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.

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