Monday, July 16, 2012

Death By Misadventure: Sam Cooke

I was born by the river in a little tent
And just like that river I've been running ever since

Conspiracy buffs always ignore the most obvious evidence or facts in front of them. Sam Cooke's death being a perfect example. Cooke's demise in the wee hours of Dec. 11th. 1964 (at the hands of terrified motel manager, Bertha Franklin, who was armed with a .22 handgun and a broom stick) has sparked the imagination of conspiracy theorists. However, once you strip away all the wild eyed accusations of LAPD cover-up or West Coast mafia hitmen,  what it boils down to is that Sam Cooke was a victim of his own drunken stupidity and unbridled libido.

The Sam Cooke murder case is often compared to that of Bobby Fuller, although the similarities are superficial and trivial (both died in Los Angeles, both were singers/musicians, both were connected to Bob Keane, both had insatiable sex drives) While Fuller's death was and is, shrouded in mystery (such as his whereabouts before he was killed and who he was with) Sam Cooke's final hours were well documented and witnessed by several people up until his final and fatal encounter at The Hacienda Motel. We may never know who killed Bobby Fuller, but we damn well know who killed Sam Cooke.... Bertha Franklin.

Those that refuse to accept the stated facts in the case of Sam Cooke, are apologists driven to propagate a false image of who he really was. That he was killed after being scammed by a prostitute just didn’t make sense to many people. His sister, Agnes Cooke-Hoskins, still discounts all the pertinent facts, 'My brother was first class all the way. He would not check into a $3 a night motel; that wasn’t his style", and yet there he was at a $3 a night motel with a prostitute at 3am and he signed in using his own name. Cooke, had no problem looking at himself in the mirror and knowing who and what he was. Though it appears, that to this day his family still can't do the same.

Sam Cook (he later added the "e", because he thought it had class) fell under the spell of the black snake moan at an early age. Simply put, he was a whore monger (his manager Bumps Blackwell famously stated that Sam "would  walk past a good girl to get to a whore" Sam's friend and back-up singer, Bobby Womack was quoted as saying "a $500 high hooker would do what you needed, no questions asked" and that was something that appealed to Sam. With good reason, when you consider that almost from the start of his singing career, he was dogged by paternity suits. To Sam's way of thinking, prostitutes were safe, good girls were nothing but trouble.

Cooke had that certain charismatic, romantic capability with women, a natural born honeydripper. A man gifted with the exquisite ability to swoon the opposite sex. Not that he had to, they were drawn to him, like bees to nectar. From an early age, while performing in Chicago area churches and later with The Soul Stirrers, women flocked to see and hear Sam perform. Sexual opportunities arose and he wasn't one to say no. (at one point he was juggling three different pregnant girlfriends in two different cities) He literally left a trail of pregnant women and in his wake.

Sam was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, one of eight children born to Rev. Charles & Annie Cook. The family moved to Chicago in 1933, Rev. Cook's southern firebrand style of preaching attracted some followers, but the singing abilities of his children drew even more. they started performing as Rev. Cook and His Singing Children. Sam sang backup behind his siblings, but it soon became obvious that he possessed a unique and distinctive voice. Before long, Sam struck out on his own, forming a gospel quintet called the Highway QCs.

They covered  the music of the Soul Stirrers, a Texas gospel group led by vocalist R.H. Harris. Sam's ability to mimic Harris' vocal mannerisms led to his being hired to replace R.H. in 1956. The Soul Stirrers hit the Chitlin' Circuit and eventually wound up in Los Angeles, where they signed with Specialty Records (the same label as Little Richard) The group scored several gospel hits, but Sam had his mind set on crossing over to the pop charts. Cooke wanted to emulate his idols Nat King Cole & The Ink Spots (he had attended the same Chicago Hs. as Cole)

Looking to avoid the trap of being categorized as a "race act" Sam recorded his first pop single "Loveable" in 1956. He took on the alias of Dale Cooke, in order to not alienate his gospel fans. The single did well enough, that plans were made for Sam to branch out into secular music. However, a dispute between Cooke, Bumps Blackwell & Art Rupe (owner of Specialty Records) led to Sam quitting the Soul Stirrers and seeking out another label to sign with. That's where Bob Keane and his tiny upstart label Keen Records entered the picture.

