He was 33 and had the pop world at his feet. He had married his childhood sweetheart, and she and their two children lived a tranquil life in a œ4 million mansion on the outskirts of Hollywood. I'm a family man, Sam Cooke would say. "Some guys when they're out on the road seem to want to get involved with chicks. Me, I just want to get home."
No one argued with that. Gossip-writers had looked in vain for evidence that Sam Cooke, all set to become a bigger star than Elvis Presley, had a wandering eye. When Sam said he was a happy and contented family man and that his wife and kids were the most important thing in the world, everyone agreed that he deserved it. After all, he had started with nothing — one of eight children in a poor Mississippi family — and worked his way up as a gospel singer and then as a down-the-bill act in seedy southern clubs to become an international superstar. The songs he wrote were snapped up by legends like Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding. The songs he sang went straight to the top the charts. His single You Send Me sold three million copies in a week and it seemed that nothing could stop Cooke from becoming a bigger star than Elvis. What did stop him were three revolver bullets slamming into his body in a Los Angeles motel in December 1964 after it was claimed he had tried to convince the motel manageress that the woman with him was his wife.
It all seemed so out of character Indeed, Barbara Cooke never accepted that her husband had cheated on her."We were so happy," she said. We had known each other nearly all our lives and had no secrets from each other. I would have known if he was seeing someone else. We were so much in love and always had been.Following the avalanche of publicity surrounding her husband's death, Barbara and the children fled to relatives in Mississippi and Barbara was in a state of shocked denial. She doesn't want to know what happened, a friend said. "She just knows that he's not coming home again.
In fact an inquest returned a verdict that Cooke's death was "justifiable homicide in the protection of life, limb and property". There were also persistent rumours that the Mafia had ordered his death after Cooke refused to become involved in a music business racket. In an attempt to get to "to find out what the hell happened to my friend," Cooke's manager, J.W. Alexander, later hired private detectives who wanted to challenge the inquest verdict but Barbara said she couldn't stand any more publicity and insisted that no further action be taken.
The life that was snuffed out in LA's Hacienda Motel had hardly begun to fulfil its glittering potential. Every record Cooke made seemed to turn to gold. He was negotiating for a role in a major Hollywood movie. He had real estate deals in motion which could have brought him over $2 million dollars."Everything I do is for my family," he said.
It all ended on a wet December Saturday when after having dinner with friends, Cooke checked into the Hacienda with 22-year-old model Elisa Boyer.
There was no luggage in his red Ferrari.It was later said that Cooke had taken the girl to the motel against her wishes but apparently she made no protest when they checked in as man and wife. Elisa Boyer later alleged that she fled to the office of the manageress, Mrs Bertha Franklin, followed by Cooke, now in a furious temper. There was a scuffle and Sam Cooke dropped dead. But Mrs Franklin claimed she had defended herself with a stick. So who fired the fatal bullets?
The news that an inquest jury had cleared Mrs Franklin of all charges was an international sensation. She told the inquest that she feared for her life and had defended herself but was unable to remember the details.
When Barbara arrived at the funeral parlour there were ugly scenes when almost 200,000 people turned up to pay their respects and were driven back by police on horseback. They came because they loved Sam as much as we did, Barbara said. "It's such a pity it had to end this way." Today, Barbara Cooke, who later briefly married singer Bobby Womack,tries to forget the circumstances surrounding her husband's death. He was a great singer, a perfect husband and a wonderful father. That's all I want to remember.