"Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke"
(Reviewed by Hagen Baye SEP 30, 2006)
Peter Guaralnick reports just about all there is to know about Sam Cooke in his massive, epic tome of a biography of this man of immense talent in Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, appropriately (although there is no express statement that it was) published around the time of what would have been Sam Cooke’s 75th birthday. Cooke was killed just as his career was peaking. At the time he was shot to death in a shabby motel on December 11, 1964, he was the #2 moneymaker for RCA, 2nd only to Elvis. He had thus achieved the universal acclaim he sought and was poised to take his career to even greater unprecedented heights, for as Guralnick demonstrates throughout this book Cooke was “that rare individual whose horizons kept expanding right up till the day he died.”
Guralnick chronicles that Sam Cooke was born "without the e" on January 22, 1931 in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where his preacher father earned his keep by sharecropping. Rev. Charles Cook was not one to settle for less and by the time Sam was 2, the whole family had migrated north to Chicago, where Rev. Cook took on a church and worked as hard as he could to support his growing family.
A theme throughout Guralnick’s book is how Sam was influenced by the values espoused by his father. Those principles included: treat everyone with respect but also demand that due respect be reciprocated; do not back down if you are right (“Don’t you all run from nobody.”); be the best at whatever you do; accept no limits to what you can accomplish; and there is nothing wrong with worldly success. Self-reliance was very important to Rev. Cook, and this was well inculcated in Sam. Because of this, Cooke possessed an uncommon, innate business sense that led to his founding his own music label and publishing company and his owning the rights to the songs he wrote, virtually unprecedented for African-American performers of his era.
Cooke was a naturally talented singer. As a child, he was the standout of The Singing Children, which consisted of Sam and his siblings, who sang as part of their father's services. In his teens, Cooke shined as the lead of a teen gospel group, the Highway QCs. His talent was such that just before his 20th birthday, he was recruited to replace R.H. Harris, the renowned lead singer of the premier gospel quartet of the time, The Soul Stirrers. Despite the doubts of some, the unforgettable and enchanting quality of Sam’s voice soon made everyone forget about Harris and brought The Soul Stirrers and gospel music generally to new heights of popularity. But being his father's son meant that Cooke could not settle for a limited audience (or income). On his own, he began to dabble in writing secular songs and to believe that he could achieve universal acclaim as a singer of popular music. So, at the age of 26, in 1957, Cooke left The Soul Stirrers and began a solo career as a popular music artist. During a too short 7-year career as a solo artist, Cooke amassed a body of work, as singer, performer and songwriter that any superstar would have been proud to retire to at the age of 75. Starting with his first major pop hit, “You Send Me,” there followed such hits as “Cupid,” “(What a) Wonderful World,” “Chain Gang,” “Twistin’ the Night Away,” “Shake,” “Another Saturday Night,” “Having a Party” and “A Change is Gonna Come,” which solidified Cooke’s place in the annals of American music and songwriting. Recognition of his achievements includes inaugural induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame when it first opened in 1986 and induction to the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
As detailed throughout Guralnick’s book, Sam Cooke possessed a prodigious, monumental talent. He was said to be a dynamic performer with a voice and style that’s been described as unforgettable, enduring and mesmerizing that reached out and grabbed his audience. As contemporary Lloyd Price (“Personality,” “Stagger Lee,” “Lawdy Miss Clawdy”) related to Guralnick, “He did not have to dance, he didn’t have no tricks—you know, we all had to have tricks—he just did the same thing he did in the church, and by the time he finished, I don’t think there was a person sitting down in the room.” When Cooke first joined the Soul Stirrers he felt pressure to emulate the “shouting” styles of certain other established gospel singers, like Archie Brownlee. Later, after he moved over to secular music, he felt the need to introduce elements of the acts of his competitors, like Jackie Wilson, into his performance. Such attempts were quickly abandoned, for Cooke realized that he was quite capable of “bringing down the house” without having to resort to gyrations, theatrics or anything other than his own natural singing style. (One just has to compare Cooke’s rendition of his song “Shake” with that of soul singer extraordinaire Otis Redding (10 years Cooke’s junior, who adored Cooke and who also died too young, at the age of 26, in a plane crash in December 1967). Cooke does not break a sweat. Redding, on the other hand, is a sweaty mess; yet with much less effort Cooke elicits the same, if not more emphatic, response from his listeners than Redding.)
