Black Elvis

Sam Cooke Aims His Simplicity High

I note with interest that Peter Guralnick has taken over rock history's Sam Cooke concession. It's Guralnick who annotated the specially remastered 30-track centerpiece of Abkco's new Cooke campaign, the miraculously career-spanning Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964, as well as 2001's polemically progress-proving Keep Movin' On, the remastered Sam Cooke at the Copa, and others. He also scripted Abkco's 70-minute biographical DVD Legend, and if all goes well, his ink-and-paper biography should appear in 2004. Guralnick being award-winning Elvis biographer Guralnick, I assume his book will supplant Daniel Wolff's authoritative 1995 You Send Me—whatever our procedural disagreements, he is a dogged researcher and fabulous storyteller. Some will hope that he ties up the loose ends of Cooke's ugly death in 1964, when he was shot by a motel manager after being robbed by a prostitute, but I want dirt on Guralnick's quondam business associate, Abkco acronymsake Allen B. Klein. I also wonder whether this principled resister of critical fancy will venture any Presley analogies. Wolff doesn't, and neither, Lord knows, does Arthur Kempton, who bases a long section of his new r&b history, Boogaloo, on Wolff's work. But listening to Cooke as I read Wolff and Kempton, I found the similarities inescapable.

Wolff does note that Cooke's appeal to black teenagers paralleled Elvis's appeal to white ones, which is fundamental, although the equivalence wasn't precise—where Elvis inspired male imitators as well as arousing the girls, Cooke was a pure heartthrob. He was just 19 in 1951, when he replaced 34-year-old Rebert Harris in the Soul Stirrers, who Harris had forged into the definitive gospel quartet. Not until 1953 did he conquer the churches by devising his so-called yodel—the casually fluttered high note that surfaced pop on "You Send Me" in 1957. Yet from the first, other Soul Stirrers noticed that even when he was outsung, which was often, the crowd flocked to this handsome, polite, well-groomed high school graduate: "They like the boy. You can't help but people like him!" And from the first he was attracting females much younger than the church ladies it was gospel's mission to transport.

For many admirers, Cooke's gospel phase, which lasted almost as long as his pop career, sets a standard. Hyperbolic sage-entrepreneur Jerry Wexler, who once called Cooke "the best singer who ever lived, no contest," supposedly (I don't believe it) refuses to listen to his pop records. Kempton prefers Cooke's gospel work—"the only emotional content he could rely on to give his singing more depth, honesty, and coloration than he could otherwise provide"—without pretending it approaches that of Rebert Harris, Julius Cheeks, Archie Brownlee, or others Wexler doesn't mention. Among the rock-oriented, it's a truism that in his final years, which culminated prematurely with the magnificent "A Change Is Gonna Come," Cooke was returning to the rough authenticity of the Southern church, promising newer and greater triumphs in the soul years up the road as he read through his extensive black-history library and rejected Sammy Davis Jr. for Muhammad Ali. But this judgment misses what was most profound about Sam Cooke: his shallowness.

Take Cooke's renowned 1955 live version of the self-penned gospel hit "Nearer to Thee," which climaxes Specialty's three-disc Sam Cooke With the Soul Stirrers. His voice generating the grit he normally left to hard lead Paul Foster, Cooke whips up cathartic release in a classic performance whose excitement is nonetheless generic; Cheeks got something similar every night without trying so hard. In contrast, "You Send Me"—an all but lyricless song I heartily disliked as a 15-year-old and don't love now—was something never heard before. It was the B side of a major-key cover of "Summertime" because no one credited the commercial potential of a record that delivered nothing but Cooke's naked voice—its lucid calm, built-in smile, and mildly melismatic whoa-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh. Backup singers so white they make Presley's Jordanaires seem hep rendered the dumb concoction even weirder by accentuating the likelihood that this wimp was a Negro. Flipped instantly by r&b jocks, it was a No. 1 pop smash nationwide.

Professionally—until he ran up against Klein, who turned out to control the holding company set up to keep RCA away from his client's money—Cooke was a prodigy. He produced himself, owned his own publishing, started a successful label, and earned top dollar on the road. Thus it computes for Kempton to observe that he "was cautious in his art so that he might be daring in the conception of his life"; Cooke's much-bruited songwriting ability, Kempton complains, was good mostly for "facile ditties." But in the end this misses the point almost as thoroughly as encomia to his unalloyed genius. One writer who grasps the paradox is Stephan Talty, who in a striking essay published in First of the Month calls "You Send Me" "a masterpiece of nothingness," identifies the secret of Cooke's gospel singing as joy without reverence, and devotes more than 400 words to "Chain Gang," which everybody knows is one of the strangest pop records of all time and then takes for granted: a black-history buff moved by an actual Georgia road gang to purloin their sound and banalize their longing for freedom. "Who else but Cooke," Talty asks, "could see this tableau, the prisoners chanting in a call-and-response pattern as old as slavery itself, and think 'Top 40 hit'?"

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