Sam Cooke in the recording studio. The artist made tremendous headway during the 1950s and 1960s for African-American celebrities.
Originally uploaded by Pan-African News Wire Photo File.
"I was in Los Angeles with Sam Cooke the night he was shot. We were out at that club together ... Later that night at my hotel, my friend calls and tells me Sam's been shot. I thought he was joking. 'Sam wasn't shot, man. I just left him.' It was no joke. Sam's death was devastating. He meant so much to me. He meant a lot to all of us. He represented the next level for us. He opened doors that haven't been stepped through since. He was gonna be the next Nat Cole. He was a dear friend, and now he was gone. I had to get on the train to get on a plane to get back to Sam's funeral in Chicago. I had no sleep, and I couldn't get Sam off my mind. There's the song. I wrote 'Got To Get You Off My Mind' to get Sam Cooke off my mind."
-- Solomon Burke
Sam Cooke should not have died at age 33.
What's more, he should not have died the way that he did -- gunned down in a cut-rate motel in a bizarre sequence of events that defies logic.
Sam died on December 11, 1964. Over 40 years later, his fans still talk of cover-ups and conspiracies. In large part, that's because the "official" explanation of how Sam died requires us to believe that one of the greatest talents in music history could be taken from us through an unforeseeable combination of happenstance, misunderstandings and just plain bad luck.
Intellectually, we may know that death -- and life, for that matter -- doesn't always make sense. But emotionally, we need to see some sort of purpose to everything, particularly when it comes to tragic events such as the death of Sam Cooke.
That's one reason people still are searching for answers about what happened in that motel 42 years ago: As the assassinations of Kennedy and Martin Luther King demonstrated, it's impossible for many people to accept the fact that a towering giant of history, a person who has transformed the lives of millions, could be quickly and recklessly taken from us by a lone dullard with a gun. It's easier to believe that vast conspiracies and unstoppable forces are at work. To believe otherwise is to believe that one deranged man with a mail-order rifle can rewrite history, and that the goodwill of millions cannot thwart the evil intentions of a single individual.
And that's why some people -- including more than one author -- have argued that John Lennon was killed as the result of a secret conspiracy. (Never mind that the shooting was witnessed by many others and the accused killer readily confessed.) There even are those who see conspiracies in the car crash that killed Princess Diana. Apparently, a conspiracy is easier to accept than the mundane reality of a commonplace incident of drunken driving.
Of course, conspiracy theories tend to be more credible when the "official explanations" of a death defy logic and reason. And, clearly, the official version of how Sam died falls squarely into that category. Explanations are supposed to clarify matters, not add to our confusion by offering up a series of conflicting "facts" and theories.
To write about Sam's death in any sort of detail is to invite accusations of exploitation. That's not our intent. This page is intended merely to separate and identify the facts, the speculation, the allegations and the theories.
Is such an exercise necessary? I think it is. The amount of published misinformation about Sam's death is staggering. In August 2000, for example, a North Carolina newspaper described Sam's death this way:
"Sam Cooke, the great gospel and soul crooner, was shot and killed Dec. 11, 1964, in Los Angeles. He was 29. Cooke was found in the Hacienda Motel, in a state of undress and shot three times. His attacker, Bertha Franklin, managed the hotel. She said that Cooke -- a man whose suave image was as smooth as his voice -- had sexually attacked her after another woman had fled the scene."
In the space of five sentences, the newspaper committed three major errors.
The Los Angeles Times fared even more poorly in its recent summary of the tragedy:
"The Polaris Motel was where singer and songwriter Sam Cooke, whose influence in soul music can be heard to this day, was killed on Dec. 11, 1964. Reportedly, the 33-year-old had picked up Lisa Boyer, a 22-year-old aspiring singer, at PJ's nightclub in Hollywood and had taken her to this motel. After a dispute, she fled Cooke's room with most of his clothes. While half-clothed, he mistakenly thought she had fled into the manager's office. After pounding on the door, Cooke broke in. The manager, taking him for a robber, shot him three times with a .22-caliber revolver."