Indeed, Jerry Wexler, the co-owner of Atlantic Records, where Ray Charles got his start (and who along with Cooke is said by Guralnick in his Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom (Harper & Row, 1986) to be the originators of what came to be known as soul music) actively sought to sign Cooke (who instead heeded Clyde McPhatter’s advice against it) and said that he was “the best singer who ever lived, no contest. When I listen to him, I still can’t believe the things that he did. It’s always fresh and amazing to me; he has control, he could play with his voice like an instrument, his melisma, which was his personal brand—I mean, nobody else could do it—everything about him was perfection….” Based on the record amassed by Guralnick, such assessment is not at all exaggerated.
Guralnick’s book follows Cooke on tour during his gospel years, both with the Highway QCs and The Soul Stirrers, and then as a solo artist. He details performances, recording sessions; indeed, all aspects of his professional life (and quite a bit about his personal life as well). He covers Cooke and his relationships with such contemporaries and peers as Ray Charles, James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Little Richard, Clyde McPhatter, Lou Rawls, even Dion, Bobby Darin and Ricky Nelson, and also such up and comers of the generation of entertainers that follows Cooke’s as a young Aretha Franklin, teenagers Gladys Knight and Billy Preston, nervous novice performer Dionne Warwick, Caesar and Cleo before they became known as Sonny and Cher; Herb Alpert (who co-wrote “(What a) Wonderful World” with Cooke and Lou Adler (who later produced the historic Monterey Pop concert of 1967)) before The Tijuana Brass, and Jimmy Hendrix before he became Jimi Hendrix. Guralnick also reports on Cooke’s rubbing shoulders with Cassius Clay/Mohammed Ali, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Sam Cooke lived during the cross roads of major historic changes, involving not only the music industry (on which he had a profound influence, for his money making ability aided in the elimination of the barriers that had previously blocked the general public’s access to so-called “race” music), but also race relations. Cooke was not insulated from what was swirling around him, especially during the late 50’s and early 60’s when the civil rights movement was gaining momentum and being confronted with violence by the worse elements, particularly in the South. When it got personal, he would not back down. Rather than perform before a segregated audience, he joined Clyde McPhatter and others and boycotted. When his hotel reservations in Shreveport were not honored because of his race, he argued so vehemently that he was arrested. Toward the end of his life, Cooke is said to have despaired over the fact that the reality of who he was and what he accomplished did not overshadow the reality that he was a black man and as vulnerable as any to the scourge of racism.
Guralnick does not portray Cooke as a saint. In particular, Guralnick is upfront about Cooke’s womanizing; women found him irresistible and Cooke, quite a handsome man, could not resist. Guralnick details the ways in which Cooke mistreated his wife, his childhood sweetheart, Barbara Campbell, and how cruel he was to his son Vincent, due to his suspicion that Vincent was not his. When Vincent was 18 months old, in mid-1963, he drowned in the family pool, partly due to Cooke’s failure to replace the cover over the pool after a morning swim. Cooke suffered tremendous guilt on account of his carelessness and his failure to love the child. The finality of Vincent’s death confronted Sam with a problem that his charm and inventiveness could not fix. According to his protégé Bobby Womack (who would marry Cooke’s widow soon after his burial), this caused Cooke to despair of life, as evidenced in part by the dirge-like, eerie quality of “A Change is Gonna Come” which was written soon thereafter.
Toward the end of his life, Cooke produced such young African-American singers starting in the business as The Sims Twins, Johnny Morissette, The Valentinos (consisting of protégé Bobby Womack and his brothers), and Johnnie Taylor. Cooke even produced a number of records for The Soul Stirrers. Just before he died, he founded the first of what was intended to be a string of inner-city music studios to serve as a springboard for aspiring African-American artists. Had he lived beyond 1964 and through the transitional years of the balance of the 60’s, there is no telling what else Cooke would have contributed with respect to race relations and the music industry.
