In the summer of 1957, young gospel heartthrob Sam Cook added a silent E to the end of his name. We’re a little less than a third through Peter Guralnick’s Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke when this event slides casually into the narrative, as the Chicago upstart has begun charming his way into a secular pop career amid such murky business commitments that you might expect the anticipated name change to arise as a canny contract dodge. Instead, Sam just likes the way it looks. And like the altered yodel of “woah” that became his trademark, a melismatic trick that beautifies the syllable it distends, the elegance of the affectation cancels out its superfluity.
Throughout Dream Boogie, Cooke’s career choices repeatedly suggest a subtle cunning, but his decision-making process remains a mystery. Resisting a less humble biographer’s psychologizing presumptions, Guralnick ably reflects the bafflement voiced by associates such as SAR Records co-founder Roy Crain: “I wish I was educated enough to tell you what that boy was.” And though nearly twice the length of Daniel Wolff’s excellent You Send Me, Guralnick’s tome earns its 700-plus-page heft by setting Cooke amid the detailed milieu of all-black neighborhoods, businesses, and organizations sculpted out of the muck of segregation. And the white shysters who operate on the borders, like Specialty Records chief Art Rupe and the notorious Allen Klein, are unlikely to ever again encounter so sympathetic a historian.
Nor does Guralnick settle for the sort of pat narrative arc that the particulars of Cooke’s life stubbornly resist. His two tragic flaws—an almost compulsive willingness to pay for sex and a sudden temper—both accelerated in his last days. But Cooke’s death (its full story remains shadowy, though apparently he’d been robbed by a hooker and was shot, near naked and raving, by the manager of a seedy out-of-town motel) hardly feels inevitable. Dream Boogie takes the form of almost an oral history at times, and as each quote shades in information, Sam Cooke remains a silhouette at the center. Cooke doesn’t just linger beyond the reach of our understanding—often he loiters, inert and guileless, outside the action entirely.
But Guralnick’s technique, which works for biography, falters when it comes to artistic appreciation. We’re left wondering why women are swooning, rather than why Cooke has us swooning. More than any other soul great, Cooke intimates personality rather than expressing it, setting us at ease but offering no revelation in exchange for our surrender. Cooke’s voice reminds nonbelievers uncomfortably of the religious roots of “grace,” of an appeal beyond explanation. His contemporaries were certainly stumped: “He just stood there and sung, that’s all he did and that’s all he had to do,” Lloyd Price says. Guralnick doesn’t do much better—statements such as “For once you feel as if you might be peering into Sam’s own soul” or “the very definition of the indefinability that lies at the heart of classic art” are less aesthetic insights than celebrations of transcendence.
In his discussion of Cooke’s recording sessions, Guralnick sharply demonstrates how complicated the idea of “gospel singer goes pop” was. There was insufficient precedent for whether to use heavier rhythms or a lighter touch, or for what the right sort of backing vocal might be. Yet he dodges some touchy questions raised by Cooke’s taste for kitsch. Sam Cooke’s arrangements offer an argument against the timelessness of great pop. Still, any idea of him as a great vocalist shackled to dated productions is vetoed by the fact that he sounds less fully himself on his “purer” stuff—the gospel fervor of his Soul Stirrers tracks, the rough and tumble Live at the Harlem Square Club. His genius is to confuse the lightweight with the effervescent, the artificial with the artful.
Fittingly, Cooke’s masterpiece, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” is an insoluble paradox: His most personal song embodies his most communal longings, his churchiest vocal expresses his most secular doubts, his purest sentiment demands his most grandiose arrangements. Like Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, whose paths he crosses in Dream Boogie at pivotal moments in his development, Sam Cooke reminds us of the early-’60s potential for new definitions of black manhood. But Cooke was determined to blur distinctions between nouveau garishness and bourgeois good taste, to preserve the racial solidarity segregation spawned amid the promises of integration, and to locate the spiritual yearning within the secular drive. No wonder Ali and Malcolm have cohered into icons, while we’ve yet to figure out what to make of Sam Cooke.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 22, 2005