Friday, April 14, 2006
Sam Cooke and His Times Examined in Biography by Peter Guralnick
Review by Abayomi Azikiwe, Editor
Pan-African News Wire
Title: Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke
Author: Peter Guralnick
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company, New York/Boston
Sam Cooke was a major force in the popular culture of the post World War II period. His life mirrors the struggles and advancements of the African-American people from the Jim Crow southern United States to the residentially-segregated urban North. He had a statement to make and he did it through song.
Peter Guralnick, who has written a number of other books on popular music and culture in the United States looking at the origins and impact of rock n' roll, blues and rhythm and blues, takes on a tedious and complicated task in reconstructing the life of this great singer, writer, producer, social advocate and businessman.
Sam Cooke was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi in 1931. The original spelling of his surname was "Cook." He would later add an "e" to emphasize a certain uniqueness to the name. His father was a preacher within the Holiness Church and would soon move to Chicago after the birth of Sam and L.C., his brother, who followed some two years later. Sam's mother was the daughter of a businessman from the all-black Mound Bayou, Mississippi town.
In Chicago his father eventually found a job in industry and became a pastor at Christ Temple Church in Chicago Heights located 30 miles outside the city. The Cook siblings, numberng 7, with an adopted cousin making 8, began to perform in the Church under the name of the "Singing Children." Eventually they became popular around Chicago as well as other cities in the region. They acquired a manager who booked performances in various churches.
Guralnick in the opening chapters attempts to paint a social portrait of the African-American community in Chicago during the period prior to the War. He states that: "It was a whole different world in Chicago, a separate self-contained world in which the middle-class mingled with the lowest down, in which black doctors and lawyers and preachers and schoolteachers strove to establish standards and set realistic expectations for a community that included every type of individual engaged in every type of human endeavor, from race heroes to self-made millionaires. It was a society which, despite a form of segregation as cruel and pernicious as the Southern kind, could not be confined or defined, a society of which almost all of its variegated members, nearly every one of them an immigrant from what was commonly referred to as South America, felt an integral part. It was a society into which the Cook family immediately fit."
In later years Sam would be a singer in another group called the "Highway QCs." They gained quite a reputation around Chicago and did some traveling outside the state. Guralnick conveys a story about how they became stranded in Memphis during the late 1940s. The recently converted blues singer, Gatemouth Moore, who was a radio announcer on the black-formated WDIA, took the QCs under his wing getting them other contacts so they could remain in the city for number of weeks.
By 1951 Sam had embarked on a professional career with the already well established Soul Stirrers. This lead to a six-year career as a leading gospel artist. During this period Sam's reputation as a singer and a charismatic personality gained national attention. His phenomenal voice and physical attractiveness did much to make him a favorite with women gospel fans across the country.
However, it was in 1957 that Sam became a solo artist in the pop world. He was encouraged to move to the secular realm by a leading DJ from Newark, Bill Cook (no relations).
According to Guralnick, "With his encouragement, Sam had started writing some little pop songs, and Cook got them to some of the r&b groups that he dealt with in the course of his deejaying duties as well as to Hamilton [Roy], whom Sam admired as much as anyone in the r&b world for his emotion-laden, nearly operatic gospel style. Cook (the DJ), a 'slickster' in the not unadmiring opinion of fellow DJ Jimmy 'Early' Byrd, never pushed too hard, never demanded a commitment that might elicit a rejection, but whenever the Soul Stirrers were in the New York area, he took Sam around first to the Apollo to meet his colleagues in the secular world, then to the West Fifty-seventh offices of Atlantic Records, home of Ray Charles, Clyde McPhatter, Ruth Brown, and just about every other high-class r&b act you could name, where he and Sam would wait in the reception area for no more than a minute or two before co-owners Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun ushered them right in."
With a string of hits during the late 1950s, the first being "You Send Me" in 1957, Sam Cooke became a powerful force in the music world. He had already moved to Los Angeles on the eve of his popular music career and put together a band with some of the best musicians of the period including Clifton White the guitarist who had played for years with the famous Mills Brothers group.
He issued records on the Specialty and later Keen record labels. He was not satisfied with the various business deals worked out with record executives and owners. He would later form his own record company with his friend J.W. Alexander. The company became known as SAR, standing for Sam and Alex Records.
Guralnick points out that "To Sam and Alex both, SAR Records was clearly something more than just another business venture. As J.W. said, 'We wanted to give young black artists the benefit of as good a production as they could get with a major company. We used the top studios. We didn't short-cut. We never thought of it as a training ground. We thought of it as an opportunity to contribute something back to the community."
