED HIS NAME ALONE WAS ON THE ACCOUNT SO HOW BOYER GOT PASS FRANKLIN AND WAS HELD AGAINST HER WISHES SHE WOULD HAVE MADE A SIGN TO HER LETTING HER KNOW SHE WAS GONNA GET RAPE BUT THIS WHOLE THING WAS SET UP FROM THE START……! S.L

  6. nehemiah says:

    you hit the nail on the head Runee not only sam but jimi, donnie, and otis

  7. Giovanni LiCalsi says:

    What most likely happened is that one or two of Boyer’s male pimp accomplices called the Hacienda Hotel, before Sam Cooke left the bar, and brought Franklin into the conspiracy to rob Sam Cooke. When Sam and Boyer were in the Ferrari, ready to leave, Boyer’s accomplices forced their way into his car and had him drive to the Hacienda Hotel, at gunpoint. The second accomplice and Boyer followed in pursuit to the motel to complete their plan of robbery. Sam most likely found out that Franklin was somehow involved in the robbery and confronted her about the robbery setup. Franklin felt compelled to silence him by murdering him to cover up any testimony from him to the police.
    Most likely the police didn’t take the normal investigative steps to thoroughly go over all of the physical evidence and closed the case prematurely due to racism. The murder should be reopened because there are too many unknowns for this to be a closed case.

  8. Segun Adeleke says:

    When I was growing up in Lagos Nigeria,in Africa.I was living with my uncle,who was a Captain in the Nigeria Army, and all he played was Sam Cookes song.The Album Swing low sweet chariot,with the tracks,they called the wind Moriah,chain gang,my grandfather clock were the best songs I have ever listened to in my life.Sam Cooke was a genious.To me, he was the best singer that ever lived.I just ordered some of his CD’s over the internet this past saturday.No human being sings like Sam Cooke.Growing up,I love Sam Cooke too much.All my kids love Sam Cooke, and can sing all his songs. I hate the lady that shot Sam Cooke.

  9. angelo williams says:

    Even though Sam Cooke was before my time i remember as a small child listening and singing along to my mom and dads records, i loved (cupid), you send me), Another saturday night) i am a singer and at the time as a kid i would sing along to the old records my parents had, as i grew up and got older i got into (A Change is gonna come) via Spike lee’s hit film Malcolm X, Sam Cooke had a wonderful voice and made great music which was one of the things that got my attention as a kid, the other is the fact that we favor minus the nose, myn is narrow but i love love songs to this day and Sam Cook knew how to deliever a ballad him and Jackie Wilson, it was a terrible thing to die the way he did in that situation and yes there is much speculation the mob, rival crooked record companies or producers, jealousy, the wife, race related yada yada yada but whoever or whatever forces were at work that night bottom line, Sam made some bad choices to help it come to pass, flashing money, intoxicated and picking Up that ho

  10. NATHAN PRETLOW says:

    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.” Why would Boyer get in Sam Cooke’s car just to want go home ? why did she get in the car in the first place ? That’s sounds like crap to me.. .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. Oh yea so why Ms Boyer didn’t she try to run away instead of staying in the car ? This lady Boyer is so much BS it smells. He registered under his own name.Why would Sam Cooke use his real name if he had plans to rape Ms Boyer ? another fishy story by Boyer. 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,” Bull shit ! So why Boyer didn’t scream for help why nobody heard her ? because it didn’t happen And why she didn’t fight him off her ?That’s BS to. It was know that Ms Boyer was a prostitute.A drunken Sam Cooke wanted her service meaning sex.So they went to motel.While Sam was in the bathroom fleshing up.Ms Boyer did the old prostitute trick of taking a john clothes while the poor sap is preoccupied in the bathroom.That’s what Ms Boyer did to Sam.She was trying to rip off Sam Cooke.Here another fishy tale by Ms Boyer.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. Oh yea ! Why didn’t Ms Boyer just run for her freedom ? Tangled among her clothes were Sam’s shirt and pants. She left them on the ground,Yea right like she didn’t know she had men clothes with her.found a phone booth and called the police.Oh yea prostitute calling the police on a john.The only sad thing here that it should not happen.But Sam Cooke wanted some and it went to a point of no return.Sam was drunk came out of the bathroom found the bitch not there got mad about it and being drunk didn’t help it.It just escalated and made Sam overreacted to the point of arguing with the Bertha Franklin,then one thing lead to another.It’s like Bumps Blackwell once said, “Sam would walk past a good girl to get to a whore.” But this whore and Sam’s sexual transgressions cause Sam Cooke his life.

