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In Search of Sam Cooke | The Nation

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In Search of Sam Cooke

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Sam Cooke already envisioned a musical career as the 6-year-old lead tenor in the Singing Children, the family gospel group organized by his hard-hustling preacher/factory worker father, and as a young teenager he was both bookish and charismatic, one of those people who convinces anyone he talks to that he's there only for him--or her. Clean-cut and ingratiating, he was consciously set on stardom even then, and not just black stardom. The gospel equivalent of a matinee idol by age 22, he spent four years figuring out how to breach the pop market, which he conquered when the simple vocal showcase "You Send Me"--the B side of his first secular 45, a version of "Summertime" released under a pseudonym that fooled no one in the gospel world--turned him into an instant idol, adored by girls black and white. With young male fans he was never quite such a hit, but despite an ill-timed flop at the Copa in 1958, white adults took to him, and though he had his ups and downs, he was a consistent commercial presence: not the first gospel-trained singer to go pop, but until Aretha Franklin the biggest.

About the Author

Robert Christgau
Robert Christgau is senior editor and chief music critic of the Village Voice.

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But Cooke's opaque and compulsive sides also surfaced early. Exhibit A is the womanizing that would end with the race hero shot dead in his underwear by an ex-madam in a cheap southwest LA motel. He did jail time for "obscene literature" as a teenager, and even when he was the 17-year-old leader of the fledgling Highway QCs, his sexual appetites stood out on a gospel circuit that never equated holiness with chastity. By the time he'd joined the much bigger Soul Stirrers, Cooke was a well-known dog. Multiple witnesses recall his taste for orgies and much greater danger--once, in Texas, he had sex in the shower with the wife of a white radio man, who was passed out on Cooke's motel bed. He drank, too. He saw a continuing street connection--playing craps with the boys, greeting winos in the alley--as integral to his black pride. And like many driven charismatics, he held even intimate friends at a distance, in his case with "an inscrutably cheerful and impenetrable calm which, for all they knew, might merely have masked the simple fact that it was all as much a mystery to him as it was to them." That unknowability took other forms, including sudden rages all the more troubling for their infrequency. And then there was the way this affable, generous, idealistic guy screwed one manager, agent and label head after another.

Most of the peripheral characterizations that bring Dream Boogie alive are of African- Americans. There's Cooke's wife, Barbara, who avoided Guralnick for years before opening up. There's his singing brother L.C., his player brother Charles and his relentlessly striving father. There are satellites and running buddies like replacement Soul Stirrer Leroy Crume and Cooke's protégé Bobby Womack, who married Barbara two and a half months after Cooke died. The colleagues include civil rights pioneers like staunch NAACP supporter Clyde McPhatter and bandleader Harold Battiste, whose visionary musicians' collective became the house band at Cooke's SAR label, but most are on the wild side: gangster-friendly singer Lloyd Price and pugnacious Cooke imitator Johnnie Taylor; lost proto-soul balladeer Little Willie John, who would die in prison, and night-crawling Johnnie Morisette, who preferred pimping to singing. And there are disc jockeys, promoters and pros, like fast-talking Bumps Blackwell and Cooke's longtime advisers S.R. Crain and J.W. Alexander. But beyond Barbara Cooke and Bobby Womack, Guralnick's chief supporting players are white businessmen.

From the start this Jewish kid from New England proved deft at drawing out unlettered Southerners. But researching Sweet Soul Music, he came to realize that another class of middle-class white people shared this knack: the marginal entrepreneurs and music lovers who ran the companies that recorded such artists. That book celebrated not just Stax's Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton and Otis Redding manager turned Capricorn Records founder Phil Walden, but, through them, the de facto integration of the soul industry as Guralnick defined it--which excluded the poppier Motown and Philadelphia substyles, both masterminded by black bizzers. And some of Dream Boogie's most memorable descriptions are of white businessmen: in addition to many lesser figures, Specialty Records' Art Rupe, the liberal gospel enthusiast who chiseled his artists a bit less than was customary and was so affronted when they chiseled back that he quit the business; Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore of RCA, whose unbridled crassness in no way interfered with their candor, intelligence or sense of fun; and Allen Klein, the accountant turned manager who wrested Cooke's catalogue away from RCA and ended up controlling it himself--as he does, for instance, the Rolling Stones' sixties music.

This is a mark of quality, and an impressive leap for Guralnick, initially a folkie romantic for whom Elvis "never recaptured the spirit or the verve of those first Sun sessions." To reread Wolff's received takes on the above-named is to understand why not being a hack is never enough--there's no sense of these human beings' humanity. Still, Guralnick's taste in bizzers has to make you wonder. At stake isn't just the conundrum of why white executives dig gritty putative authenticity more than black ones, and whether this predilection doesn't arouse untoward sympathy in folkie romantics (not to mention observers who've mocked folkie romanticism for decades, like me). In this book, there's also the Allen Klein problem.

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