The Polaris Motel? Boyer was an aspiring singer? Sam was 33 years old? He picked up Boyer at PJ's nightclub? Franklin mistook him for a robber?
While this web page doesn't pretend to be the final word on how Sam died, it will at the very least be a source for reliable information as to what happened that night in 1964.
By putting to rest some of the questions surrounding Sam's death, we can focus more of our attention on Sam's life. And Sam Cooke should be remembered for how he lived, not how he died.
The official version of events
It's around 9 p.m., December 10, 1964.
At a Los Angeles restaurant called Martoni's, pop star Sam Cooke joins record producer Al Schmitt and Schmitt's wife, Joan, for an Italian dinner. While waiting in the bar for their table, the three order drinks.
Sam is enjoying a martini when a record company public relations man enters the bar with a 22-year-old Eurasian woman, Elisa Boyer, on his arm. When it's announced that a table is ready for Sam and the Schmitts, Sam pays for the drinks, flashing a wad of cash that, according to others, is noticed by Boyer.
Joan Schmitt later recalls seeing "several thousand dollars" in Sam's hand. (Earlier that day, Sam had withdrawn $5,000 in cash from a safety deposit box at his bank.)
The threesome takes their table. Sam has an appetizer, then excuses himself. When he fails to reappear, Al Schmitt goes looking for him and spots Sam at the bar, talking to a woman. Sam never rejoins the Schmitts for dinner.
When the couple prepares to leave Martoni's at about 10:45 p.m., they see Sam and Boyer seated side-by-side at a booth in the bar. Sam promises to meet Al at PJ's, a night spot on Sunset Boulevard, at around 1 a.m.
The bartender would later recall that Sam (and, presumably, Boyer) left Martoni's at about 12:30 a.m., although others would peg their departure to around 1:30 a.m.
By 1:30 a.m., the Schmitts tire of waiting for Sam at PJ's. They leave the bar and drive home. Sam and Elisa arrive at PJ's not long after that, perhaps missing the Schmitts by just a few minutes.
"We had a little incident at PJ's," Boyer would later recall. "We were sitting at the very entrance, and some people came over and Mr. Cooke started talking with them ... I was just sitting there ... A gentleman sat next to me and started talking to me and Mr. Cooke got quite angry and wanted to hit the man ... That's why we left."
Boyer later says that she asked to be taken home.
Sam, she said, had other plans.
According to Boyer, Cooke took the freeway back toward downtown.
"He was going very fast in his car. I told him I wanted to go home ... He took the freeway .... I was very frightened because he was driving so fast ... He said, 'Don't worry, I'll take you home.'
"After we got past downtown, I asked him again to take me home. He kept talking to me, saying how he thought I was such a lovely person, and I had such long, pretty hair ... I said, 'Please, Mr. Cooke, take me home.'"
At 2:35 a.m., Sam Cooke and Elisa Boyer arrive at the Hacienda Motel, a $3 per night motel at 9131 Figueroa Street in Watts, where the sign said, "Everyone Welcome" -- in those days, code for "blacks can stay here."
Sam pulls in to the motel's parking lot in his red Ferrari, leaving Elisa -- who would later claim she was a kidnap victim at this point -- sitting alone in the car. His tie loosened and his shirt tail hanging outside his pants, Sam greets the manager of the motel, 55-year-old Bertha Franklin, and signs in under his own name: "Sam Cooke."
At this point, Boyer gets out of the car and walks into the manager's office. Seeing Boyer approach, Franklin points to the register and tells Sam, "You will have to put Mr. and Mrs." Boyer stands by Sam's side as the room is booked and the key is procured. Franklin says later that Boyer "didn't say anything" while in the office. She didn't say a word."
Sam and Boyer go the room. Boyer later says that Sam "dragged me to that room." There is, however, a witness. Another guest at the hotel will later report seeing Sam and Boyer walks from the manager's office to the room. "In a way, there was a little bit of resistance," he says. "But not no fight where I could say he dragged her in."