Cooke died under the most unfortunate and tawdry of circumstances, on the tragic morning of December 11, 1964. He had picked up a woman and brought her to a seedy motel. While he was in the bathroom, this woman apparently ran out with his clothes and shoes, including his wallet. It appears that Cooke suspected the motel manager to be in cahoots with the woman, and during a struggle in the motel office, the manager (an African-American woman) pulled out a gun and shot him dead. The coroner ruled it “justifiable homicide.”
Dream Boogie is an exhaustive, 651 page biography. In writing it, Guralnick draws on his better than 30 years' worth of research of American popular music in all of its varied forms, country and western, blues, rhythm and blues, soul, rock and roll, etc. Guralnick lists over 350 persons who were interviewed for his account of Sam Cooke’s life and times. Guralnick says he had unfettered access to the extensive archives of materials pertaining to Cooke’s life and work under the control of Allen Klein, Cooke’s manager at the time of his death and who had recouped hundred of thousands of dollars in outstanding royalties owed Cooke by RCA and negotiated an unprecedented deal with RCA that was said to have virtually secured Cooke’s financial future.
The book’s exhaustiveness will serve as a valuable resource for historians, commentators and others interested in Sam Cooke for years to come. There is little question that the casual reader will be deterred by the book’s length, an average of 20 pages for each year of Cooke’s short life. Some may argue that a condensed version would better serve to broaden its readership base. On the other hand, about half way through, the book does take on the quality of a mystery for a reader anxious to learn about what transpired during Cooke’s final years, and this heightened curiosity just may minimize the book’s length even for the casual reader.
While Guralnick does cover the immediate aftermath of Cooke's death, readers would probably also be interested in a brief statement about the status of Cooke’s wife, children, parents, siblings, and closest associates as of the 2005 publication date of the book. What’s an additional paragraph or two more after 650 pages?
Postscript: To supplement Dream Boogie, Cooke devotees have numerous choices. Among them is a DVD, Sam Cooke-Legend (ABKCO, 2003), a documentary scripted by Guralnick and narrated by Lou Rawls (a childhood friend of Cooke's who recently died at the age of 72). There is also an outstanding collection of thirty of Cooke's songs (24 of which he wrote or co-wrote, and which also includes the first song Sam recorded as a Soul Stirrer) on a recently issued CD, SAM COOKE: PORTRAIT OF A LEGEND: 1951-1964 (ABKCO Records, 2003). Also, RCA re-issued in 2005 a CD with Cooke's 1963 performance at Miami's Harlem Square Club, One Night Stand! SAM COOKE LIVE at The Harlem Square Club (RCA Victor/SONY BMG Music Entertainment, 2005), which is said to be representative of the live performances Cooke would give on the so-called "chitin circuit." Guralnick wrote liner notes for both of these CDs. The notes for the "Portrait" CD relate the fascinating inspirations behind certain of Cooke’s songs. For example, Guralnick writes how Cooke was both impressed and embarrassed that "a white boy" (a young Bob Dylan) could write such a fine civil rights song like “Blowin' in the Wind” and that this provided the challenge that resulted in “A Change is Gonna Come,” Cooke's "magnum opus," heralded as the anthem of the civil rights movement.
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Feel Like Going Home: Portraits in Blues and Rock 'n Roll (1971)
- Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians (1979)
- Searching for Robert Johnson: The Life and Legend of the "King of Delta Blues Singers" (1989)
- Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom (1986)
- Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley (1994)
- Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley (1999)
- Dream Boogie (October 2005)
- Almost Grown: Stories (1964)
- Mister Downchild: Stories (1967)
- Nighthawk Blues (1980)
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- Salon.com article on Peter Guralnick
- Spike Magazine review of Careless Love
- U.S. News Q&A on Dream Boogie
- The Village Voice review on Dream Boogie
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About the Author:
Peter Guralnick was born in 1943 in Boston, Massachusetts. He graduated from Boston University in 1971 with a master's degree in creative writing.
Guralnick is widely regarded as the nation's preeminent writer on twentieth-century American popular music.