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Regina King’s new film One Night in Miami raises questions about the soul legend’s 1964 murder in a Los Angeles motel

By Jordan Runtagh
January 15, 2021 02:18 PM
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sam cooke
Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Guests at the three-dollar-a-night Hacienda Motel didn't notice the shots that rang out just after 3 AM on the morning of December 11th, 1964.

Gun violence was disturbingly common in this part of South-Central Los Angeles. Even the cops seemed slightly blasé at the sight of a dead man lying bloody and naked, save for a sport coat and single shoe, propped up against the door of the motel manager's office. "The attitude was, 'Oh well, another n—- got shot,'" Norman Edelen, one of the few men of color to serve the precinct for the LAPD in 1964, tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. It would be hours before authorities learned the man's identity. That's when the shock set in.

The body belonged to 33-year-old Sam Cooke, the soul pioneer who brought gospel grandeur to American popular music with songs like "You Send Me," "Wonderful World," and "Another Saturday Night," helping artists like Aretha Franklin and James Brown make the leap from the church to the charts.

For more about Sam Cooke, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

It seemed inconceivable that one of music's most heavenly voices would meet such a hellish end. For more than half a century, the hazy circumstances of Cooke's murder have baffled his family, friends and fans. Now, questions about Cooke's mysterious death are resurfacing just as a new film, One Night in Miami starring Hamilton star Leslie Odom Jr. as the singer, chronicles the pivotal role Cooke and his music played in the Civil Rights movement.

The singer spent his last night alive enjoying dinner at Martoni's, a chic L.A. eatery and watering hole for Hollywood's musical elite. Cooke was joined by Al Schmitt, his close friend and longtime producer, and Schmitt's wife. Martinis flowed and Cooke wandered to the bar, where he chatted with industry friends and merrily waved around a wad of $5,000 cash — his take from a recent set of concert dates. Schmitt last saw him getting cozy with a woman he didn't recognize. She was 22-year-old Elisa Boyer.

Cooke and Schmitt made plans to meet up at a nightclub called PJ's later that night. "But Sam never showed up," Schmitt, 90, tells PEOPLE. "So I went home. I was told later he got there about 15 minutes later, just before closing time, and they wouldn't let him in. He was with this girl."

Sam and Barbara Cooke
Sam Cooke with his wife Barbara
| Credit: Jess Rand/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Cooke drove Boyer 15 miles south to the Hacienda Motel, where they checked in just after 2:35 AM, signing the register as man and wife. The real Mrs. Cooke, Barbara Campbell — mother to his two children, Linda and Tracey — was elsewhere, no doubt familiar with his nocturnal excursions.

What happened next remains shrouded in mystery. Boyer claimed that Cooke "dragged" her into the bedroom, pinned her on the bed and began to tear off her clothes.

"I knew he was going to rape me," she told the police. According to her story, Cooke disrobed and entered the bathroom, at which point she grabbed her clothes from a pile on the floor. In her confusion, Boyer says, she also picked up Cooke's clothes, which contained his wallet and cash. She ran down the street to a nearby phone booth and made a panicked call to the police, telling the dispatcher that she'd been kidnapped.

Cooke supposedly flew into a rage when he saw that both Boyer and his clothes were gone. Blinded by anger and alcohol, he wrapped himself in the sport coat — his only remaining piece of clothing — and confronted the motel manager, 55-year-old Bertha Franklin, who Cooke believed was shielding Boyer. Franklin claimed the encounter turned violent, with Cooke breaking down her door and throttling her.

"He grabbed both of my arms and started twisting them," Franklin testified, "and asked me, 'Where was the girl?' I started kicking. I tried to bite him through the jacket. I was fighting, biting, scratching, everything." Franklin grabbed her .22 pistol and squeezed off three shots. Two missed, but the other tore through Cooke's heart and lungs.

Cooke gasped, "Lady, you shot me!" before falling dead.

Leslie Odom Jr., Eli Goree, Kingsley Ben-Adir and Aldis Hodge star in ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI
From left: Leslie Odom Jr. as Cooke, Eli Goree as Muhammad Ali, Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X and Aldis Hodge as James Brown
| Credit: Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The LAPD marked Cooke's death a justifiable homicide.

Speaking in the 2017 documentary Lady You Shot Me, forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril H. Wecht argued that Cooke's death was not justifiable homicide because Cooke, wearing a sport coat and nothing else, "had no weapon and [Franklin] was not in fear of her life."

Most who knew the singer refused to accept the official story.  To them, this violent and unreasonable behavior seemed so unlike the fundamentally gentle man they knew and loved. They believe that his death was a result of set-up, claiming that Boyer was a prostitute working in cahoots with the motel manager to rob Cooke. The Hacienda Motel was a well-known hub for pimps and sex workers. Boyer, according to the theory, lured him there.

Why else would Cooke travel so far out of his way, passing plenty of other accommodations more befitting his superstar stature? While there's no direct evidence to support this story, Franklin was a former madam with a prior criminal record. Boyer was arrested on prostitution charges shortly after Cooke's death, and in 1979 was found guilty of second-degree murder following another shooting. The $5,000 Cooke was carrying the night of his death was never recovered.