SAR put out records for both gospel and r&b groups. Meanwhile Sam signed his most lucrative recording contract with RCA in early 1960. This was a major advance in his career because of the promotional work done to mainstream his appeal in order to reach deeper into the white community. Sam was influenced by Harry Belafonte who had developed a broad audience in both the African-American and white communities.
However, despite the growing popularity and record sales, America was still legally segregated. In 1961 Sam caused quite a stir in Memphis when he refused to play to a sold-out audience at the Ellis Auditorium because the seating arrangements were segregated. Sam was threatened by the local authorities who claimed they would confiscate his property and throw him jail if he did not perform. However, he held his ground and gained great respect in the African-American community throughout the South and the country.
Later in 1963, he was arrested in Shreveport, Louisiana after protesting his exclusion from a hotel in that city on purely racial grounds. Sam who was a veracious reader and maintained a broad array of interests in not only African-American affairs but also world history, knew that there were tremendous changes taking place in the United States and the broader international community. He wanted to be an important part of that transformation that sought freedom for oppressed people.
Sam's music always conveyed a myriad of messages including love, national culture and social justice. In 1964 he had been a firm supporter of Cassius Clay (later known as Muhammad Ali) when he successfully challenged Sonny Liston for the heavyweight boxing championship. They later recorded the song "Hey, Hey, the Gang's All Here" and made a joint appearance on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) World Service.
Later that same year he put out what was his most politically charged recording, "A Change Is Gonna Come." The song proved to be his last will and testament. It captures the atmosphere of the times with references to racial discrimination but the hope for social change and transformation dominates the overall message of the song.
The death of Sam Cooke and his legacy
This book is subtitled "The Triumph of Sam Cooke" because it does illustrate the ability of African-American artists to make monumental advancements in their careers and to gain monetary rewards for their pioneering work. Towards the end of his career with RCA, Sam was approached by the accountant Allen Klein who worked out an agreement with him to extract a more adequate rate of returns for his record sales. During 1964 the royalties and other forms of compensation increased substanially. Klein eventually was asked to take over as his major representative for his business affairs.
In addition, there were discussions around entering the film industry and a photo session had been held to test the waters in this lucrative business. Klein benefited tremendously as well in his arrangements with Sam Cooke. During 1964, he showed his appreciation by presenting Sam with a brand new Rolls Royce. Unfortunately for Sam and his business associates the curtains were being drawn.
There are various aspects to the final months of Sam Cooke's life that are examined by Guralnick. His relationship with his wife Barbara had become strained in the aftermath of the accidental death of his son, who drowned in a swimming pool at their home. Both Sam and Barbara were involved in extra-marital affairs at the time of his death.
The bizarre circumstances surrounding Sam's murder remain a mystery to this day and is still the subject of many conspiracy theories. Even over forty years later, most people who knew Sam personally or by reputation cannot accept the official explanation of his demise. Why would a man like Sam Cooke who had everything going in his favor with a growing lucrative contract with RCA Records, his own record and publishing firms and an expanding audience among people outside the African-American community, put himself in a situation with a woman who apparently robbed him, leaving him furious resulting in his murder by a transient motel manager?
Was there something deeper going on in this scenario? Was he set-up, lured to the location and murdered by organized crime elements who were seeking to undermine his growing share of the profits derived from his record sales? Was it the racists who feared his growing influence among whites as well as African-Americans while his music became more decisively political?
At any rate Sam was found murdered at a cheap motel in Los Angeles after Lisa Boyer, a known prostitute, had taken his clothes from a room along with several thousand dollars in cash and his credit cards, which were never found.
And what can history say about the role of his wife Barbara who, it had been rumored, according to Guralnick, Sam was considering a divorce? Her behavior after the murder of Sam, when she takes up with Sam's 20-year-old side man and guitar player Bobby Womack, has caused suspicion since 1964-65. Guralnick however, examines various sides of the murder of Sam Cooke. Looking at it from the perspective of his business partners as well as Barbara Cooke.
Despite his tragic and untimely death, Sam Cooke remains a monumental influence on the collective consciousness of African-Americans. The social message of his music has remained a major force in African-American culture since the 1960s. Today Cooke is still idolized by music lovers throughout the world.
This book is an important contribution to the literature on the life of Sam Cooke as well as the research on the social impact of African-American music on the civil rights phase of the struggle for national liberation.