Sam Cooke: What Was the Truth About His Death?

Sam Cooke was a famous singer in the early 1960s. His 29 top 40 hits included “Cupid,” “You Send Me,” “Twistin’ the Night Away,” and “Another Saturday Night.” But a bullet ended his life and his career in December 1964 under circumstances that remain murky to this day.

Sam Cooke

The singer the world knew as Sam Cooke was born Samuel Cook on January 22, 1931, in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Perhaps his association with Clarksdale and its rich blues tradition led him to become a musician. Then again, maybe it didn’t. After all, the Cook family moved to Chicago in 1933 when young Sam was only two years old. Instead, it might have been singing in his minister father’s church choir that propelled him into a musical career.

Sam Cooke (Billboard)
Sam Cooke (Billboard)

Regardless of how he got into the business, by the early 1960s, Sam Cooke had established a track record as a reliable producer of top 40 songs.

Death of Sam Cooke

Sam Cooke met a tragic end in the early hours of December 11, 1964. The official story goes like this. The evening before, Cooke had dinner and drinks at Martoni’s Restaurant in Hollywood. At the restaurant, he met a young woman, Elisa Boyer, and the two hit it off. According to Boyer’s story to police, she spent the evening in his company. Upon leaving, she asked to be taken home. Instead, an apparently intoxicated Cooke drove down the Harbor Freeway, stopping at the Hacienda Motel in south central Los Angeles. Once inside one of the motel’s rooms, Boyer said Cooke removed most of her clothing. She believed he was about to rape her.

The Hacienda Motel where Sam Cooke died
The Hacienda Motel where Sam Cooke died

While Cooke was in the room’s bathroom, Boyer grabbed up her clothing (and, by mistake, most of Cooke’s as well) and fled. Unable to get a quick response from the hotel manager, she left the motel. She dressed, hid Cooke’s clothes, found a telephone booth, and called police.

Elisa Boyer (thevintagenews.com)
Elisa Boyer (thevintagenews.com)

Meanwhile, motel manager Bertha Franklin claimed Cooke repeatedly hammered on her office door, demanding, “Where’s the girl?” an apparent reference to Boyer. When Franklin responded that she was alone, Cooke, naked except for one shoe and a sports jacket, forced his way into the office. He grabbed her, and the two struggled, eventually falling to the floor. Franklin retrieved a gun and shot Cooke once in the torso. Franklin stated that Cooke exclaimed, “Lady, you shot me,” in a perplexed tone before coming after her again. She said she struck him on the head with a broomstick, and he fell to the floor dead.

Bertha Franklin (samepassage.org)
Bertha Franklin (samepassage.org)

Did Sam Cooke Die That Way?

Motel owner Evelyn Carr confirmed Franklin’s account of events, saying the two were conversing on the telephone when the struggle and shooting occurred.

Cooke’s friends and associates immediately disputed these accounts of the incident and believed his killing occurred in a completely different manner. Employees at Martoni’s reported that Cooke had been carrying a large amount of cash that night. However, a search of his Ferrari found only $108 in a money clip and some loose change. Boyer had a $20 bill in her purse.

Singer Etta James saw Cooke’s body before his funeral and noted that the injuries he suffered didn’t match the “official” version. She later wrote that he appeared to have been badly beaten. His hands were broken and crushed, and his nose mangled.

Epilogue

Carr’s testimony supported Franklin’s, and both Franklin and Boyer passed polygraph tests. Lacking any concrete evidence to the contrary, the coroner’s jury had little option but to accept Franklin’s version and return a verdict of justifiable homicide.

Bertha Franklin quit her job at the Hacienda Motel after receiving—she claimed—multiple death threats. She later sued Cooke’s estate for physical injuries and mental anguish suffered as a result of Cooke’s attack. Barbara Womack countersued on behalf of the estate, seeking $7,000 to cover funeral expenses. In 1967, a jury ruled in Franklin’s favor in both cases and awarded her $30,000 (over $280,000 in 2024) in damages.

A month after Cooke died, Elisa Boyer was arrested for prostitution. Years later, she was convicted of second-degree murder in an unrelated incident.

Don’t Miss Out! Subscribe to the Newsletter

Subscribe to True Crime in the News, a monthly email newsletter that looks at recent news stories that will interest any true crime fan. There is also a summary of the previous month’s blog posts. You won’t want to miss this. Join the newsletter mailing list today.

