Closing out her magnanimous 1967 debut for Atlantic Records, I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You, Aretha Franklin covered of one of the most powerful cuts of the 1960’s: Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Naturally, from the opening line, Aretha put her own spin on it. “There’s an old friend that, I once heard say, something that touched my heart. And it began this way,” Aretha sings while playing the piano in tribute to her late friend and idol.
The history of “A Change Is Gonna Come” is ever-storied. Sam Cooke wrote it in-part after hearing Bob Dylan’s “Blowin In The Wind.” He was also likely influenced by a recent racist experience he’d endured. The song is heavy. The lush strings, horns, and bombastic timpani drums of Sam’s original are nothing short of iconic. The arrangement is powerful. The ominous tone Sam lays evokes a lot of feeling. Sam performed the song but once, and the video of that performance is nowhere to be found across the web. He couldn’t bare to perform it again, and his life was cut short not long after.
Aretha’s take is something of a love letter to Sam. It was a little over 2 years after Sam’s death on December 11, 1964 that Aretha recorded her cover on February 14, 1967, the same day she recorded “Respect.” Rooted in Aretha’s piano, Sam and Aretha’s arrangements couldn’t be more different. Gone are the strings, prominence of the brass, and timpani drums that created the bombastic environment for Sam’s impassioned vocal. In their place is Aretha at the piano, flanked by drums, bass, and an organ mixed in the back. Aretha delivers her own impassioned performance with one vocal take, just like Sam. No background vocals, no doubled sections. Her vocal is powerful, but her transformation of the lyrics is astounding.
Aretha takes Sam’s “a change” and seemingly personalizes it to “my change,” simultaneously adding at least 3 separate meanings to that lyrical change. Jerry Wexler, who produced Aretha’s version, told Matt Dobkin in I Never Loved A Man the Way I Love You: Aretha Franklin, Respect, and The Making Of A Soul Music Masterpiece that he aligns her first-person application of “my change” from “a change” to the change that women encounter later in life: menopause.
Yet, as Dobkin points out, Jerry may be incorrect in this single analysis. While that is one perspective to acknowledge, and a formidable one, Aretha also adds other flourishes that lead to another, more likely possibility: Aretha isn’t innately speaking for herself and her womanly change; she’s narrating the song as Sam Cooke.
Twice Aretha prefaces Sam’s lyrics with “he said”, before replacing the “a change” with “my change.” If she’s saying “he said” in the first line of the chorus, wouldn’t that switch to first-person adjective in the next line still be Aretha speaking for Sam? She goes on to alter the second chorus’s “gonna” to “got to,” as if she’s interpreting Sam’s message of change as an inevitability. In that, Aretha’s “change” also refers to Sam’s change from this life into the next. She applies his words, to his own death, as he might sing them in that moment, reflecting upon his own passing and the change he’d experienced.
Dobkin further aligns the “change” to Aretha’s musical crossover from spiritual to secular, a crossover that was inspired by Sam’s. Aretha was nearly 7 years into her career when she recorded “A Change Is Gonna Come.” She was now signed with Atlantic Records, after more than a half decade and nearly 10 albums at Columbia Records that failed to realize her dreams of #1 hits and superstardom.
Dobkin also argues that Aretha depoliticizes “A Change Is Gonna Come” by removing the third verse (“I go to the movies, I go downtown, somebody keep telling me ‘don’t hang around’’), the verse that was likely rooted in Sam’s experiences with the Jim Crow laws of the south, specifically being arrested for disturbing the peace in Shreveport, Louisiana about a year prior. Yet, as Emily J. Lordi observes in Black Resonance: Iconic Women Singers and African American Literature, this isn’t the case. Instead, Aretha contributes her own words of experience in and after the fourth verse which politically charge it just as much as Sam’s did, if not more, because of Aretha’s vocal squalling as she delivers the lines.
There’ve been times that I thought
I thought that I wouldn’t last for long
But somehow, right now
I believe that I’m able, I’m able to carry on
I tell you that it’s been a long
And oh, it’s been an uphill journey, all the way
But I know, I know, I know
I know my change is gonna come
I had to cry all night long, yes I did
I had to give up right, for what I knew was wrong
Yes. it’s been an uphill journey
It’s sure’s been a long way coming, yes it has
It’s been real hard, every step of the way
But I believe, I believe
This evening my change is come
Yeah, I tell you that my change is come
There’s so much emotion in her delivery, and significance in her words. It’s political, but those additions also lend themselves to the other meanings “change” applies to in Aretha’s cover Her “Somehow, right now, I believe that I’m able… to carry on” are an allegiance to her faith and an acknowledgement of the impact Sam’s loss had on her, even more than two years later. At the same time, “I had to give up right, for what I knew was wrong. Yes. It’s been an uphill journey… It’s been real hard every step of the way… But I believe… this evening my change has come,” acknowledges Aretha on the brink of her break into superstardom. On that night, she’d recorded nearly half of her Atlantic Records debut, the album that would propel Aretha into the pop culture stratosphere for life. Aretha was transcending on that Valentine’s Day in New York City. Her change was coming. And nearly half a century later while performing the song, she’d still feel a sense that another change, the one Sam had experienced in 1964, was still yet to come.
At the 2014 BET Honors, after being honored herself, Aretha stormed the stage at the end of the night and performed “A Change Is Gonna Come,” in tribute to Nelson Mandela. By this time, Aretha had already endured her surgery for pancreatic cancer, and was faced with her own mortality more than she’d ever been. The performance reflects it. Her delivery of lines such as “it’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid, I’m afraid to die, I don’t know what’s u- what’s up there beyond the sky” is chilling. This is a woman who has endured the deaths of most of her closest friends and loved ones, and nearly came face to face with death herself not to far in the past.
The BET Honors performance marries the arrangement of Aretha’s cover with elements of Sam’s original, but unlike in her impromptu 2005 performance, Aretha retains many of the lyrical changes she applied to her cover, especially the change of “a” to “my.” She even repeats the fourth verse twice, once in the place where the third verse she originally omitted, belongs. It feels even more like that “change” she’s singing about is death. She further punctuates one of her “but I know my change is gonna come” with “one of these ole’ days”. Aretha struggled to face her own mortality, and over the years as she lost more friends and loved ones, the mortality of others. But for that moment in 1967, and that performance in 2014, she addressed it head on.
The other performance took place in 2005 with another soul luminary, Solomon Burke. The way the story goes, after her own performance, Aretha sat in the wings and watched Burke’s closing performance of “A Change Is Gonna Come”. Miraculously, not only did she hold onto her microphone from her earlier performance, but it was still on. She began began ad-libbing behind Solomon during the song’s second verse. No one knew where it was coming from, but once Solomon realized it, Aretha stood up, and joined him on stage. It was a dream of Solomon’s to perform with Aretha. Despite being signed to Atlantic Records at the same time in the 60’s, and forging the R&B genre at some of its most crucial formational moments, the two never performed together until that day in 2005 in Cleveland.
Aretha’s final change came just a few years after the BET Honors performance, but her other changes were long in her rearview. Her years of career struggle almost immediately ceased when her first single off that first Atlantic album released just a month after she recorded “A Change Is Gonna Come”. Though she’d ebb and flow in the late 1970’s, Aretha secured and maintained her place in the pop stratosphere until her final change came in 2018.
Listen to Aretha’s towering cover of “A Change Is Gonna Come”: