In a vast new biography, Peter Guralnick takes on the late, great, silky-smooth crooner Sam Cooke.
How does an American artist aim for a broad audience without being accused of selling out? Trying to maintain your distinctiveness while entering the mainstream is particularly fraught for black performers, who can find their desire to generate a widespread following dismissed as a bid to join the white world.
The most overt, dramatic and controversial example of this struggle was Ray Charles’ switch from the R&B he recorded at Atlantic Records to the orchestrated pop, country music, show tunes and Beatles covers he recorded when he made the lucrative move to ABC Records in 1959. Though, if you have the ears to hear, what comes through is consistency. There is just as much soul in Charles’ string-laden “Moonlight in Vermont” as in the guttural exhortations of “I Got a Woman.” Which is not to say everything he did was equally great, but that Charles’ career exposed the narrow ways in which we decide what constitutes “authenticity.” It was inevitable that Charles, who truly deserves the overworked appellation “genius,” wouldn’t be content with one color on the musical palette and would try to encompass as much of American popular music as he could.
If the tension between pop and soul doesn’t seem so overt in the case of Sam Cooke, it may be because many people never assumed it was there. While a large portion of the black audience already knew Cooke from his tenure with the gospel group the Soul Stirrers, when his first hit single — that sweet summer breeze of a song “You Send Me” — brought him to national attention, he was seen by a much larger audience as just about the silkiest singer imaginable.
But if the tension seemed less present in the music, it was there in Cooke’s psyche, and the conflict between assimilation and individualism is the strongest overarching theme in Peter Guralnick’s new biography, “Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke.”
Guralnick had wanted to write a Cooke biography ever since meeting Cooke’s business partner, J.W. Alexander, in 1982. Other books intervened, none more time-consuming than his two-volume biography of Elvis Presley, “Last Train to Memphis” and
Still, there’s one problem with “Dream Boogie.” While Guralnick the meticulous researcher and compassionate interviewer is present, the part of him that synthesizes and brings a critic’s eye to the story is absent here. This is particularly disappointing in the long section that comes about a third of the way into the book that covers the time between Cooke’s leaving the Soul Stirrers and his finding his feet in the pop world, alternating great singles like “Twistin’ the Night Away” with brassy albums of standards, and his establishing himself as both a star and a businessman. There’s no denying that business is key to the Sam Cooke story. But there are times when you wish Guralnick would cut through the details of the meetings and negotiations and simply tell us what it meant for Cooke to set up a publishing company, what it meant for him, along with Alexander, to found the SAR record label. (You can get a more concise view of this from the liner notes Guralnick has contributed to the new CD reissues of the Cooke albums “One Night Stand! Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club” and “Night Beat.”)
It’s worth persevering, though, because “Dream Boogie” offers ample evidence that the historian-as-storyteller is still kicking around. Guralnick brings the gospel touring circuit of the ’50s and the soul circuit of the ’50s and ’60s to life and gets at how, in the temptations available on each, the sacred held no more sway than the secular. This is where his determination to let the story tell itself really does work. Guarlnick not only calls up a vanished milieu; his vivid portrayal of that scene helps to explain Cooke’s drive to move beyond it.
For all the fondness in Guralnick’s stories of traveling, boozing, womanizing (at one point, three different women gave birth to a child of Cooke’s at virtually the same time), for all the thumbnail vividness in the sketches of the characters and musicians Cooke met both on and off the road (“In mid-November they signed Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson, a star on the L.A. R&B scene whose talent was exceeded only by his panache and by his ambivalence about whether he wanted to be a singer or a pimp”), the second-rateness of the chitlin circuit comes through. The performers are forced to stay in lousy hotels because the better ones are segregated, as are the restaurants. As far as the sight of a group of black men driving a new car in the South, forget it. At times it seems obvious that Cooke’s older brother, Charles, who’d had run-ins with the law, was hired as driver as much to keep him out of trouble as for the muscle he could provide.
And there was worse. For Cooke and for every performer on this circuit, there were too many examples of the dangers both within and without. The R&B singer Jesse Belvin died in a car accident caused by slashed tires, and the damage was thought to have been inflicted by white fans angered by Belvin’s refusal to play a segregated show. In the months before Cooke died in December 1964, Frankie Lymon had already been arrested for possessing heroin; he’d die a junkie four years later. The great Little Willie John would be arrested for killing a man in an argument. Ray Charles had been busted for heroin in Boston.
The horrors and humiliations of the road might have been enough to impress themselves on anyone. Cooke’s upbringing ensured they did. Cooke was the son of a conservative preacher, so it might be supposed that Cooke — who gave up sacred music for secular, who loved his women, who enjoyed all the advantages that money and being a truly beautiful-looking man brought him — was a rebel. In truth, he took his father’s advice to heart. “Respect your elders, respect authority,” Guralnick recounts it. “But if you were in the right, don’t back down for anyone, not the police, not the white man, not anyone.” It’s possible that what protected Cooke in some confrontations was the astonishment he provoked in others by being a black man who did not back down. Guralnick tells a story about Cooke’s running out of gas on tour in Memphis. Waiting for Charles to come back from the service station, Cooke was approached by a white cop who told him to move the car, to push it if he had to. “His name was Sam Cooke, and he didn’t push cars,” is what he told the cop, before finally saying, “You push the fucking car. You may not know who I am, but your wife does. Go home and ask your wife about me.” The unmistakable sexual nature of that taunt makes you gasp, as does the fact that Cooke got away with it.
“Dream Boogie” leaves you wishing that Guralnick had more fully explored how Cooke’s career embodied both the desire to integrate and the belief in black self-determination (and also how, if Malcolm X and Martin Luther King had lived, how those views might have reconciled themselves). Cooke wanted to find the widespread popularity that Nat King Cole and Harry Belafonte had (Belafonte’s “Calypso” LP had spent three years on the charts), which inevitably would have meant moving more toward the middle of the road. But he also seemed adamant that that popularity would give him the freedom to move beyond pop, to meld together all his influences, and to have an audience that was primed to follow him as he did.
Guralnick records several incidents that reveal Cooke was aware of the changes taking place in pop music. He admired the Beatles. Hearing “Blowin’ in the Wind” on “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” inspired him to write “A Change Is Gonna Come,” which has rightly been called the greatest soul song of all time. And Guralnick quotes Bobby Womack, whose “It’s All Over Now” was covered and turned into a hit by the Rolling Stones, telling Cooke that this guy — Mick Jagger — couldn’t sing. Womack simply wouldn’t believe it when Cooke told him the Stones represented the future. (In fact, the Stones would soon be represented by Allen Klein, the accountant-turned-agent who managed Cooke during the last year and a half of his life. Not the least important accomplishment of “Dream Boogie” is its portrait of Klein, more complex and nuanced than others that have painted him as one of the principal villains in the breakup of the Beatles.) Could a man with such catholicity of musical taste (matched, from everything Guralnick tells us, by his omnivourous taste in reading) be satisfied with making middle-of-the-road pop?
Certainly those two recently reissued RCA recordings suggest not. “One Night Stand! Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club” hints that Cooke still had some musical integration of his own to accomplish. Recorded at the Saturday night late show in a packed Miami club in 1963, it can stand with “Otis Redding Live in Europe” as one of the greatest live albums ever. This was the show Cooke did on the soul circuit, quite different from the one he’d record the next year before a largely white audience at the Copacabana in New York City (“Sam Cooke at the Copa”), and it took RCA more than 20 years to issue it. It’s a raw show; Cooke’s voice is raspy throughout and the sort of call-and-response interaction between performer and audience marks just how fully Ray Charles and others had succeeded in bringing the fervor of gospel into R&B. The accounts of Cooke’s live performances in “Dream Boogie” suggest that he relied largely on his voice to seduce a crowd instead of the theatrics that were a staple of Jackie Wilson’s act. Whatever his physical presence was that night in Miami, you can hear, just by the vocals, what whips the crowd up, why every song is punctuated by shouts of excitement. By the time Cooke and the band reach the closer, an extended “Having a Party,” you feel as if you could die from sheer happiness, and as if you’re ready to.
“Night Beat,” which might be the only satisfactory studio album Cooke completed in his lifetime, suggests that Cooke was well on his way to merging the direct emotion of soul with the sheen of pop. Obviously taking some inspiration from the “themed” albums Frank Sinatra had made at Capitol in the ’50s, “Night Beat” aims to get the feel of the blues and spirituals (the album opens with “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” and includes numbers by Willie Dixon and Charles Brown) into a relaxed late-night groove. The album succeeds in creating a sound that is both mellow and deeply emotional, which, of course, is not a contradiction in terms.