The only account of what happens inside in the hotel room comes from Elisa Boyer:
"I started talking very loudly: 'Please, take me home.' He turned the night latch, pushed me on the bed. He pinned me on the bed. He kept saying, 'We're just going to talk.' ... He pulled my sweater off and ripped my dress ... I knew he was going to rape me ..."
Sam allows Boyer to go the bathroom, while he undresses. In the bathroom, she attempts to escape through the window. "I tried the window, but it was painted down and it just wouldn't unlock." She walks out of the bathroom and back into the room.
"When I walked out, he walked into the bathroom ... I picked up my clothes, my shoes and my handbag. I opened the latch and I ran out."
Dressed only in a slip and bra, Boyer runs to the motel manager's office and knocks on the door. She is carrying not only her own clothes, but most of Sam's, as well. Franklin is in her apartment, just behind the office where guests sign in. It's close to 3 a.m., but she is on the phone with the motel owner, Evelyn Carr. Franklin hears someone banging on her door. She tells Evelyn Carr to "wait a minute," and goes to the door. She opens it, and no one is there. She returns to her phone call.
Boyer, too impatient for Franklin to answer the door and aware that Sam is only a few yards away in the motel room, walks around the corner and up the street -- still with Sam's clothes.
A half-block away, she pauses to pull on her sweater and the rest of her clothes. She stashes Sam's clothes under a nearby stairwell and enters a pay phone "a couple of steps away." She dials the number of the police.
Back at the Hacienda, Franklin is still talking to Carr on the phone when she hears more knocking on the door. She puts down the phone and goes to the door. There she sees Sam Cooke, dressed only in an overcoat and shoes. He asks, "Where's the girl?"
Franklin says she doesn't know. Sam turns around and leaves. A few minutes later, she hears his car start and head toward the driveway leading back out onto Figueroa. The car, however, stops alongside the office. Sam has apparently made a fateful, last-second change of plans. Believing Boyer is in Franklin's apartment, he decides to search it himself.
Franklin refuses to open the door for Sam. "He just kept saying where was the girl," Franklin recalled later. "I told him to get the police if he wanted to search my place. He said, 'Damn the police,' and started working on the door with his shoulder ... It wasn't long before he was in. ... When he walked in, he walked straight to the kitchen, and then he came back and went into the bedroom. Then he came out. I was standing there in the floor and he grabbed both of my arms and started twisting them and asking me where was the girl."
Unknown to Sam, Carr is hearing all of this over the open phone line.
"We got in a tussle," Franklin said later. "We fell to the floor. I tried to bite him through that jacket. -- biting, scratching, biting, scratching and everything ... I got up ... He came to me. I pushed him back again ... I run and grabbed the pistol off the -- grabbed the gun off the TV."
The pistol is a small, .22 caliber handgun Franklin keeps on her television set "because of hold-ups."
Franklin fires three shots, recalling later that Sam "wasn't too far -- he was at close range."
Two of the bullets miss their target.
One, fired with the muzzle less than two inches from Sam, enters his left side of his chest, passes through his left lung, then his heart, and then his right lung.
"He said, 'Lady, you shot me.' And he ran into me again."
Hanging onto Franklin -- seemingly in a desperate struggle to remain upright -- Sam is bleeding profusely. The gun falls to the floor. Sam is staggering about the room.
Franklin, who has no way of knowing that Sam is already fatally wounded, grabs a broom stick and attempts to club Sam over the head.
"The first time I hit him, it broke ... It was very flimsy." Sam collapses to the floor, falling against the broken door jamb. He is dead.
By this time -- a few minutes after 3 a.m. -- Elisa Boyer is in the phone booth waiting for the police. At about the same time Sam was fighting with Franklin, Boyer was talking to the police: "Hello? Will you please come down to this number? ... I don't know what street I'm at ... I was kidnapped." She gives the officer the number of the pay phone: PI7-9984.
