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The Mysterious Death of Sam Cooke

| December 11, 2016 | 111 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, In Case You Haven't Heard

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  1. Lloyd Rumble says:

    Sam cooke has written himself in the annals of history, as one of, if not the greatest singer of all time.He has left an indelible mark,which time will never erase.The English poet Lord Byron wrote:There was a sound of revelry by night,who could think that upon night so sweet,such awful morn could arise? Nobody introduced me to his golden voice! At the age of five years,I started listening to his legendary voice,and it continues. His mistake was his infidelity. The Holy Bible has never lied.He has left a voice that hitherto,echoes across the globe in immortal fashion.

  2. Richard says:

    the hens in the barnyard got upset in every way, and the Little Red Rooster is gone, but not forgotten.

  3. Cleo says:

    What don’t make sense to me is Boyer said she pounded on the door but Franklin didn’t answer so how come when Cooke came banging on the door she answered🤔

  4. Rachel says:

    Such a great talent gone too soon..

    • simo says:

      Nothing mysterious about it. Cook was drunk, and abducted a women. Several witnesses…all passed lie detector tests: “Cooke died at the age of 33 on December 11, 1964, at the Hacienda Motel, at 9137 South Figueroa Street, in Los Angeles, California. Answering separate reports of a shooting and of a kidnapping at the motel, police found Cooke’s body, clad only in a sports jacket and shoes but no shirt, pants or underwear. He had sustained a gunshot wound to the chest, which was later determined to have pierced his heart.[35] The motel’s manager, Bertha Franklin, said she had shot Cooke in self-defense after he broke into her office residence and attacked her. Her account was immediately questioned and disputed by acquaintances.[36][37]
      The official police record states that Franklin fatally shot Cooke, who had checked in earlier that evening.[38] Franklin claimed that Cooke had broken into the manager’s office-apartment in a rage, wearing nothing but a shoe and a sports coat, demanding to know the whereabouts of a woman who had accompanied him to the hotel. Franklin said the woman was not in the office and that she told Cooke this, but the enraged Cooke did not believe her and violently grabbed her, demanding again to know the woman’s whereabouts. According to Franklin, she grappled with Cooke, the two of them fell to the floor, and she then got up and ran to retrieve a gun. She said she then fired at Cooke in self-defense because she feared for her life. Cooke was struck once in the torso. According to Franklin, he exclaimed, “Lady, you shot me”, before mounting a last charge at her. She said she beat him over his head with a broomstick before he finally fell, mortally wounded by the gunshot.[39]
      The motel’s owner, Evelyn Carr,[note 1] claimed that she had been on the telephone with Franklin at the time of the incident. Carr claimed to have overheard Cooke’s intrusion and the ensuing conflict and gunshot. She called the police to request that officers go to the motel, telling them she believed a shooting had occurred.[40]
      A coroner’s inquest was convened to investigate the incident. The woman who had accompanied Cooke to the motel was identified as Elisa Boyer, who had also called the police that night shortly before Carr had. Boyer had called from a telephone booth near the motel, telling them she had just escaped being kidnapped.[41]
      Boyer told the police that she had first met Cooke earlier that night and had spent the evening in his company. She claimed that after they left a local nightclub together, she had repeatedly requested that he take her home, but he instead took her against her will to the Hacienda Motel. She claimed that once in one of the motel’s rooms, Cooke physically forced her onto the bed, and that she was certain he was going to rape her. According to Boyer, when Cooke stepped into the bathroom for a moment, she quickly grabbed her clothes and ran from the room. She claimed that in her haste, she had also scooped up most of Cooke’s clothing by mistake. She said she ran first to the manager’s office and knocked on the door seeking help. However, she said that the manager took too long in responding, so, fearing Cooke would soon be coming after her, she fled from the motel before the manager ever opened the door. She said she then put her clothing back on, hid Cooke’s clothing, went to a telephone booth, and called police.[42]
      Boyer’s story is the only account of what happened between her and Cooke that night; however, her story has long been called into question. Inconsistencies between her version of events and details reported by diners at Martoni’s Restaurant, where Cooke dined and drank earlier in the evening, suggest that Boyer may have gone willingly to the motel with Cooke, then slipped out of the room with his clothing in order to rob him, rather than to escape an attempted rape.[43][38] Cooke was reportedly carrying much more money at Martoni’s than the $108 cash found at his death scene, and Boyer was arrested for prostitution in January 1965, though the charge was dismissed and she accrued no more notoriety or arrests.[44]
      However, questions about Boyer’s role were beyond the scope of the inquest, the purpose of which was only to establish the circumstances of Franklin’s role in the shooting. Boyer’s leaving the motel room with almost all of Cooke’s clothing, and the fact that tests showed Cooke was inebriated at the time, provided a plausible explanation to the inquest jurors for Cooke’s bizarre behavior and state of dress. In addition, because Carr’s testimony corroborated Franklin’s version of events, and because both Boyer and Franklin later passed lie detector tests,[45][46] the coroner’s jury ultimately accepted Franklin’s explanation and returned a verdict of justifiable homicide.[8] With that verdict, authorities officially closed the case on Cooke’s death.”

      • John Kelley says:

        Sam Cooke womanizer.

        Elisa Boyer hooker.
        Franklin madam.
        Eli’s Boyer found guilty of second degree murder of boyfriend.
        Etta James upon viewing body too much traumatized his head for a simple woman beating him.
        Too many coincidences. Could go on but the picture is plain. Set up lies robbery murder. Question who stood to gain most?

  5. Tommy says:

    So bad that he had to leave this world that way … A true talent gone too soon …

  6. Wilbert Matlock says:

    The great, Sam Cooke is definitely one of my all time favorites. “You Send Me.”

  7. Joi Newby says:

    I dont know about all the mystery behind the tragedy- but I can say when I hear the Sam Cooke
    Recording of Bring It On Home To Me- I am stunned by the raw perfection of the arrangement and music- and his vocal performance is heart wrenching and real- the man could sing…

    • Collette says:

      I totally agree with you. If I had to pick my top 10 most favourite songs, there’s a good chance it would be number 1. Haunting.

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