Marvin Gaye: Murder of a Popular Soul Singer

Marvin Gaye was once known as the “Prince of Motown.” For almost a quarter-century, his music entertained millions, evolving as the times changed. Then, his career and life ended abruptly.

Marvin Gaye

Marvin Pentz Gay, Jr. was born on April 2, 1939, in Washington, D.C. His father was a preacher in the Hebrew Pentecostal Church. A strict disciplinarian, he enforced his moral code on his four children (two boys and two girls) and stepson with physical brutality. For a man of the cloth, the senior Gay embraced an odd moral code, as he was a hard-drinking cross-dresser. It seemed everyone in their D.C. neighborhood knew about the cross-dressing, which subjected young Marvin to bullying at school.

As Marvin entered his teenage years, his relationship with his father worsened, who often kicked him out of the house. In 1956, when he was seventeen, Marvin dropped out of high school and joined the United States Air Force. Military service didn’t suit him, mainly because his superiors gave him, like many of his peers, only menial tasks. He received a “General Discharge” in 1957.

Marvin Gaye in 1966 (Public Domain)
Marvin Gaye in 1966 (Public Domain)

Gaye began working in music after his brief stint in the Air Force, adding the ‘e’ to the end of his family name. It took several years, but he began to find success in 1962 as co-writer of “Beechwood 4-5789,” a hit for the Marvelettes. He recorded several successful duets with Tammy Terrell and sang the National Anthem during Game 4 of the 1968 World Series in Detroit’s Tiger Stadium. He had his first number-one hit in 1968 with “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”

The Murder of Marvin Gaye

Success had a dark side for Marvin Gaye. Like many others before and after, he had trouble dealing with the fame he sought and developed a drug habit. He managed to get sober while sojourning in Europe as a tax exile. But he returned to the United States in 1983 for what would be his final concert tour. Under the stress of touring, he returned to abusing cocaine as a coping mechanism. When the tour ended in August 1983, Gaye moved into his parents’ home to nurse his mother, who had undergone kidney surgery.

Marvin Gaye in 1973 (Billboard)
Marvin Gaye in 1973 (Billboard)

By March 1984, Gaye and his father clashed constantly. Everything boiled over on Sunday, April 1. Marvin Sr. began berating his wife, Alberta, because he was upset about a missing insurance policy. Gaye intervened, ordering his father out of his mother’s room. When that didn’t work, he physically attacked his father. Alberta separated the two men, and Gaye returned to his room.

Minutes later, however, Marvin Sr. entered Gaye’s bedroom with a .38-caliber pistol, pointed it at Gaye, and shot him twice, one bullet piercing his right lung, heart, diaphragm, liver, stomach, and left kidney. Hearing the shots and screams, Gaye’s brother, Frankie, who lived in a guest house on the property, ran to the house and carefully walked the hallway to his brother’s bedroom. He held Gaye as he rapidly bled to death. Frankie said Marvin made a disturbing statement in a voice barely above a whisper. “I got what I wanted…I couldn’t do it myself, so I had him do it…it’s good, I ran my race, there’s no more left in me.”

Marvin Gaye's death certificate (State of California)
Marvin Gaye’s death certificate (State of California)

Epilogue

On September 20, 1984, Marvin Gay, Sr. pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter. Judge Ronald M. George agreed to the plea bargain based on the injuries Marvin Sr. sustained in the altercation and the levels of cocaine and PCP in Gaye’s system revealed by the autopsy. On November 2, Judge Gordon Ringer sentenced Marvin Gay, Sr., to a six-year suspended sentence and five years of probation. He died on October 10, 1998, at age 84.

Marvin Gay, Sr., in court (The Palms Weekend)
Marvin Gay, Sr., in court (The Palms Weekend)

You can read more about the life of Marvin Gaye in Divided Soul: The Life Of Marvin Gaye by David Ritz and Mercy, Mercy Me by Michael Eric Dyson.

Don’t Miss Out! Subscribe to the Newsletter

Subscribe to True Crime in the News, a monthly email newsletter that looks at recent news stories that will interest any true crime fan. There is also a summary of the previous month’s blog posts. You won’t want to miss this. Join the newsletter mailing list today.