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In Search of Sam Cooke | The Nation

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In Search of Sam Cooke

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Klein is one of the most widely mistrusted figures in the history of the music business. In late 1963, with Cooke an established star who craved total autonomy, Klein formed a dummy corporation to receive Cooke's payments from RCA, named it after Cooke's daughter Tracey, installed Cooke as president and reserved 100 percent of its ownership for himself--an arrangement that, after Cooke's death, had a dire effect on the extended family Cooke had always propped up. By 1968, according to Rolling Stones chronicler Philip Norman, there were fifty lawsuits against Klein, who by then had his mitts on half the British Invasion, and much later he did two months for income-tax evasion. But although Guralnick details the Tracey setup, he pays less mind to its consequences than to Klein's financial genius in devising it. He stresses that when Cooke died intestate he was emotionally estranged from his wife. He pooh-poohs rumors that Cooke hoped to dump Klein as he had first manager Louis Tate and crossover-guru manager Bumps Blackwell, Specialty's Art Rupe and Keen's John Siamas, sixties manager Jess Rand and sixties booking agent Jerry Brandt. And by establishing Cooke's taste for reckless sex and, occasionally, prostitutes, he forestalls speculation about the singer's death, which some fantasists have even tried to pin on Klein.

About the Author

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

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As Guralnick says, it's "impossible to know exactly what happened" at that motel, although I wish he'd gone somewhere with the possibility he leaves open that prostitute Elisa Boyer and manager Bertha Franklin were in cahoots. Like him, however, I buy the semi-official version, in which Cooke had his money and clothes stolen by Boyer and was then shot by Franklin when he went looking for the thief (perhaps in one of those rare rages, Guralnick implies). But though Dream Boogie offers more interpretation than the Presley books, Guralnick continues to disdain speculation and unanswerable questions. Thus he never points out what is obvious--that whatever his feelings about Barbara, Cooke would certainly have preferred to leave his assets to some version of his family than to Klein. Nor does Dream Boogie engage the animadversions Wolff and others--especially Arthur Kempton, whose 2003 Boogaloo isn't even in the bibliography--level at Klein, who in Guralnick's portrait is a prince of a fellow, if a bit of a rogue, who was deeply touched by Sam Cooke. Since Guralnick makes clear that the book couldn't have been written without Klein and his archive, this smells bad. It's one thing to ignore Albert Goldman while you demolish him. Goldman was a liar and a cad. Wolff and Kempton are neither. You-are-there aesthetic or no you-are-there aesthetic, they deserve more respect--and Klein deserves less. By declining to defend Klein--and I don't assume he's indefensible--Guralnick effectively whitewashes him.

Guralnick's reluctance to polemicize doesn't merely reflect his humble subservience to the material. It also keeps him above the fray--especially the critical fray. He seems to regard himself as beyond disputation. So where his early work implied an informed version of the old blues-and-country-had-a-baby theory of rock and roll, writing about former Soul Stirrer Cooke--as in Sweet Soul Music, but not the Presley books--he has little choice but to emphasize rock and roll's more recently recognized gospel roots. Ex-gospel performers go pop by the dozen in Dream Boogie, while Guralnick's beloved blues is barely mentioned even though Cooke grew up in Muddy Waters's Chicago and sang the bejesus out of Howlin' Wolf's "Little Red Rooster." Because blues implies an outlaw ethos while gospel carries with it images of sustained social responsibility, blues-versus-gospel has become a contentious issue in rock history. Guralnick has the range and, here, opportunity to concoct a unified field theory. He doesn't.

In the end, what's most frustrating about this redolent story of a black hero killed by his irresistible attraction to--or principled refusal to abandon--"black" (or is it?) street life isn't a mere music writer's inability to convey tragic psychological imponderables. The imponderables render the book compelling in any case. Nor is it the Klein matter, which shouldn't be ignored but (as Guralnick might argue) is peripheral to Cooke's larger meaning. The frustration has to do with music. For sure, Cooke was a black hero cut down in his prime. But one must wonder whether he was also a great artist cut down in his prime. And if he wasn't, how does that inflect his heroism?

Too proud to forswear the white audience, Cooke presaged the soul style without bringing it to fruition, and his prolific songwriting, as Kempton is one of the few fans to say flat-out, mixed much corn with the likes of "Bring It on Home to Me," "Good Times" and the unquestionable masterpiece "A Change Is Gonna Come." So more than any other major rock artist--more even than Al Green or Aretha Franklin, and certainly more than any other charter member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame--his artistic power is bound up in how the individual listener responds to the physical reality of his voice. Guralnick works hard to pin down the specifics of this voice, isolating the genesis and impact of his yodel and analyzing his fusion of white-identified crooning techniques with the contained passion of his epochal Soul Stirrers predecessor, Rebert Harris. As often happens with great voices, however, he's reduced to metaphor when it comes down to cases, and they don't always suffice: "flexible and playful," OK, that's important, but "aching sense of loss, of lostness" won't ring as many bells. By now Guralnick knows Cooke's music better than almost anyone, so there's assuredly some truth value there. But it's not the kind of universal truth value Cooke aspired to. What is it about Sam Cooke? We still don't know.

In fact, it seems possible, despite how late Guralnick came to church music, that he's one of those who deep down prefers Cooke's Soul Stirrers recordings to his pop output. Although he has the wisdom to fight it, Guralnick is a folkie at heart, moved to his bones by pastoral versions of the simple, the true and the real. Intellectually, he gets this--he's not jiving when he praises the late Elvis milestones "In the Ghetto" and "Suspicious Minds." But emotional connection comes harder--he can explain what made "Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha" a hit, but designating it "irresistible" doesn't help everybody love it. This is probably why Dream Boogie's assessments of Cooke's music fall short.

What kind of story would it have been if, despite some masterstrokes and a few performances like the 1963 Miami show Guralnick annotated back in 1985, the most durable art the hero left behind predated his brave crossover quest? What kind of story would it have been if the price of the cultural triumph Cooke never fully achieved was musical compromises and trial balloons his truest believers can't get their hearts around? As someone who prefers Aretha Franklin's "You Send Me" to the original, no contest, and whose own response to Cooke's voice suggests that it's about on a par with that of the young Dionne Warwick, dissed in passing by Guralnick here, I believe those are stories worth being told. And like Greil Marcus after Goldman's Elvis, I fear they never will be. As monumental as Dream Boogie is, it could have been more monumental still.

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