Keane signed Cooke  and released "Summertime" (the Gershwin standard from Porgy & Bess, Art Rupe had opposed Sam's use of the song, leading to the split) backed by a pop tune co-written by Sam and his brother L.C. "You Send Me", the Gershwin number was the A-side, but disc jockeys insisted on sending "You Send Me" straight up the charts. And just like that, Sam Cooke was at the top of the pops.  "You Send Me", spent six weeks at #1 on the Billboard R&B chart and three weeks at #1 on the Billboard pop chart. 

The hits kept coming for Sam Cooke, although he never scored another #1 hit on the pop charts (Chain Gang peaked at #2)  Three other singles broke into the pop top ten (Twistin' the Night Away, Another Saturday Night, Shake) On the r & b charts, he had four #1 hits, six #2 hits (twenty top ten hits in all) In 1961 Cooke signed with RCA/Victor receiving a then unheard of $100,000 bonus. His contract granted him control over his recordings, a clause that astonished the music business at the time.

Sam went even further by starting his own record label, SAR records (Lou Rawls, Bobby Womack, The Valentinos, Johnnie Taylor) a music publishing company and a management firm. In the genre of modern Soul music, Sam Cooke was the originator, "the Father of Soul" His blend of gospel and pop styles, combined with an unmatched sensuality and sex appeal put him over the top. But, that's not to undermine his talents & abilities as a sophisticated vocalist, supreme songwriter and shrewd business man (probably the equal of Barry Gordy)

Sam had sold over 10 million records, his future in entertainment had unlimited potential. Furthermore, he had become involved in the Civil rights movement, with his song "a Change is Gonna Come" becoming an anthem for marchers and protestors. However, lurking just under the surface was Sam's Achilles heel... his sexual addiction.  He married Dee Dee Mohawk, a singer from Texas, but she divorced him due to his wandering eye. (this was just as You Send Me hit the charts) Sam then married Barbara Campbell, with whom he had already fathered three children. (In 1963, their son Vincent tragically drowned in the front yard swimming pool of their home)

Side Notes: (1) Sam's first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show was cut short due to time constraints, Sullivan introduced Cooke, who lip synced the opening line of You Send Me and then the track was abruptly cut off as he continued to mouth the lyrics. Sam and his manager Bumps Blackwell were furious as Sullivan profusely apologized. Phone calls poured in demanding to know why Cooke had been cut off, Sullivan immediately rescheduled Sam for another appearance. The second time around everything ran smoothly, and Sam shot up the charts as a result.  (2) During one of his final television appearances (The Tonight Show in 1964) Sam was asked to sing one of his hit songs, instead he steadfastly insisted on singing "A Change is Gonna Come" much to the chagrin of the show's producers. (3) Bob Keane was founder and co-owner of Keen Records, but after the success of You Send Me, his partners forced him out. He rebounded by forming Del Fi Records and signing a chubby Mexican kid from Pacoima.

"Ladies and gentlemen: the story you are about to hear is true. The names have not been changed to protect the innocent, for in this case there are no innocents"

Los Angeles, December 10, 1964, 9 p.m., Martoni's...  Sam Cooke is already well into his cups on the last night of his life. Cooke is having dinner with producer Al Schmitt & Schmitt's wife, Joan. Well wishers have been interrupting their conversation, while they wait for their dinner order to arrive. Sam, already boozy, excuses himself and goes to the bar.  There a young Asian girl caught his eye. She's Elisa Boyer (her mother was Chinese, her father English) and she was in the company of a guitar player that Sam knew.