"Stay right there in the phone booth," the officer says.
"Right," she says. "I will."
While Boyer waits in the phone booth, police receive a second call -- this one from Evelyn Carr, who reports that "a guy just broke into the door" at the Hacienda. "I think she shot him," Carr tells police.
Officer Wallace Cook is the first on the scene. By 4 a.m., the apartment has been photographed, evidence has been seized and Sam's body has been taken to the morgue. The case is handed over to Los Angeles Police Detectives Fred Thomas and Douglas Kesler.
The next night, a small crowd gathers at the motel. There is little to do but stand and stare.
On Wednesday, Dec. 16, a coroner's inquest is held. Franklin and Boyer recount their stories and the police officer testifies that tests show Sam was intoxicated at the time of his death, with a blood-alcohol level of .16. (A level of .08 is considered too drunk to drive in many states today.)
A medical examiner testifies that in addition to the fatal bullet wound and the lump on his head, Sam had a few small scratches on his left cheek and forehead.
A police officer says Sam's credit cards are missing, but a money clip with $108 was found in his overcoat pocket. There also is testimony that both Franklin and Boyer have passed lie-detector tests and that neither has an arrest record.
After 15 minutes of deliberation, the seven-member coroner's jury rules the shooting was "justifiable homicide." The case is closed.
Problems with the official version
At the time, little mention is made of odd, seemingly contradictory elements of the story told by Boyer and Franklin:
* Boyer testified that she met Sam that night at a "Hollywood dinner party" and that Sam even sang a song at the party. In fact, they met at Martoni's, and there's no indication Sam stood up in the bar and sang to the other patrons.
* Boyer said she was "kidnapped" by Sam, and said the only reason she didn't hop out of the car and run away en route to the motel was that Sam took the freeway and was driving too fast. But when Sam went into the motel office to register, he left Boyer in the car. She could easily have left at that point -- or run into the office and asked the manager to call the police. She did neither. She got out of the car and followed Sam into the office and, according to Franklin, "didn't say a word."
* If Sam had, in fact, intended to "rape" Boyer, it's highly unlikely he would have used his real name -- which was rather well-known in those days -- when signing in at the motel office.
* According to Boyer, Sam didn't hesitate to leave her alone in the motel room while he used the bathroom.
* Boyer said she mistakenly took Sam's clothes when she fled the room -- meaning that she didn't notice that in addition to her sweater, shoes, handbag and dress she also had a man's pants, shirt and sport coat under her arm -- leaving Sam with nothing but an overcoat. Did she take his clothes deliberately to get the wad of cash he had flashed and to prevent his pursuit? If so, that would explain why the police never found Sam's credit cards or the "thousands" of dollars Joan Schmitt recalled seeing. Granted, the cash and credit cards could easily have fallen out of Sam's pockets as Boyer ran from the motel, but since the phone booth she ran to was only a few houses away, it seems likely they would have been found by police had they been lost along the way.
The alternate theories
Over the years, a number of theories have been floated as to how Sam "really died." Most of these revolve around someone -- either a relative, a business associate or the mob -- targeting Sam and then carefully arranging to have Boyer and Franklin take the fall.
My opinion: All of these theories are far-fetched, if not flat-out ridiculous.
If Sam was the victim of a murder plot, it was the most needlessly elaborate and ill-conceived murder plot of all time. It also would have been the most poorly executed murder plot of all time.
Imagine the thinking of the person who would mastermind such a killing: "Let's see, we'll kill this man, dump his body at a motel and pay the manager to say she did it in self-defense. We'll have to get her gun in advance and then bring it back to the motel with the body, because the ballistics need to match. And rather than plant a gun on the guy, we'll have him be unarmed when he gets shot. And, let's see, we'll pay a hooker to say she was almost raped by the guy right there at the motel. But rather than be a 'witness' to this shooting in self-defense, we'll have her out on the street a few hundred yards away so she can't corroborate the shooter's story. And then we'll rope a third person into this conspiracy and pay her to say that she heard the killing over the phone. And we'll also have to pay someone to say he was a guest at the motel that night and witnessed the hooker being taken to the room. Of course, we'll somehow have to arrange for Sam to meet the hooker ahead of time ..."
