By 1964, Sam Cooke had amassed an unprecedented amount of creative capital in the music business. He used it to make an album that he envisioned as a declaration of independence but instead became his epitaph.
Nothing Cooke did seemed to come hard for him—be it gospel, which he’d sung with The Soul Stirrers before going pop in 1957, or teenage romance like “You Send Me,” or proto-bangers like “Twistin’ the Night Away” and “Shake” that had both white and black kids moving. He'd just hired a take-no-prisoners accountant, Allen Klein, who renegotiated his deal with RCA, gaining Cooke power and autonomy that was unheard of at the time—particularly for an African-American pop star—over his money, which songs he’d sing, and who would play on his records.
Cooke was fixing to spend that capital, casting a shadow both as a mogul and as an artist with a social conscience. Ain’t That Good News featured a classic Saturday night/Sunday morning structure: side A, uptempo party tunes; side B, ballads and woe. The title track takes a classic gospel song The Soul Stirrers knew and swaps in pop lyrics—the good news coming isn’t the word of God but word that his girl is headed home. Time and again, songs are flipped in new directions: The country hit “Tennessee Waltz” gets a New Orleans horn chart; the teen heartbreaker “Falling in Love” invokes heaven like a hymn might.
The highlight, though, is “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Cooke was no radical, but he read the papers and the “whites only” signs, he’d heard Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and they all inspired him to weigh in on the civil rights struggles. Arranged by his buddy René Hall, the song is a mountain of worry and as light as a hummingbird. But before it was released as a single, Cooke was shot dead under murky circumstances in a South Los Angeles motel. He left behind music that became a foundation for Aretha, Otis, Al, D’Angelo, and other soul singers ever since.