Sam quickly latched on to her, he then informed Al Schmitt & his wife to continue without him and he would meet them later at  P.J.'s  Al Schmitt would later state  that Sam was flashing a large wad bills and buying drinks for everyone at the bar. Cooke and Boyers retreated to a booth where they were seen getting cozy with one another. At 1 a.m. Sam called for his brand new red Ferrari and along with Boyer left for P.J.'s Nightclub.  When they arrived at the club, Sam discovered that the Schmitts had tired of waiting and gone home.

"We had a little incident at PJ's," Boyer said  "We were sitting at the very entrance, and some people came over and Mr. Cooke started talking with them ... I was just sitting there ... A gentleman sat next to me and started talking to me and Mr. Cooke got quite angry and wanted to hit the man ... That's why we left." Boyer later says that she asked to be taken home. Sam, had other plans, instead he took the freeway back toward downtown. "He was going very fast in his car.

I told him I wanted to go home ... He took the freeway .... I was very frightened because he was driving so fast ... He said, 'Don't worry, I'll take you home.'  "After we got past downtown, I asked him again to take me home. He kept talking to me, saying how he thought I was such a lovely person, and I had such long, pretty hair ... I said, "Please, Mr. Cooke, take me home" At 2:30 a.m.  Sam & Elisa arrived at the Hacienda Motel on Figueroa St. in Watts. Sam looking rather disheveled goes to the office and greets Bertha Franklin, the manager.

He paid for his room and when Franklin pointed out that he would have to register Boyer in as his wife, without hesitation he signed Mr. & Mrs. Sam Cooke.  Boyer had joined Sam in the office by now and as Franklin would later recall "she didn't say anything while in the office, she didn't say a word" Both left the office, got into Cooke's Ferrari and drove around to where the room was. A witness would later say that Boyer seemed hesitant about entering the room, "In a way, there was a little bit of resistance," the unidentified witness stated "But not no fight where I could say he dragged her in.  "Boyer would  later say that Sam "dragged me to that room."

"All we want are the facts, ma'am"

(From this point on there were only three witnesses to what took place, and one would soon wind up dead. Boyer's account has to be taken with a grain of salt, due to her lack of credibility. Franklin on the other hand had no reason to lie)

Boyer: "I started talking very loudly: 'Please, take me home.' He turned the night latch, pushed me on the bed. He pinned me on the bed. He kept saying, 'We're just going to talk.' ... He pulled my sweater off and ripped my dress ... I knew he was going to rape me ..." Boyer then asked if she could go to the bathroom. She attempts to escape through the window, "I tried the window, but it was painted down and it just wouldn't unlock."

When she returns to the room, an opportunity suddenly presents itself "When I walked out, he walked into the bathroom ... I picked up my clothes, my shoes and my handbag. I opened the latch and I ran out." According to Boyer in her haste to escape Cooke's amorous advances she had scooped up his shirt, pants and underwear as well (along with his wallet and one assumes, the wad of cash that Al Schmitt had seen at Martoni's)

Partially undressed, Boyer ran to Franklin's office and pounded on the door. Bertha Franklin was on the phone talking to the owner of the property, Evelyn Carr. She told Carr "wait a minute" and went to answer the door, but no one was there. Franklin then picked up the phone and continued on with her phone call. Boyer, knowing that Cooke would be coming after her, didn't wait around for Bertha to open the door. She ran around the corner and up the street.

About a block away from the Hacienda, she paused to put her clothes on and stash Sam's clothes under a stairwell. She then went to a nearby pay phone and called the police. Boyer’s call was logged in at 3:08 am. "Will you please come down to this number. I don’t know where I am, I’m kidnapped."  At that instant, Sam Cooke roared up to Franklin's office in his Ferrari, he left the motor running and the driver's door open. He was wearing his sports jacket, one shoe and nothing else.