Could Carr, Franklin and Boyer all have been involved in some kind of plot? Perhaps. It's possible. But if there was a plot, it was not a plot to kill Sam Cooke. They had no motive to kill Sam, and no third party in his (or her) right mind would arrange a "hit" in which three or four conspirators are left to deal with questions from the media and the police.
No, if there was any sort of a plot, it likely involved a hooker who routinely rolled her johns, a motel manager who would take a cut of the profits from these thefts in return for providing immediate shelter for the larcenous prostitute, and a motel owner who was willing to look the other way if this arrangement kept the rooms booked up by prostitutes night after night.
If that's actually what went down, the plan went awry when Franklin -- perhaps because she was talking on the phone -- didn't hear Boyer's knock on the apartment door and failed to let her in. That forced Boyer to run off, and would explain why she called the police: for protection from her pursuer. Sam, however, would have had good reason to suspect Boyer was in Franklin's apartment had he looked out the window of his motel room and seen Boyer knocking on the door.
Would a mere suspicion have prompted Sam to break into Franklin's apartment? Possibly. He was intoxicated, and it stands to reason he would have been outraged at being ripped off and left naked in a motel room.
There's also the possibility that Boyer actually was in Franklin's apartment, as Sam suspected. Could it be that Sam discovered this, broke into the apartment and was hit over the head by Boyer with the stick and then shot by Franklin? If Boyer's dress was torn by Sam, as she would later claim, could it have been torn during a fight in Franklin's apartment?
Franklin's story that she fatally shot Sam, then grabbed a "flimsy" stick to hit him over the head doesn't ring true. Two weapons would seem to indicate two attackers. However, it is quite possible that Franklin dropped her gun after shooting Sam and then, with him blocking her access to it, grabbed a stick to fend off any further advances by Sam. Police found Sam's body next to the door leading out of the apartment -- so it makes sense that if Sam were standing there after being shot, Franklin would have grabbed the stick as she had no route of escape.
The problem with the theory that both Boyer and Franklin were in Franklin's apartment at the time of the shooting is that the duo would have had very little time to cook up a story before the police arrived. Boyer would have to run out to the phone booth, stash Sam's clothes and call the police. Franklin, meanwhile, would have to tell Carr what was happening and get her story straight. It's all pretty complicated.
And why send Boyer out to a pay phone to call police? If they were going to make up a story for the police, it would have made more sense for them to claim Franklin was providing sanctuary for Boyer when Sam broke in to the apartment. That way, each of them could corroborate the other's story.
The most likely scenario?
In the final analysis, it seems the most plausible explanation is the simplest and most obvious.
If we accept the fact that Sam Cooke took Elisa Boyer to the Hacienda, there are only three reasons he would do this and all, naturally, involve the two having sex: Either this was a date in which Sam was attempting to romance Boyer; or it was a rape attempt in which Sam was forcing himself on Boyer; or it was a "business deal" in which Sam was buying Boyer's services as a prostitute.
Look at the facts: The Hacienda was a cheap, $3 motel. This was no place to romance a new acquaintance -- particularly for a well-heeled celebrity like Sam Cooke who had at least $108 (and possibly much, much more) in his pocket.
Nor was it the place to rape a woman. A rapist whose identity is known to his victim would not drive across town to check in at a hotel to commit such a crime, leaving a trail of evidence that would include his name on a motel registry. Nor would the rapist twice leave his victim alone, free to escape or call for help.
Was it a place for a prostitute to ply her trade? Yes. In fact, the Hacienda was known as a hooker's hang-out. The prostitution theory also is supported by the event that night that triggered Sam's death: Boyer running off with Sam's clothes -- a common occurrence, even today, in the prostitution trade.
