Between 1957 and 1964, musical visionary Sam Cooke established himself as the “King of Soul” by way of international hits on the classic order of “You Send Me”, “Another Saturday Night”, “Cupid”, “Twistin’ the Night Away”, “Wonderful World”, “Bring It On Home to Me”, and many more.
Cooke also founded his own record label and proved to be a masterful businessman. Beyond just music, Cooke supported the Civil Rights Movement through both direct activism and with his heart-stirring anthem, “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
Sam Cooke’s history-making, humanity-enriching achievements will live forever. The man himself, however, died in a tragic, still baffling hale of gunfire on December 11, 1964, under circumstances that can only be described as mysterious.
Police found Cooke dead on the office floor of L.A.’s Hacienda Motel, where the hourly rate for a room was three dollars. The lifeless singer was clad in a sports jacket, shoes, and nothing else. The killing bullet was lodged in his heart. Sam Cooke was 33 years old.
Hacienda manager Bertha Franklin was the shooter. She claimed self-defense, saying Cooke had burst into the office, mostly nude, and demanded to know if she’d seen the woman who was with him and apparently ran off.
When Franklin said she didn’t know where the woman was, she alleged that Cooke violently grabbed and assaulted her, accusing her of being in cahoots to rob him. During the struggle, Franklin says she reached for her pistol and, fearing for her life, fired three times. Two bullets missed, one didn’t.
From there, Franklin claims that Cooke roared, “Lady, you shot me!” and lunged at her one last time. She beat him about the head with a broomstick until he collapsed to the ground, dead.
Evelyn Carr, the Hacienda’s owner, was on the phone with Franklin during the incident. Carr said she heard the exchange just as the manager described it. It was Carr who called the police to the scene.
Things get stranger from there.Authorities determined that the woman who accompanied Cooke to the Hacienda was Elsa Boyer. She said she had met Cooke that night at a dinner party and left with him. Then, prior to the shooting, Boyer called police from a phone booth near the motel to claim that the singer had attempted to kidnap her.
In Boyer’s version of the story — the only one on record — Cooke forced her to go to the Hacienda and, once there, he tore her clothes off and pinned her down to the bed. Boyer said she was sure he was going to rape her.
Boyer told investigators that when Cooke stepped into the bathroom, she grabbed both her clothes and his (the latter being an “accident”), and bolted out the door.
From there, according to the official report, Cooke rampaged his way into the Hacienda office and the fatal scuffle with Franklin ensued.
Both Franklin and Boyer passed lie-detector tests, and Carr corroborated Franklin’s account of the struggle. As a result, an L.A. coroner’s jury ruled Cooke’s death a “justifiable homicide.”
Questions regarding the case arose immediately and have never stopped. Conspiracy theories abound. Some alternate guesses involve a Mafia hit, an execution mounted by racist music-industry executives, or even the notion that Barbara Cooke, Sam’s wife to whom he was notoriously unfaithful, had engineered the situation to embarrass her husband, only to have it turn lethal. No hard evidence exists to back up any such notions. The criminal backgrounds of the killing’s other key players, though, are indisputable.A month after the shooting, patrolmen busted Elsa Boyer for prostitution near the Hacienda. The motel was a known destination and hangout for sex workers and clients. Then, in 1979, Boyer killed her boyfriend and went to jail for second-degree murder.
Hacienda manager Bertha Franklin had formerly worked as a brothel madam and boasted a long rap sheet of her own.
In terms of story inconsistencies, Boyer told police she couldn’t escape being “kidnapped” because Cooke was driving too fast. Yet when Cooke checked in to the Hacienda, Boyer sat inside his car. There, she had ample opportunity to flee the scene or scream for help.
Another questionable fact is that Cooke’s wallet and credit cards disappeared. He still had $108 cash in a money clip inside his jacket, but that was because it was the only garment, beside shoes, Boyer left behind.
Despite the justifiable-homicide ruling, one prominent popular theory, in hindsight, is that Sam Cooke hired Elsa Boyer for sex and, when he went to the bathroom, she took off with his wallet and stole his clothes to prevent him from running after her. Authorities say that’s a frequent robbery M.O. of streetwalking sex workers when they go to no-tell motels like the Hacienda.
Occasional rumbles come up about reopening the case, but all the figures involved are long dead, so any new investigation is unlikely. No matter what, though, Sam Cooke left the earth at the peak of his popularity and power. That fact remains as profoundly tragic as his music is moving, inspiring, and immortal.
Main photo: Sam Cooke/WikiMedia Commons