DEAR JERRY: I became a fan of the great Sam Cooke in the mid-1960s, though I missed out on many of his late '50s recordings, before he signed with RCA Victor, and recorded for Keen Records. I was thrilled to discover a just-released boxed set, "Sam Cooke - The Complete KEEN Years: 1957-1960."
Included in this package are 76 tracks on five CDs, plus a nice booklet.
Since the focus of this set is the Keen years, 1957 to 1960, they have just this one short sentence regarding Sam's bizarre death: "By the end of 1964, Cooke was gone, taken away at age 33 in a senseless tragedy."
What are the details of that "senseless tragedy?" I don't have the Internet, but a friend will let me know if you print a reply. Thank you!
Kenneth Wade, Marion, Ohio
DEAR KENNETH: There are some unresolved issues surrounding Cooke's death, but Wikipedia's account of the "senseless tragedy" is as good as any report. Here then is their chronicle of the events, word for word:
Sam Cooke died at the age of 33 on December 11, 1964, at the Hacienda Motel, in Los Angeles, California. Answering separate reports of a shooting and 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. The motel's manager, Bertha Franklin, said she shot Cooke in self-defense after he broke into her office-residence, and attacked her. Her account was immediately disputed by Cooke's acquaintances.
The official police record states that Franklin fatally shot Cooke, who had checked in earlier that evening. Franklin said that Cooke had broken into the manager's office-apartment in a rage, wearing nothing but shoes and a sports coat, demanding to know the whereabouts of a woman who had accompanied him to the motel. 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 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.
The motel's owner, Evelyn Carr, said that she had been on the telephone with Franklin at the time of the incident. Carr said she 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. 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.
Boyer told the police that she had first met Cooke earlier that night and had spent the evening in his company. She said 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 said that once in one of the 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 said 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 the police.
Boyer's story is the only account of what happened between her and Cooke that night; however, her story has 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 to rob him, rather than to escape an attempted rape. 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 gained no more notoriety.
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 polygraph tests, the coroner's jury ultimately accepted Franklin's explanation and returned a verdict of justifiable homicide. With that verdict, authorities officially closed the case on Cooke's death.
Some of Cooke's family and supporters rejected Boyer's version of events, as well as those given by Franklin and Carr. They believe that there was a conspiracy to murder Cooke and that the murder took place in some manner entirely different from the three official accounts. Singer Etta James viewed Cooke's body before his funeral and questioned the accuracy of the official version of events. She wrote that the injuries she observed were well beyond the official account of Cooke having fought Franklin alone. James 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. Some people have speculated that Cooke's manager, Allen Klein, might have had a role in his death. Klein owned Tracey, Ltd, which ultimately owned all rights to Cooke's recordings. To date, no concrete evidence supporting a criminal conspiracy has been presented.