Sam, returning from the bathroom in the motel room to see Boyer and his clothes missing, would naturally have looked out the window, which happened to have a clear view of the manager's office. He saw Boyer knocking on Franklin's door. By the time he put on his shoes and overcoat and left the room, Boyer was nowhere in sight. She had run off, aware that Sam was only a few yards away.
Concluding she had been let inside Franklin's apartment, Sam went to the office, suspecting Franklin might be in on the scam.
After first being denied entrance, he returned and broke in -- perhaps planning only to get back his clothes and cash. Franklin, confronted with a half-naked man who had physically forced his way into her apartment, picked up the gun and started shooting.
To believe all this, of course, is to believe that Elisa Boyer was a prostitute who lied about how Sam forced himself on her so as to conceal her occupation. Is this a fair assumption to make?
Well, it's worth noting that Boyer never claimed to have a job. At the time, she lived not in a house or apartment, but at a motel. Also, it seems almost certain that she lied under oath at the inquest as to how she and Sam met that night.
Most important, though, is what happened on Jan. 11, 1965 -- exactly one month after the shooting. On that night, Boyer was arrested in Hollywood for prostitution. (And in 1979, when she would have been about 37, Boyer was found guilty of second-degree murder in the death of a boyfriend.)
One problem with the prostitution theory: Why would Boyer have run to Franklin's office if she had just rolled a customer? There are two possible explanations: She may have thought she could hide there for a few minutes by telling Franklin, falsely, that she had been attacked. Or, as mentioned above, Franklin may have been in on the scam.
Some Sam Cooke fans will not accept even this theory because it requires them to accept Sam Cooke as a patron of prostitutes -- as if that offense might in some way justify his being robbed or shot to death.
But Sam's memory wasn't tarnished by accusations that he had a late-night dalliance with a hooker. Sam's memory was tarnished by an allegation that he attempted to rape a woman and then, only minutes later, was shot in self-defense by another woman.
There is no evidence of rape beyond Boyer's accusation. There is, however, evidence that Sam's accuser was a prostitute, that she went willingly to the hotel, that she never tried to leave when she had the chance, and that she lied under oath at the inquest.
As for Franklin and her claim that Sam attacked her, there is ample evidence to support her story. But it should be remembered that Sam, according to Franklin herself, never punched Franklin, threw anything at her or verbally threatened her with physical harm. He grabbed her by the wrists and twisted her arms, she said, demanding simply to know where "the girl" was. Franklin, not knowing where this would lead, grabbed her gun and opened fire.
An over-reaction? In hindsight, yes. But Franklin was facing an angry, potentially violent, young man who had just broken into her apartment at 3 a.m. However unjust, the shooting (assuming it happened under these circumstances) could hardly be considered "murder."
It's telling that Sam's reaction to being shot was one of surprise, not anger -- as if he suddenly realized that Franklin was ignorant of his intentions and was genuinely in fear for her life.
Fittingly, his final words sounded more like those of a shocked and surprised crime victim, not like those of an attacker addressing his prey: "Lady, you shot me."
The information collected above in the section labeled "The official version of events" is not the result of original reporting. It is based on the painstaking research of a few talented writers and their published works:
"You Send Me: The Life And Times Of Sam Cooke," by Daniel Wolff.
"Sam Cooke: The Man Who Invented Soul," by Joe McEwen.
"Death Shocks Singer's Fans," by Louie Robinson (Jet magazine)
"The Tragic Death Of Sam Cooke," by Louie Robinson (Ebony magazine)
(The primary source is Wolff, who had access to the official transcript of the coroner's inquest as well as police and morgue reports. Robinson's work, while quite valuable, appears to be based on rough notes of testimony given at the inquest.)
CORRECTIONS AND SUBMISSIONS:
Notice any errors or omissions? Please drop me a line and let me know. Also, if you have any thoughts to add to this page, please e-mail me at this address: Kauffman12@mchsi.com