He banged on the door, yelling "Is the girl in there?" Franklin still on the phone with Evelyn Carr, tells Cooke that she doesn't know. Franklin recounted her experience to the police,  "He just kept saying where was the girl, I told him to get the police if he wanted to search my place"  He said, 'Damn the police,' and started working on the door with his shoulder ... It wasn't long before he was in. ... When he walked in, he walked straight to the kitchen, and then he came back and went into the bedroom. Then he came out. I was standing there in the floor and he grabbed both of my arms and started twisting them and asking me where was the girl."

Through it all, Evelyn Carr is listening over the phone. Bertha Franklin would later tell 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 their mark, but one passed through Cooke's heart and right lung. Sam fell back, and then yelled at Franklin "Lady, you shot me!" he then rose and charged  at her, but she repelled his attack with several hard blows to the head and face with a broomstick.

Sam Cooke slumped to the floor next to the damaged doorway, Evelyn Carr then hung up and called the police at 3:15 a.m.,  advising them that "I think she shot him" This was  just minutes after Eliza Boyer had called the police to report that she had been kidnapped. The  police arrived with wailing sirens and flashing lights to find Sam Cooke dead. Just minutes after police arrived at the scene, Boyer walked up and presented herself to them.

An inventory of Cooke's belongings showed that he had a wristwatch, a money clip with $108 and some loose change. Cooke's wallet containing his driver's license and credit cards was never found, (nor were any purchases ever made with the cards)  A search of Boyer's purse showed that she had only a twenty dollar bill. Sam Cooke is believed to have retrieved $5,000 in cash from a safe deposit box earlier in the day. Al Schmitt reported that Sam was flashing about $1,000 at the bar. It has never been determined where that money went.

"It's been too hard living, but I'm afraid to die 'Cos I don't know what's out there beyond the sky"

Sam Cooke's funeral included three full days of viewing in L.A. his $4,000 casket was fitted with a glass top to allow his fans one final look at "The Father of Soul" The body was then flown to Chicago for a funeral in his hometown. Cooke's remains were then returned to Los Angeles for another funeral and burial. The  Staple Singers, Lou Rawls, Billy Preston & Ray Charles all presented musical tributes to Sam Cooke. The most poignant being Rawls rendition of  "Just a Closer Walk With Thee."

Etta James would later state in her autobiography that "the injuries she observed were well beyond what could be explained by the official account of Franklin alone having fought with him." James described Sam as "having been so badly beaten that his head was nearly separated from his shoulders, his hands were broken and crushed and his nose mangled. However, the infamous death photo that shows Cooke slumped in the doorway and subsequent photos taken during both funerals, do not back up her claims.

A coroner's inquest was convened to investigate the incident.  Elisa Boyer, Bertha Franklin, Evelyn Carr and other witnesses recounted their stories. Test showed that at the time of death, Cooke's blood alcohol level was at .16 (twice the legal limit to drive a vehicle) The shooting was ruled "a justifiable homicide" and the case was closed.  To some Bertha Franklin was hailed as a brave woman who stood up to a misogynistic bully, while others called her  a murderer. She started getting death threats and had to quit her job and go into hiding.

Side Notes: (1) Bertha Franklin had a past of her own, she was an ex-madam with a criminal record. She filed a lawsuit against Sam Cooke's estate for $200,000 in punitive damages and injuries, the estate is rumored to have settled out of court for $30,000. (2) Barbara Cooke was shamed by the circumstances of her husband's demise, but she too was having an affair with a local bartender. This caused a scandal when he showed up at the funeral wearing one of Sam's rings and his wrist watch. (3) Barbara Cooke would soon dump the chump and marry Bobby Womack (a few years later, Bobby's brother married one of Sam's daughters)

The truth about Elisa Boyer came out a month later when she was arrested in Hollywood for prostitution. It turns out the innocent victim, Ms. Boyer was in fact nothing more than a common bar girl. (Boyer's reputation was furthered stained in 1979 when she was found guilty of second degree murder in the death of her boyfriend) These facts cast a new light on what may have taken place that night at the Hacienda Motel. It appears that Sam Cooke, who was no novice when it came to dealing with prostitutes, had been worked like a common street john. Whether or not Franklin and Boyer were working the scam together is unknown.

