Black Elvis

Sam Cooke Aims His Simplicity High

If there's an answer to this question, it's Elvis Presley. Not specifically—he didn't have that kind of racial chutzpah. But he did have that kind of omnivorousness. Talty sees Presley as Cooke's obverse—"If Elvis channeled gospel depths (and thus black history) through the voice of a Southern white boy, Cooke claimed the other half of the bargain"—and if that seems murky, it's probably because the truth is too close for him to focus on it. These were matched teen idols who craved universal acceptance and universal power. They were also dreamboats with gorgeous voices and studious manners who got more ass than Casanova. The few others who dared aim so high lacked either the right charisma (Bobby Darin, Paul Anka) or true pop touch (Jackie Wilson).

The very real differences between the two went well beyond skin color. Songwriter Cooke was much more intellectual and inquisitive (if not more intelligent), while Presley was the natural rocker (better dancer, too). Cooke also aspired to sophistication when the moment was right; he was far readier to cosset the moneyed adult audience at the Copa than Elvis was in Vegas six years later—by which time his earliest fans were moneyed adults themselves. But although close comparison reveals more melodrama in Presley's singing, the two shared something new—a vocal transparency that came across naive and unpremeditated. Their songs, especially the slower ones, were so simple-minded, melodically as well as lyrically, that pop connoisseurs still dismiss them as witless and banal. Sometimes I do too—but not without recognizing the aesthetic audacity their witlessness required.

In part their leap owed the fluid class structure of an America never so prosperous before or since. It was the right time for poor boys to prevail without kowtowing. But mostly it was about teenagers. Cooke and Presley made their pop moves just as American teenagers were making theirs. No matter how lowest-common-denominator the guidelines in the songwriting handbooks Cooke studied and quoted, Tin Pan Alley never conceived an audience whose mean age was 16. It never tried to make the world sing along to sentiments so blissfully uncomplicated they could stimulate vaginal secretions in listeners who'd barely begun to menstruate. And like it or not this was a wondrous thing. To my way of hearing, the assiduously rehearsed, alertly reconceived tightness and musicality of Cooke's Copa set boils down to schlock—handcrafted schlock, like most schlock that goes over, but imbued with complacency when all is said and sung. In contrast, the silly likes of "Cupid" and "Only Sixteen" reach out to the disempowered as surely as "Touch the Hem of His Garment" and "Nearer to Thee." It should go without saying that this kind of disempowerment is in crucial respects temporary—more privileged than it knows, and hence unrealistically hopeful. But the confluence remains inspirational nonetheless.

Since I am not now and never have been a pubescent female, and don't happen to be one of those who are deeply touched by the physical reality of Cooke's epochal voice, my personal connection to this aesthetic achievement will always be compromised. But I'm awed by it. Unlike Stephan Talty, who in a telling omission never mentions "A Change Is Gonna Come," I don't feel betrayed by Cooke's inevitable abandonment of his grandest pop dreams—blame the pains of business, the righteousness of the civil rights movement, the ennui of the pussy quest, the swimming-pool death of his one-year-old son, and age. When he regaled an all-black r&b audience at Miami's Harlem Square Club with hard-edged revvings of hits suitable and not, it was hardly what Talty brands "his biggest sham." But it also wasn't a birthright finally reclaimed. Neither was "A Change Is Gonna Come," which while consciously informed by both blues and gospel was sparked by his envious respect for "Blowin' in the Wind," now in retrospect the lesser creation. He couldn't have repeated it any more than "You Send Me"—strokes like that are unrepeatable, just stages on the road. I have no idea whether Cooke would have politicized soul music, gone Vegas, or both, and neither did he. But I'm certain he would have continued to interpret his times and his heritage with a complexity his simplicity somehow comprehended.

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