What really happened to Sam Cooke?

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Sam Cooke

Dueling documentaries spark interest in alleged murder conspiracy

By Stephanie Gadlin

National Correspondent

More than five decades after influential musician and soul singer Sam Cooke was mysteriously killed, people continue to be fascinated with the case and whether or not he was assassinated because of his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement and his resistance to having his publishing ‘taken over by the mob.’

Cooke, the iconic, 33-year-old activist and business mogul from Chicago was murdered December 11, 1964 at a seedy Los Angeles motel after allegedly being robbed by a 22-year-old woman, later said to be a call girl.

11 Dec 1964, Los Angeles, California, USA — Police said Mrs. Berth Lee Franklin, 55, shown here 12/11, fired the shot that killed Sam Cooke, a popular singer with the teenage set, when he kicked in the door of her apartment. According to police, Mrs. Frankin, manager of a motel, had been warned previously on the telephone by another motel resident that there was a prowler on the premises. Officers said they learned he was searching for a female companion who was located later. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Officially, the case was ruled justifiable homicide when the 55-year-old hotel manager, Bertha Franklin, claimed she had shot and beaten the singer to death in self-defense and despite his celebrity, she didn’t know who he was.

16 Dec 1964, Los Angeles, California, USA — Witness Elisa Boyer, wearing a disguise, testifies during the Coroner’s Inquest of the murder of soul singer Sam Cooke. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

The sudden and violent death of the hitmaker, who produced chart-topping songs such as “A Change is Gonna Come,” “What A Wonderful World,” “You Send Me,” and “Having A Party,” rocked Black America. More than 200,00 people viewed his remains at A.R. Leak Funeral Home and over 15,000 flocked to Tabernacle Baptist Church for his funeral on January 2, 1965. Thousands more attended a second set of services in California, where he was later buried.

However, as more details emerged in the events offered by police, the community became alarmed. Their concerns, combined with the fact that the singer was being surveilled by the FBI due to his ties to Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, and because he had fought to keep whites from stealing his lucrative entertainment empire, fueled a number of conspiracy theories that have yet to be satisfied.

Now researchers and amateur sleuths alike have begun to explore the case again with renewed interest, thanks to two new, and dueling documentaries specifically dedicated to the singer’s murder.

Jean-Alexander Ntivyihabwa, the executive producer of the 2017 documentary, “Lady You Shot Me: The Life and Death of Sam Cooke,” told the Crusader that while he was enthusiastic about the possibility of reopening Cooke’s case, he is not pleased that a competing project allegedly ripped off his film without permission or so much as a credit.

LOS ANGELES RADIO host Bill Gardner with Christian Lache (Camera), David Czarnetzki (Director), and Jean-Alexander Ntivyihabwa (Producer).

Speaking from his Hamburg, Germany, production house, SMP Signed Media Produktion GmbH & Co. KG, Ntivyihabwa says Netflix’s “ReMastered” docu series episode, “The Two Killings of Sam Cooke,” is a blatant ripoff of his film and he’s now demanding answers. The film made its debut on the streaming channel on February 8th of this year.

“It is a blatant ripoff,” Ntivyihabwa said.

“Lady You Shot Me,” directed by David Czarnetzki, became available for consumers in the U.S. this month via Amazon Prime. It premiered in the U.S. on Public Broadcasting System (PBS) also earlier this year. It differs slightly in the Netflix offering by delving more into Cooke’s business interests and the subsequent theft of his publishing rights after his death.

Ntivyihabwa said he became interested in the story while studying Black culture. As the son of a German woman and a Burundi, African father, he said he had always been searching throughout the Diaspora for anything that could connect him to his culture.

“I’ve always been fascinated with American soul music and the power of Sam Cooke,” said Ntivyihabwa. “It was sometime around 2012 when I first started thinking of doing this project. After some time, I finally was able to get “Lady You Shot Me,” financed by ZDF/Arte in 2015. We shot it in April 2016 and aired it in France and Germany in May 2017.

“So you can imagine my surprise when I found out [the other film] was coming out with a similar documentary,” filmmaker Ntivyihabwa said. “Then I remembered that some guy had contacted me via email while we were editing our film, asking to see our research. We declined and thought nothing of it until Netflix aired “The Two Killings” this year. I was shocked to see they had nearly copied most of what we had done—all the way down to having the same people interviewed in the same clothes and saying the exact same thing they said in our film.”

Attempts to reach a representative from Netflix or All Rise Films, the producers of the Cooke documentary, were unsuccessful. However, Ntivyihabwa told this writer, “This is not a coincidence. We found out that this is the same company that has been sued by another film company saying that they stole their idea about Bob Marley,” he said.

In 2018, Jeff and Michael Zimbalist were sued for allegedly stealing the concept for Netflix’s music documentary series, “ReMastered.” They were accused in a lawsuit of plagiarizing parts of ‘I Shot the Sheriff,’ described by plaintiffs as exploring “the controversies and conspiracy theories behind the separate and unrelated shootings in Jamaica of two of the world’s most famous reggae stars, Bob Marley and Peter Tosh,” according to trade magazine the Hollywood Reporter.

