In Search of Sam Cooke

In Search of Sam Cooke

A womanizing gospel king and black-pride pop star, Sam Cooke led a short life filled with contradiction.


Peter Guralnick’s Dream Boogie follows You Send Me, Daniel Wolff’s serious and authoritative Sam Cooke biography, by ten years. It’s nearly twice as long–too long, like so many doorstops before it, including Careless Love, the second volume of Guralnick’s life of Elvis. But it draws on research that would have justified an even more monumental book. Guralnick doesn’t add much to Wolff’s thesis. Both argue that though the soul singer who predated soul music made many records that fell short of his artistic potential, he was nevertheless a heroic figure, topping a voice that for those who loved it was liquid magic–cool, relaxed, infinitely inviting–with a questing intelligence and cultural ambition startling in a teen idol whose most important compositions included “You Send Me” and “Twistin’ the Night Away.” As Cooke strove for pop success, he funded one of the most resolutely black labels the record business has known. He supported the civil rights movement in word and deed. He studied black history. At the time of his death in December 1964, he really was a hero, cut down in his prime at 33, and Guralnick’s sense of this man, and of the lesser men and women who surrounded him, is vastly more complex and vivid than his predecessor’s.

That Wolff is no hack hardly puts him in a league with Guralnick, who alongside the more eccentric and intellectually ambitious Greil Marcus is the prestige brand in rock authordom. By 1986 Guralnick had published two major profile collections and Sweet Soul Music, which remains the go-to history of the style. Yet only with the 1994 publication of Elvis I, Last Train to Memphis, did many outside the specialist audience recognize his gift. Even in the intermittently clumsy 1971 Feel Like Going Home, where five of the eight subjects are bluesmen, Guralnick’s self-effacing eye lent a cinéma vérité authority lacking in, for instance, Michael Lydon’s hipper and slicker collection Rock Folk. By 1979’s Lost Highway, which focuses on country and rockabilly, he was a master of the journalistic portrait. Yet for Guralnick, who until the 1990s made his living running a summer camp he’d inherited, journalism was only a means to literature. Despite a few shortcomings, Last Train to Memphis justified his ambitions–it is a book that grows in the mind. I can’t see how any reader could come away unmoved by Elvis Presley’s intelligence, musicality and sense of spiritual adventure, or still crediting the character assassinations of Albert Goldman’s Elvis, which Marcus once predicted would be conventional wisdom in perpetuity.

Formally, Last Train to Memphis represented a major change. In the profiles, Guralnick aimed for the intensive reporting of New Journalism, but he also exploited the freewheeling first person of sixties rock criticism. While he was most often the nerd in the corner, jotting down details as his subjects lived their lives and, occasionally, answered his questions, at moments–in introductions, conclusions, afterwords, interjections and sometimes whole essays–he became the A student dazzled by meeting one of his highly unsuburban heroes, or explaining what makes that hero tick, or figuring out how rock and roll changed his life. From the first he had confidence in opinions he adjusted as he learned more. Over the years, however, he grew more discreet about revealing them as such–where in Sweet Soul Music the narrative he was compelled to impose on a welter of secondhand evidence also proved a story of personal discovery, in Last Train to Memphis Guralnick disappeared entirely, avoiding the “I” and limiting psychological interpretation and critical judgment.

The book tells Presley’s story you-are-there fashion, with he-said-she-said at a minimum, and dazzles anyway because Guralnick’s interviewing persona–where he presumably maintains his admirer-not-expert pose–induces people to tell him the damnedest things. Arcing up toward infinity before crashing to the death of Gladys Presley and Elvis’s induction into the Army, Last Train to Memphis is an unflinchingly affectionate argument for democratic genius. But Guralnick found it harder to extract tragedy from Presley’s decline into drugged isolation, and though Careless Love was praised profusely, even gratefully–rock and roll’s challenge to the reading classes exposed as a sham–its accreted detail becomes as boring as the second half of the King’s life. Because Cooke’s life didn’t divide down the middle, Dream Boogie fuses the moods of the two Presley volumes. But in the end it’s diminished–not drastically but markedly–by Guralnick’s reluctance to say what he thinks, an MO in which formal principle and professional convenience are difficult to distinguish.

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.

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.

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.

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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