Both claimed to not have know each other before that fateful night. It's never been established if Sam Cooke had ever rented a room at The Hacienda Motel before, Franklin said that she was unaware that he was a celebrity. For one reason or another, Cooke believed that Boyer was hiding in Franklin's apartment (which doubled as the office) He may have thought that the two women were in cahoots with each other and that he had  been set up by them.  If neither Cooke nor Boyer had ever been to the Hacienda Motel before, then why did they choose that particular place?

Cooke drove a long way just to get a $3 room for a sexual dalliance. It would seem that if Boyer planned to rob him from the time they met at Martoni's, she would have suggested a motel closer to the one she was staying at. Instead of a  flea bag in the colored part of town, where she would have been stranded without a way to get home. If robbing Cooke and then claiming rape was Boyer's plan, it worked for her, even if it had fatal consequences for Sam. Elisa Boyer like most prostitutes was an opportunist, when the opportunity presented itself, she snapped at it and ran.

Sam, an experienced john, should have know better than to leave his wallet and cash unattended while he used the bathroom. Taking a john's belongings is an old whore's trick. The man is less likely to chase after you if he's stark naked, barefoot and humiliated. Sam Cooke however was drunk, enraged and given his star status, made the mistake of taking matters into his own hands. The rational thing for Cooke to have done (had he not been intoxicated) would have been to drive his bare ass home and tell Barbara that he had been robbed. 

The single bullet theory or "Nice shot Ma'am!"

"I could have filled a hundred pages of the book with an appendix on all the theories about his death. Central tenet of every one of those theories is that this was a case of another proud black man brought down by the white establishment who simply didn't want to see him grow any bigger" Sam Cooke's biographer Peter Guralnick

As in the case of Bobby Fuller, conspiracies abound concerning Sam Cooke's death.  However, it's hard to buy into conspiracy theories, when the facts are so damned obvious.  While all these conspiracy theories are extremely interesting, none of them are accompanied by any real evidence. It's been forty six years since Cooke's death and no evidence has ever been adduced to prove any of these theories. 

Did Elisa Boyer conspire with Evelyn Carr & Bertha Franklin to rob Cooke, with his death being an unexpected complication?  Boyer had never met either woman. That's not to say that some motels in Los Angeles didn't do that kind of thing or that prostitutes (such as Boyer) didn't know about them. In this case that's just too far fetched.

Sam Cooke had just signed with Allen Klein, which some have suggested infuriated a few executives associated with "the mob" Sam's involvement in the Civil Rights movement and his desire to record more politically relevant music made him a marked man for white record executives. The West Coast mafia killed him and the LAPD covered up the crime (this same theory is used by Bobby Fuller conspiracy buffs)  Sam supported Malcolm X after his split from Elijah Muhammad, did that make him a marked man in the eyes of The Nation of Islam?

Maybe, white supremacists killed him because he was getting a little too uppity, or as one woman friend of his said: “He was just getting too big for his britches for a suntanned man.” Others claim that Barbara Cooke devised the entire set-up and contracted a Mafia hit on Sam to pay him back for his cheating ways and the death of their son Vincent (supposedly, Cooke had doubts that the boy was actually his) 
One theorist even surmised that Franklin could not have shot Cooke, because the gunshot (which pierced both Sam's heart and right lung) was something only a trained mob assassin could pull off.

"I would say within the community there is not a single person that believes that Sam Cooke died as he is said to have died: killed by a motel owner at a cheap motel in Los Angeles called the Hacienda which he had gone to with a prostitute named Elisa Boyer"  ~Peter Guralnick~

Sic transit gloria mundi