The best argument for why Guralnick the critic should be more present in “Dream Boogie” (the title is taken from a Langston Hughes poem) is that Cooke was at his most complex in his music. For much of this book, Sam Cooke comes off as somewhat indistinct. Everyone Guarlnick interviews tells us he was a charmer, highly motivated and ambitious, but they also refer to a veiled side. And while we see the flashes of temper, the ease with which he left groups and labels when he had a chance to further his own career, the callous attitude he had toward women (including his second wife, Barbara, who had fallen in love with him when she was a little girl), he remains something of an enigma — except in the music.
Cooke comes most alive toward the end, when he is both realizing his greatest popularity and suffering as he never has following the drowning death of the infant son who, because of (unfounded) doubts of his siring, he held distant in his affections. And it’s those washes of darkness and turmoil that serve Guralnick so well in the account of Cooke’s death suggesting that some sort of recklessness wasn’t out of the question. Cooke was shot to death by Bertha Lee Franklin, the proprietor of a $3 Los Angeles motel. He had gone to the motel with Erica Boyer, a hooker and, more to the point, a roll artist (someone who picked up men, took them to a hotel and, before any sex had taken place, absconded with their money). What happened there will always be a matter of dispute. Boyer claims she was kidnapped by Cooke and escaped with Cooke’s clothes when he went into the bathroom. Cooke, coming out and finding most of his clothes and money gone, started banging on the motel office, demanding Bertha Lee Franklin produce the girl. They got into a rough scuffle during which Franklin fired a shotgun into him.
Even if, as is likely, the homicide was justifiable, there are questions that have never been answered about whether, also as likely, Cooke was Boyer’s specifically chosen mark for the night. A private investigator hired by Allen Klein was on the verge of finding out, but Klein, fearing the results would damage Cooke’s reputation, dropped the investigation as he was requested to do by Cooke’s widow, Barbara. Inevitably, as with so many pop deaths (Tammi Terrell, Marvin Gaye, Kurt Cobain), all sorts of conspiracy theories have sprung up about the killing.
It was not uncommon to hear Cooke’s death talked of, bitterly, as the comeuppance that a racist society metes out to black men who got above themselves. Without diminishing Cooke, without denying Erica Boyer’s probable culpability in creating the situation that got Cooke shot, Guralnick understands the death as the sad, stupid waste of life and talent that resulted from Cooke putting himself in a very bad position.
For all the things that keep “Dream Boogie,” a solid, scrupulous, thoughtful biography, from being a truly great book, there’s no doubt that rock ‘n’ roll history, and, hell, American history, needs Peter Guralnick. His magisterial work on Elvis Presley, which can leave you feeling unmoored for days, convinced that you have just read, as Guralnick claims, “the saddest story” he knows, can stand alongside Taylor Branch’s ongoing “America in the King Years” and Robert Dallek’s two-volume life of LBJ as one of the greatest recent accomplishments in American biography. No subject Guralnick approaches in popular music is likely to have that immensity. But there are still pieces of the story of American music that call out for his perspicacity and decency and smarts.
We are in a period where, instead of turning our cultural past into the vast library it promised, technology has, by its pace, accelerated the culture of disposability. The CDs and DVDs available to us may form a library of the past, but the speed of our culture encourages us never to get past the new-releases wall. Rock journalism — God, even that name sounds like a relic — far from being the great enterprise it seemed 30 years ago, has given way to a sort of undifferentiated fandom. There is simply too much music for any critical sensibility to present a clear overview of our pop present. And so the solipsism Lester Bangs envisioned in his obituary for Elvis has, just as he predicted, come to hold all the cards. Too much pop music criticism no longer seems even interested in talking to an audience beyond the small one that will already know what the writer is talking about.
Which is why, even at the risk of seeming a mere archivist or even an old fogy, Guralnick needs to bring his talents to other figures who are in danger of becoming relics of a past that many people no longer believe they should care about. Buddy Holly and Otis Redding are just two of the titanic figures who need solid biographies written about them, as does an artist Guralnick has written about so lovingly in the past, Charlie Rich, still the least acknowledged great American singer of the 20th century. I can’t imagine how exhausting it must be to work on the scale that Guralnick does. I pray for his stamina. Our past needs the love and respect he continues to show it.
Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger. More Charles Taylor.
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