ReMastered season 1, episode 5 recap: The Two Killings of Sam Cooke


Episode 5 of Netflix series ReMastered looks into the amazing career and strange, tragic death of soul music icon Sam Cooke.

ReMastered has often looked at the tragic, mysterious deaths of musical legends, and this episode is no different. Sam Cooke’s death was all of those things … and more.

First, what made Sam Cooke an icon? Well, as Smokey Robinson says, he had a “magic voice.” It’s also speculated that his political leanings were downplayed substantially by the music industry, to avoid controversy and keep album sales steady.

For example, it’s known that he occasionally talked with figures like Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali.

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He also had a reputation as being a decent guy. So when Smokey Robinson and others learned that Cooke died naked in a seedy hotel, it seemed too crazy to be true.

We hear from Renee Graham, the associate editor at the Boston Globe, and Dr. Mark Anthony Neal, Professor of African Studies at Duke University.

They both think Sam Cooke mattered less to “white America.” Jason King, Professor of Music History at New York University, reiterates that Cooke was a racial hero whose politics were suppressed.

The beginnings

Sam Cooke’s father, Rev. Charles Cook, was a minister who sang gospel in the church. No doubt this played a role in Cooke’s musical development (Aretha Franklin’s father was also a preacher). Born in 1931, it wasn’t very long before he attracted attention as a singer for the Soul Stirrers.

Of course, there was no way of totally escaping the racial politics of the time. For example, because of Jim Crow policies of the south, Cooke had to stay in boarding houses on tour. The brutal lynching of Emmett Till inspired Cooke to use his success to help his people.

Lloyd Price and Sam Cooke were among the most successful early rock acts (back then soul was more closely associated with rock and roll). Interestingly (though semi-understandably), Sam was hesitant to appropriate a rock style at first.

In fact, as ReMastered says, Cooke initially called himself “Dale Cooke.” Still, the song “You Send Me” appeared on Ed Sullivan, it helped him gain stardom and he had dropped the alternate name.

Threats didn’t stop him

ReMastered reminds us that, in many ways, rock music paved the way for racial integration in America (a fact that oddly seems to slip from collective memory). Still, Sam Cooke was threatened by the Klan. Dick Clarke even had to call the National Guard during one of Cooke’s performances.

Also, quite fortunately, Cooke had met people like Elvis Presley, and they apparently got along. Still, the times were tougher than they should have been. Dionne Warwick recounts having cops called on her for being rude to a waitress.

Meanwhile, Cooke had missed a show due to lack of available transportation, and rock singer Jesse Belvin died in a car accident — allegedly from having his car’s tires slashed. Belvin had played with Cooke (and others) at the first integrated rock show in Little Rock, Arkansas.

When it wasn’t violence, there was censorship. Nina Simone had some songs banned in some areas, for example. Of course, musicians had to deal with royalty rip-offs (and no doubt still do).

In response to racist pressures, Sam Cooke and others began boycotting segregated shows. It was a real challenge, but Cooke stuck with his passion. His song “Chain Gang” had political implications, and he was inspired partly by author and activist James Baldwin.

Sam Cooke is said to have encouraged people to wear Afros. Also, Cooke collaborated with Cassius Clay on the song “The Gang’s All Here.”  J. W. Alexander also started a publishing/record company, SAR records.

A Change Is Gonna Come

Influenced by Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Sam Cooke penned one of his most memorable songs, “A Change Is Gonna Come.” At the time, Cassius Clay had won the heavyweight title, and Cooke was hobnobbing with people like Clay and Malcolm X. There’s a reason to believe the civil rights leaders were under regular (if not constant) FBI surveillance.

Cooke’s album, Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 was not released by RCA at the time, for fear it was too raw (the album wasn’t released until 1985, well after Cooke’s death in 1964). For this reason, Cooke and others wanted to have an artist-centered record company.

It’s believed by some that Cooke was even threatened for posting the idea.


Sam Cooke may have been a hero, but he was human and dealt with tragic events. For example, his son Vincent accidentally drowned in a swimming pool. ReMastered also shows Cooke as a womanizer.  Then, of course, you have Cooke’s death itself. It’s a strange demise, unfitting for an otherwise dignified icon.

It’s said that, on December 11, 1964, Cooke was shot in self-defense by Hacienda Hotel manager Bertha Franklin, while Cooke was in pursuit of a woman named Elisa Boyer who was with him the previous night.

Cooke wasn’t just shot once or twice, but three times. Oddly, he was wearing no pants or underwear, but shoes and a sports coat!

Because of these strange circumstances, many believe Sam Cooke was killed by the mob, the music industry, or even his own manager Allen Klein.

It’s also believed the case was not properly investigated due to racism. Indeed, this was the era of the Watts riots, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. Did Cooke have a violent side that few knew about?

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Was there a conspiracy to have him killed? ReMastered offers no concrete answers to the freakish event that was his death but does paint a puzzling picture that may never truly be solved.

What are your thoughts on Cooke’s death and this ReMastered episode? Let us know in the comments!