Other elements of the case didn't add up. Cooke had been shot with a .22 pistol, but the gun registered to Franklin was a .32. The bullet that passed through his body was taken into police evidence and then quickly went missing. His autopsy revealed a 2-inch bump on his head. Franklin claimed that after she shot him, she dropped the gun and beat him with a wooden broom handle. Yet the gun still contained numerous bullets. If Franklin was frightened for her life, why would she drop the loaded gun she had just fired in favor of a stick? The woman appeared to have no marks or injuries when she testified before cameras five days after the murder occurred. This is surprising given the fight she described. Guests at the motel told police that they never heard any gunshots or sounds of an altercation. At the moment Cooke confronted her, Franklin was on the phone with the motel owner, who testified to hearing much of the struggle on the other end of the line.

Crime scene photos appear to show abrasions on Cooke's body. Singer Etta James, who viewed Cooke's body at his funeral, wrote in her memoir that Cooke's head was "practically disconnected from his shoulders. That's how badly he'd been beaten. His hands were broken and crushed…They tried to cover it up with makeup, but I could see massive bruises on his head. No woman with a broomstick could have inflicted that kind of beating against a strong, full-grown man."

Little Richard
(L-R) Jet Harris, Little Richard, Gene Vincent, Sam Cooke
| Credit: Harry Hammond/V&A Images/Getty Images

None of the injuries James reported seeing were mentioned in Cooke's autopsy report.

The discrepancies have led many to wonder if Cooke was killed elsewhere, by a third party, before his body was dumped at the Hacienda Motel. Rumors have swirled about the circumstances regarding Cooke's death.

Some blamed his business manager, Allen Klein, a notoriously ruthless music industry shark, claiming that he wanted to wrest control of Cooke's millions.

Much of the confusion surrounding Cooke's death stems from the fact that the LAPD conducted only a cursory investigation, giving many the impression that authorities wanted to sweep the matter under the rug.

"If Cooke had been Frank Sinatra, the Beatles or Ricky Nelson, the FBI would be investigating," Cooke's friend Muhammad Ali would note.

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According to Edelen, the reason was simple. "The LAPD didn't give a damn about Sam Cooke," he says. "They could not have been less interested in pursuing a full thorough investigation."

Edelen says it was emblematic of the racism that permeated every level of the force. "LAPD under [chief] William H. Parker had a heavy-handed attitude about minorities, period. It didn't have to start with what particular code you violated, it started with what you looked like. That's all there is to it."

According to Edelen, even the veneer of show business wasn't enough to earn Cooke respect from Los Angeles law enforcement. "Unfortunately, even though Sam Cooke was well known, they would not have been that concerned. The fact was, a Black man had gotten killed over at the whorehouse. That their attitude would have been indifferent…Could they have done a real, good, deep investigation? Absolutely. But it wasn't worthy of the LAPD's time. There was no care, no concern. Maybe they were even glad he was dead."

Edelen hasn't ruled out involvement from even an even higher law enforcement agency: the FBI.

"When you consider the FBI's attitude about minorities and civil rights at the time, they definitely could have been an influence," he said. "[They] probably were." He cites Cooke's friendship with other high-profile Black figures including Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) and Malcolm X, both of whom were under surveillance by the agency, then helmed by the notoriously paranoid J. Edgar Hoover.

"Sam had gotten very much involved [with civil rights]," Edelen recalled. "We know that the FBI was very much into [Muhammad] Ali and we know the Sam Cooke established a good relationship with Ali. At that time, his relationship with Ali made him suspect."

These theories test the bounds of believability, but a racist plot against Cooke may not be as fantastical as it sounds. A strong-willed Black man's outsized presence in the predominantly white popular culture was perceived by some as a threat. Though not as openly political as Ali or Malcolm X, Cooke used his music platform to push for equality.

He became one of the first singers of the era to wear his hair in the natural, unprocessed style, a powerful public embrace of his ethnic heritage. His 1960 hit "Chain Gang" was a veiled critique of the oppressive prison-industrial system, and 1964's "A Change Is Gonna Come" became an early Civil Rights anthem.

Cooke also founded his own record label and publishing branch, blazing a trail for artists to maintain ownership of their work and a greater percentage of their profits. This would have made him unpopular in the eyes of the exceedingly powerful record companies. In both a social and an economic sense, Cooke posed a danger to the power structure and it certainly put him on the wrong side of some very influential figures.

"The whole circumstance of Sam Cooke's death was so shady. And the LAPD were aware," says Edelen, now an author. "The FBI could have easily told the LAPD to stay out of it. A lot of that stuff did happen."

To date, there is no conclusive evidence that refutes the official version of events. Cooke's blood alcohol level was found to be .14, then twice the legal driving limit. The Hacienda Motel was later learned to be a frequent late night haunt for musicians who wanted to keep their extramarital affairs under the radar.

Speaking in Lady You Shot Me, Dr. Cyril H. Wecht stated that he doesn't believe any of the alternate theories surrounding Cooke's death. Journalist Peter Gulunick, who profiled Cooke in the biography Dream Boogie, also failed to uncover any information that challenges the notion that Cooke's death was anything but an act of self-defense.

The fact that an FBI conspiracy is in the realm of consideration is a testament to the deep racial divisions of the time. The neighborhood where Cooke was murdered would go up in flames the following summer during the Watts riots. The Civil Rights movement would endure, spurred on in part by a song released just weeks after his death: "A Change Is Gonna Come."

Though he never lived to see the strides made for racial equality, the song became an anthem for Black Americans fighting injustice, played as often today as it was half a century ago.