“I just want the public to know that this is not really their idea,” Ntivyihabwa continued, “and [especially a documentary] with the same content and the same [presentation of] facts. The research has been done, but done by us, and not by them.”

Accusations of copying are not uncommon, particularly in documentaries where people are limited by facts, chronology and the living witnesses available to them, said veteran entertainment Attorney Dalia Saber. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there are similarities [between the two films]… But again, it’s going to be an uphill battle [seeking legal remedy] anytime you’re dealing with books or creative works where you are not accusing someone of direct plagiarism but instead of copying the feel or the narrative,” she said.

“Unless you are literally copying footage from one documentary and using it in another it’s going to be an uphill battle to claim copyright infringement,” Saber added.

Ntivyihabwa agreed. “After consulting my lawyer in Berlin, I did not file a cease and desist letter to Netflix. I was told, that the basic story is not fictional and therefore not protected by law,” he said. “The theft of intellectual property is difficult to prove. It would be very risky and expensive to sue Netflix.”

In the meantime, the German filmmaker said he was working to raise money to possibly do a sequel to his film if he can raise more money. “I have something they don’t know about,” he said. “We found Elisa Boyer, the woman who was with Cooke in that motel the night he was killed. We hired a private eye to find her and we did. I decided not to use the interview because she was quite feeble, and I could not tell if she was simply playing a role or really in poor shape.

“Either way, I’m thinking she remains the key and now maybe her conscience will allow her to tell the truth about what happened that night,” Ntivyihabwa said, refusing to disclose the woman’s location. “There’s a lot more to this story and if there is any consolation here it is that maybe my film will spark an investigation into what really happened to Sam. It has already sparked a copycat.”

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1 COMMENT

  1. I think it’s really rich that these German filmmakers claimed they were ripped off. They did not hire a private detective. That private detective is a friend of mine who worked with me on my book One More River to Cross: the Redemption of Sam Cooke. I introduced them to him and we knew all along that Boyer was in Hawaii .

    We spoke at length innumerable times. I introduced them to a number of people in Los Angeles as well as in Chicago where they meant Sam’s now late nephew Eugene Jameson who was a godsend in helping me to write the book. Eugene died of cancer in November of 2017 oh, but that’s summer he was livid that these filmmakers used a bogus title. They know damn well she did not shoot him. It really upset the family that they use this title.

    Furthermore they cut out not only their interview with me, but also did not speak with Lou Rawls Jr who was Sam’s godson or Johnny Morrisett Je.,who knows the story of his father’s involvement as a go-between with Allen Klein and Sam Cooke that evening.

    I have contacted an attorney to deal with the Zimbalist Brothers in this matter. I sent them a cease-and-desist as soon as I heard about the film. What the Germans do not know is that there is a man named David Washington who claimed to have been friends with Allen Klein who is behind this film. He may have even been the ones who paid the Zimbalists. He is something of a thorn in the side of real Sam Cooke fans who have been fervently researching details over the years. He claims Klein couldn’t possibly have had the money 2 do what he is accused of oh, yet he bought out Sam Cooke’s catalog. Where did he get this money from? Because Cline was a middleman for the mob which included Sam Giancana and even Vito Genovese from his jail cell who gave orders to his guys. Those two ran the music business. Guys like Klein did their dirty work. Sam Giancana’s bagman John Montague wormed his way into Sam’s Inner Circle and enticed JW Alexander Sam’s labels partner. It was a complete coup. He registered the labels in a Reno courtroom and Sam ended up working for Klein on paper. Sam found out about it days before his death according to his sister Agnes who is now passed.

    Meanwhile, these low-life Zimbalist Brothers sent a consultant to my friend and my contact outside of LA, who gave me the backstory on Sam’s killing from a now deceased singer that Sam had befriended who knew Klein’s security detail, the guys who sat in the back of his limo with guns as described by Hal Blaine. This guy refused to work with them because he accuse them to their face of ripping off my book. What they did in this movie however was similar to what the Germans did and that they called some information but wove it into their own narrative. The Germans didn’t do anybody any favors by denying the physical evidence of the case. In both cases these filmmakers did not come to a conclusive end. But we know that there was one. We know that Sam was beaten to death not just shot. We know that if his body were exhumed we would find out the truth. There were Witnesses at his Chicago funeral who said the body was in far worse shape than when they cleaned it up in LA. His family and friends attest to this. Everyone knows what happened to him who knew Allen Klein.

    I spent days in the LA courthouse annex basement going through the probate papers of Sam and Barbara cook. Allen Klein had usurped. I saw the changes he made including leaving out Sam’s brother’s name which had been on the 45 of chain gang and was now not listed amongst the probate titles. I included it in my recent book.

    We will get the truth out and it will be in the form of a feature film because it’s a far bigger story than just this. I spent 10 years on my book and I’m not going to let these clowns pick the bones dry. Too many people have been waiting for the truth about Sam Cooke’s death for too long including his family who Not only was deprived of him, the deprived of the way he had taken care of them so lovingly.

    BG Rhule

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