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Exploring the conspiracy theory surrounding the death of Sam Cooke


The voice of Sam Cooke held all the magnitudes of Muhammad Ali’s analogy of floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee, and Cooke used his soaring vocals just as powerfully as a figurative jab. In his short career, not only did Cooke establish himself as one of the premier vocalists of all time and a stirring songwriting to boot but also as one of the leading progenitors on the musical side of the civil rights movement

With ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’, Cooke elucidated a message of hope and a need for reform. The song was released in mid-February 1964, and it would go on to become a Civil Rights anthem, delineating the truth worth fighting for in the virulently tempestuous Freedom Summer of 1964 during which six murders, 29 shootings, 50 bombings and 60 beatings of Civil Rights workers occurred during a bloody 14-week period between mid-June and the end of September.

On June 21st, three Civil Rights workers disappeared. It would subsequently be found that Mississippi law officers murdered them; it would also later come to light that approximately half of Mississippi’s law enforcement officers were associated with the Ku Klux Klan to Professor Mary King.

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Cooke’s song was one of the first that risked alienating a white audience and tackling the issue head-on. When discussing the song with the BBC, L.C. Cooke, Sam’s younger brother and musical collaborator recalled its origins: “I know you know ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ by Bob Dylan,” he said. “Sam always said a black man should’ve wrote ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, it was unfair, so he said ‘Nah, if he can write a song like that surely, I can come up with something equally as good’, so he sat down to write ‘A Change Gonna Come’.” With it, he created a beautiful track that encouraged others to join in with the musical message of equality. 

However, his legacy would be tainted that very same year, when on December 11th he was shot and killed in a hotel in an act of self-defence after allegedly assaulting a woman. In the intervening years, the official story behind this has been brought into question with many people positing that there is more to the story than meets the eye. Below we’re delving into the facts and the theories on both sides for a comprehensive look at the tragedy that took his life. 

Investigating the death of Sam Cooke:

The facts:

The dates and details: At the Hacienda Motel on December 11th, 1964, at 3 am, Cooke was shot and killed at the age of 33. 

Cause of death: An inquest found that Cooke died of a gunshot wound to the heart. He was shot by the motel manager, Bertha Franklin.

The official police outcome: Justifiable homicide (self-defence).

The statement of the Motel manager: In an official police statement, Bertha Franklin, claimed that Cooke had checked into the Motel, earlier in the evening with a woman named Elisa Boyer. Shortly after, she heard a disturbance as Cooke banged on the manager’s office door, shouting “Where’s the girl?” Franklin informed Cooke that she was alone in the office, but he would not go away. 

When he forced his way into the office, he was wearing only one shoe and a sports coat. He then grabbed Franklin and demanded to know the whereabouts of Boyer. Franklin then grappled with Cooke and as he fell to the floor, she rushed away to retrieve a gun and shot him. Cooke then apparently said, “Lady, you shot me,” in a perplexed tone, before slowly advancing once more, at which point Franklin struck him on the head with a broom and he collapsed and died. 

The statement of Elisa Boyer: Elisa Boyer, the woman who accompanied Cooke to the Motel, claims that they had met earlier that evening in a nightclub. They left together and thereafter she asked Cooke to take her home. However, against her will, he took her to the Motel instead. Once they had checked into a room, Cooke began to molest her and she feared that she would be raped. When Cooke went to the bathroom, she quickly scooped up her clothes, inadvertently collecting most of Cooke’s too (hence his state of undress in the manager’s office) and she ran out of the Motel. She then rang the police to report the incident. 

Sam Cooke and Muhammed Ali circa 1964. (Credit: Alamy)

Statements supporting the idea of a conspiracy:

Etta James: Fellow soul singer Etta James is one of the most high-profile independent parties to have viewed Cooke’s body after he died. James has always maintained that the injuries she witnessed were not consistent with the accepted outcome of the inquiry. She wrote that “Cooke was so badly beaten that his head was nearly separated from his shoulders, his hands were broken and crushed, and his nose mangled.” She claimed that these injuries could not have been sustained after a brief grapple with the motel manager alone. 

Adding: “They tried to cover it up with makeup, but I could see massive bruises on his head. No woman with a broomstick could have inflicted that kind of beating against a strong, full-grown man.” No such wounds are recorded in the official autopsy. 

Diners at Martoni’s Restaurant: Contrary to Boyer’s accepted sworn statement, several diners and acquaintances of Cooke’s at Martoni’s Restaurant claimed that Boyer had wined and dined with the soul star that evening and left to go to the motel willingly. Furthermore, they state that Cooke had a large sum of money on him (around $5000) at the restaurant and that perhaps Boyer leaving the motel with most of his clothes was a robbery as opposed to fleeing. The large sum of money that diners apparently witnessed Cooke with has never been recovered and only a money clip of $108 was found in his Ferrari. However, this theory would not explain why Boyer called the police from a payphone. 

The history of the Hacienda Motel: As a wealthy celebrity the motel itself has often been a point of contention. It was 15 miles from the nightclub that Cooke and Boyer had attended and along the way, Cooke would’ve passed by far nicer establishments. The motel itself was a known establishment housing prostitutes and pimps and as such theories have developed suggesting that Boyer lured Cooke to the motel to rob him. Conspiracy theorists claim that this viewpoint is ratified by the fact that shortly after the incident Boyer was arrested on prostitution charges and in 1979 was found guilty of second-degree murder following another shooting. Franklin was also a former prostitute with a prior criminal record. 

Other inconsistencies: Cooke was shot with a .22 pistol yet the gun belonging to Franklin was .32. the bullet also subsequently went missing. Fellow guests at the motel claim that they didn’t hear and confrontation of gunshots. 

Management following his death: Many theorists believe that if there is a conspiracy at hand then it may well have been perpetrated by his manager Allen Klein. Klein was the owner of Tracey, Ltd and following Cooke’s death, he ultimately owned the rights to his recordings. With his star growing, the sad death of Cooke proved highly profitable for the music mogul. However, aside from a renowned ruthless attitude and reports of a rift between Cooke and Klein, no evidence has ever been found that could tie him to the case. 

The position of the FBI: One of the reasons that theorists believe that a conspiracy could be at play pertains to the nature of the investigation. By all accounts, including retrospective ones made by the LAPD themselves, the investigation was a very cursory one. For instance, Boyer’s story was only investigated in order to corroborate Franklin’s statement and not as a separate line of evidence. As Cooke’s friend Muhammad Ali suggested at the time: “If Cooke had been Frank Sinatra, the Beatles or Ricky Nelson, the FBI would be investigating.”

Considering that the FBI was actively watching Ali at the time as a racial aggravator, some theorists have claimed that the FBI themselves could’ve had a hand in Cooke’s death owing to his prominent position in the Civil Rights movement. There is wide evidence that Ali was under surveillance by Ali and Cooke may well have been as well given their friendship. However, surveillance is one thing and assassination is quite another—there is no formal evidence that Cooke was being investigated let alone anything to support the theory that the authorities were behind his death.