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Soul singers have always been a cursed breed. The late Otis Redding died at the age of 26 in a plane crash. Marvin Gaye was shot dead by his father while intervening in a fight between his parents. Then there is Sam Cooke.
Cooke died earlier however, in nineteen-sixty-four. His story differs from the others as there has always been a question hanging over his passing, as to how he actually died and even why. The latest in the intriguing Netflix series, ReMastered: The Two Killings of Sam Cooke, tackles these questions and tries to dig for those answers.
Cooke had a workhorse ethic of recording and releasing material, putting 28 singles in the American Billboard Top 40. He carved out not only his own career, but laid foundations for everyone that followed after. From Aretha Franklin to Stevie Wonder they all owe a debt to Sam Cooke. He was not only a great soul-singer. He was a civil rights activist in late 50’s and early 60’s America where he was given a platform for both his music and his opinions. In the eyes of some this made Sam Cooke a very dangerous man.
Director Kelly Duane De La Vega (The Return) delicately combines as much information into a short space as possible. To convey this much while clocking in at under the ninety-minute mark is an accomplishment in itself. This one-off documentary opens with the actual grainy, black and white footage showing the corpse of this great legend, as they load him into an ambulance from the hotel lobby he was found dead in. From the outset an ominous tone is set, cutting to images of his widow and the 200,000 strong mourners at his funeral all the while a commentary from friends and other musicians of the day including Smokey Robinson describes the man, both his nature and his musical influence.
From early on this becomes a tale of race, more so than music. The state of the American perception and treatment of people of color from Cooke’s era runs like a terrifying side story.
The singer had by choice become a spokesman for the Civil Rights movement. Photos of him began to appear in the company of in Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. Cooke was the one who had already crossed over into white audiences, and was starting to influence others to follow the same path. Within his music the message was becoming clear, especially in his song ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’:
“Then I go to my brother
And I say brother help me please
But he winds up knockin’ me
Back down on my knees, oh”.
A picture builds of perhaps why some at the high-end of society may have wanted the voice of Cooke extinguished. Yet, then there is the way in which he was killed. On December 11 1964, Sam Cooke was apparently robbed by a woman called Lisa Boyer, whom he invited to a hotel room. After his trousers were thrown out a window and Boyer took flight, Cooke gave chase and was shot by the hotel manageress Bertha Franklin. Boyer as it turned out was a prostitute while Franklin a pimp of sorts.
No investigation was ever carried out and the since two women involved were people of colour, the police and FBI closed the case as quick as possible. Cooke died in the most undignified way; naked, except for a suit-jacket, in a seedy hotel. This is perhaps the second killing, the murder of everything he stood for and the pedestal he was placed on. Here though, Kelly Duane De La Vega carefully uses facts, allowing the audience to make their own decisions.
There is no doubt Sam Cooke was on the pinnacle of doing something huge and within three months Malcolm X was also assassinated under suspicious circumstances. This was then followed by Martin Luther King, shot dead four years later in April 1968. Overall this a compelling but short documentary that manages to raise questions about one of the greatest soul singers and songwriters of the 20th century, questions which unfortunately still resonate today 45 years later.