  11. Rob J says:

    I have just read RW Stofus’ poorly written reply to my mail of January 13th, and haven’t laughed so much for ages. What does RW stand for? Is it Reknown Waster?

    Sam was killed because his relentless sexual drive
    took over from his rational thoughts. The woman he was with,was also involved in a similar shooting with a punter in the late 70s. He was a gifted talent who died needlessly. Utimately, he was the author of his own fate.

    GET YOUR FACTS RIGHT,YOU ILLERATE BUFFOON !!

  12. Carl Green says:

    I think Sam Cooke was ahead of his time and his association with The Nation Of Islam, Malcom X and Muhammed Ali brought fear in the establishment hearts. Not to mention the Mob who control the music industry then and now wanted to teach him a lesson even if it meant his life.

  13. RW STOUFUS says:

    Rob J is a MORON!
    Cooke may have been a wanderer but he was a High Class player
    and walked around loaded $$$. Sam Cooke NO PUN INTENDED would never have been caught dead at that SHIT HOLE $3 a night motel.

    RW STOUFUS
    bobstoufus@gmail.com

  14. simon says:

    yea he really was a good looking, talented man! RIP Sam!

  15. Rob J says:

    Sam’s death was brought on by his inability to keep
    his trouser flies zipped up. He was very gifted, but very promiscuous.Unfortunately,his many one night stands lead him into a situation where it cost him his life. He could have afforded to have brought the
    services of a high class call girl,but he went to a sleazy motel instead. Peter Guralnick’s superb biography on Sam dispels any myths about his tragic, but pointless demise.

  16. Lasse says:

    Yes, his legacy live on

  17. Valerie Billings says:

    Sam Cooke was before my tome but from what I gather and see , he was so talented and business savvy. We will never know the “real” story of what happened that night in that hotel. The real players ( Sam, Bertha Franklin, & Elise Boyer) know what happened but they’re no longer here.
    Sam gone too soon like most of our talented artist like Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston just to name a few.

    May Sam rest in peace and his legacy live on

  18. Ade says:

    @Patrick Seriously the dude was in a hotel with a prostitute and it’s the wife that is a monster?? Men get away with too much, I guess he’s a dignified player but she’s a whore… you’ve gotta be kidding me

  19. PATRICK says:

    DAM!!THE MAN(SAM COOKE)WAS BARELY BURIED AND BODY BARELY COLD BEFORE HIS WHORE WIFE MARRIES AGAIN?? ALREADY??AND BY HIS SO CALLED BEST FRIEND BOBBY WOMACK?I’M GLAD BOBBY GOT HIS JAW BROKE BY SAM COOKE’S BROTHERS!!

  20. tasha says:

    It’s a shame we will never know…. I was born in a different era, but I grew up on his music. My grandparents played Sam at any and every event we had!
    We all new the words. It’s a crime how a black person death meant so little back then.They were able to cover it up so fast without a question. So glad times are much better now.We have voices!!! And it’s ok to be heard now.Hell the Presdient is BLACK!

