Upon hearing Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" in 1963, Cooke was greatly moved that such a poignant song about racism in America could come from someone who was not black. While on tour in May 1963, and after speaking with sit-in demonstrators in Durham, North Carolina following a concert, Cooke returned to his tour bus and wrote the first draft of what would become "A Change Is Gonna Come". The song also reflected much of Cooke's own inner turmoil. Known for his polished image and light-hearted songs such as "You Send Me" and "Twistin' the Night Away", he had long felt the need to address the situation of discrimination and racism in America, especially the southern states. However, his image and fears of losing his largely white fan base prevented him from doing so.
The song, very much a departure for Cooke, reflected two major incidents in his life. The first was the death of Cooke's 18-month-old son, Vincent, who died of an accidental drowning in June of that year. The second major incident came on October 8, 1963, when Cooke and his band tried to register at a "whites only" motel in Shreveport, Louisiana and were summarily arrested for disturbing the peace. Both incidents are represented in the weary tone and lyrics of the piece, especially the final verse: There have been times that I thought I couldn't last for long/but now I think I'm able to carry on/It's been a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come.
After remaining confined to Cooke's notebooks for months of touring, "A Change Is Gonna Come" was finally recorded on December 21, 1963. Recording took place at the RCA Studios in Los Angeles, California during sessions for Cooke's 1964 album, Ain't That Good News.
According to author Peter Guralnick's biography of Cooke, "Dream Boogie", Cooke gave arranger Rene Hall free rein on the song's musical arrangement. Hall came up with a dramatic orchestral backing highlighted by a mournful French horn. For his vocal, Cooke reached back to his gospel roots to sing the song with an intensity and passion never heard before on his pop recordings.
The song made its first appearance on Ain't That Good News, the last album to be released within Cooke's lifetime. The LP did well, peaking at number 34 on the Billboard Pop Albums chart, making it more successful than Cooke's previous LP, 1963's Night Beat.
However, Cooke and his new manager Allen Klein thought the song deserved greater exposure. According to Guralnick's book, Klein persuaded Cooke to sing "A Change Is Gonna Come" on his February 7, 1964 appearance on The Tonight Show. Cooke sang the song; unfortunately, any impact it made was dimmed by The Beatles' history-making appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show just two days later. In a further misfortune, NBC did not save the tape of Cooke's performance, which has never turned up in private collections either. RCA Records had bypassed "Change" for Cooke's early 1964 single, instead releasing the tracks "Good Times" and "(Ain't That) Good News". But the company agreed to put the song out as a single late in the year, as the B-side to Cooke's latest potential hit, "Shake." At one of his last recording sessions, Cooke approved an edit to the song that would shorten it by about 30 seconds, increasing its chance for airplay on American radio stations.
Finally given proper attention, "A Change Is Gonna Come" became a sensation among the black community, and was used as an anthem for the ongoing civil rights protests. On R&B radio, the song peaked at number 9 on the Billboard Black Singles chart, and topped many local playlists, most notably in Chicago. The song had more limited success on top 40 radio. By February 1965, the song had peaked at number 31 on the Billboard Pop Singles chart and fallen off. Cooke, however, did not live to see the song's commercial success. On December 11, 1964, he was killed at the Hacienda Motel in Los Angeles, California under what some consider mysterious circumstances.
Though only a moderate success sales-wise, "A Change Is Gonna Come" became an anthem for the American Civil Rights Movement, and is widely considered Cooke's best composition. Over the years, the song has garnered significant praise and, in 2005, was voted number 12 by representatives of the music industry and press in Rolling Stone magazine's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and voted number 3 in the webzine Pitchfork Media's The 200 Greatest Songs of the 60s. The song is also among three hundred songs deemed the most important ever recorded by National Public Radio (NPR) and was recently selected by the Library of Congress as one of twenty-five selected recordings to the National Recording Registry as of March 2007. The song is currently ranked as the 95th greatest song of all time, as well as the seventh best song of 1965, by Acclaimed Music.
Despite its acclaim, legal troubles have haunted the single since its release. A dispute between Cooke's music publisher, ABKCO, and record company, RCA Records, made the recording unavailable for much of the four decades since its release. Though the song was featured prominently in the 1992 film Malcolm X, it could not be included in the film's soundtrack. By 2003, however, the disputes had been settled in time for the song to be included on the remastered version of Ain't That Good News, as well as the Cooke anthology Portrait of a Legend.
"A Change Is Gonna Come" was a precursor to many later socially-conscious singles, including Marvin Gaye's lauded "What's Going On". Al Green, a self-professed fan of Cooke, covered the song for the concert celebrating the 1996 opening of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. Green's live rendition was included in the soundtrack to the 2001 Michael Mann film Ali. James Taylor recorded a version specially for an episode of the same title of the television drama The West Wing. The Allman Brothers Band captured their performance of the song on their 2003 DVD Live at the Beacon Theatre.
Other notable artists who have covered the song include Allison Moorer, Jeffrey Gaines, Matt Doyle, Cory Wells, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, The 5th Dimension (in a 1970 medley with The Rascals' "People Got to Be Free"), The Band, Wayne Brady, Billy Bragg, Evelyn Champagne King, Solomon Burke, Terence Trent D'Arby, Gavin DeGraw, the Fugees, the Cold War Kids, The Gits, Deitrick Haddon, Patti Labelle, Solo, Prince Buster, Morten Harket, The Neville Brothers, jacksoul, Ben Sollee, Johnny P, Billy Preston, Otis Redding, Baby Huey (singer), Michael Thompson featuring Bobby Womack, Leela James, Tina Turner, The Righteous Brothers (Bobby Hatfield solo), The Gits, Brandy, and The Supremes, The Manhattans, Gerald Alston, Arcade Fire has used the song in support of Barack Obama's nomination for President of the United States. In recent years, the song has served as a sample for rappers Ghostface Killah (1996), Ja Rule (2003), Papoose (2006), Lil Wayne (2007) "Long Time Coming (remix)" Charles Hamilton, Asher Roth, and B.o.B (2009), and Nas's It Was Written album also features a similar opening as the song. On their album The Reunion hip-hop artists Capone-N-Noreaga used an excerpt from the song on the opening track which shares the same title as the Cooke original. British soul singer Beverley Knight says the song is her all time favourite and has performed it live many a time; most notably on 'Later with Jools Holland'. On May 6, 2008, during the seventh season of American Idol, the song was sung by contestant Syesha Mercado as the remaining top 4. After winning the 2008 United States presidential election, Barack Obama referred to the song, stating to his supporters in Chicago, "It's been a long time coming, but tonight, change has come to America." A duet of the song by Bettye LaVette and Jon Bon Jovi was included in We Are One: The Obama Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial. In Washington DC, in the days leading up to the Inauguration of Barack Obama, this song could be heard played constantly in the city centre.