  21. The Chi Lites Son says:

    This is The Chi Lites Son

    The Mysterious Death Of Black Legendary Entertainers Is Not A Surprise The Black Icons Like Jackie Wilson And The Chi Lites Co-Founder Creadel Jones Singer Of The Chi Lites Who Die Mysterious Shortly Before The Royalties In Which Where Distributed After His Death Was Published In 1994, But Exploitation Still Allowed For His Death In Which Was From The Abuse Of Exploitation That Caused The Chi Lites Creadel Jones To Be Left Homeless And Destitute From Being Exploited From The Chi Lites
    Record Label Brunswick Records In Which Was Mob Ran With Owner Nat Tarnopol. Royalties In Which Was Earned From The Chi Lites Over 100,000 Million Records That Was Sold Through Out Creadel Jones And His Group The Chi Lites Music Carrie Earned Over 1 Billion Dollars Not Including Records Sales After His Death In 1994 Until Currently Are Concerts.
    The Reports Of Sam Cooks Death Resulted In A Medical Report That Stated That Sam Cook Was Beaten To Death To The Point His Body Had Appeared To Not Be Able To Be Matched With His Normal Photo Image. The Mafia Was Suspected In Being Involved With His Death. Sam Cook Threaten To That Over The Hold Of Black Legendary Entertainers In Which Were Exploited By The Mafia And Jewish White Owned Record Labels In Which Exploited Billions Of Dollars From Black Legendary Entertainers Like The Chi Lites, Jackie Wilson, Sammy Davis Jr, Extra…..
    The Chi Lites Were On Over forty Different Record Label In Which The Chi Lites Original Record Label Licensed Ranging From Warner Brothers, to The Following Capital Records, Epic Records, Sony Records, RCA Records, Crimson Records, Atlantic Records, Brunswick Records, Motown Records, Poly Gram Records, Artesia Records, Mercury Records, Time Life Records, Rhino Records, Crimson Records, Island Records, Buck Eye Records, Chi Sound Records, Columbia Records, MCA Records, Universal Music Group, A&M Records, Decca Records, Fox Records, ABC Records, Jive Records, BMI Records, CBS Records, AME Records, Sun Records, Extra…….
    Many Of The Record Refused To Even Publicizes Any Of The Chi Lites Record Sales Are Any Of The Legendary Black Entertainers Records Sales Like Jackie Wilson Even Today The Cover Up Is Still Being Done By Many Of The Black Legendary Entertainers Record Labels In Which Sold Black Legendary Entertainers Records And Earned Tens And Hundreds Of Billions Of Dollars Combined With All These Legendary Black Entertainers Record Earning Revenues Michael Jackson Alone Earn Over 14 Billion Dollars From Just His Records Sales Alone. Just Add His Estimated Records Sales In Which Was Reported 750,000,000 Million Records Sales As Mentioned In 2009 Following His Death. The Billions Of Dollars Earned From His Concerts Earnings Which In Total Were Over 4 Billion Dollars Many In Which Were Over 150,000,000 To 200,000,000 Million Dollars Ever World Tour From World Tours Thru Out The World.
    Creadel Jones Was Thought Be Allowed To Be Homeless And To Be Murdered By Poverty in which Was Intended To Cause Homelessness And Death .For More On this Subject Go To http://www.EntertainersAgainstCorruptionMagzine.com

  22. Crystal says:

    Yes he had everything and it looked like Bobby Womack wanted it. He was so goodlooking and talented it made your heart ache. RIP Sam.

  23. RUNEE wRIGHT says:

    The man we knew as Sam Cooke was a brazen figure like Muhammad Ali, James Baldwin or any other ballast with a tinkling of African soul. Sam was building something our nation has been successful with destroying and that is Black wealth and goodness of being black. I really want to expose these facts with research based dialogue, but it would take a fool not to realize the gravity of arrested development with the African in America. Sam was the first real musical idol in America( ladies falling out) and him being a cross over figure was too huge for who-ever to stomach. Our race of people in America would be further ahead; if it were not for evil planning of evil people to thwart our real honest growth( records companies and thugs ripping off our narrow minded artist), contempt for a Black man being successful in a free nation of free people and the thought of a Black( Man of African descent)being successful in America was a black eye for white America. I think to the contrary; Black success would mean the African in America has a found a home in a place that attest to promote human dignity and human honor. However,just like slavery lasted in this country for an inexcusable time while it was never (never) legal on the books withstanding the US Constitution; which does not have the word slavery in it. The practice of slavery was carried by men/people who have been the mortal enemy of the African descent person in America and maybe the world. These people have perpetuated a crime untold in the annuals of the world, because a lie is the greatest bondage of all. “The Black (African) man was never legally allowed to be a slave in America, but with wanton law breakers; crimes go on today unchecked, just like the days of old. Research pending if those would like to assist, but the evidence is clear; “the Black man has had many relationships with the white man in America, be too few partnerships have occur” and this is not the Black Man’s fault. He has not been welcomed even when he earns his way. I have more; but this is good for thought now; Kebra Negusa.

  24. Rick says:

    Sam Cooke had it all…fantastic looks. brilliant songwriter. great business sense. Maybe success on that level did go to his head. His opus “A Change Is Gonna Come” was on the charts when he passed. Very important figure in music.

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